We had come to this dry area . . . and we had paused in it and built our houses and we were slowly creating the legend of our life. We were digging for water and we were leading streams through the dry land. We were planting and ploughing and standing in the midst of the garden that we were making.

~ William Saroyan

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Our Voices. Our Stories. Our History: Oral History

  • <b>Title:</b> These six images are part of the Paul Hutchinson Photograph Collection housed in the Fresno Historical Society Archives. The 337 glass negative plates in this collection depict the Fresno County town of Fowler circa 1914. <br/><b>Caption:</b> The photographs document the people, businesses, homes, and street scenes of this small farming town including the African American and Japanese communities.<br/>

Oral History: Recording Our Stories


Others, like noted historian David McCullough, that it's a great buffet lunch of all the kinds of choices that people have made and what they did with their lives. In any case, history isn't what we thought it was when we were twelve. But then, when we were twelve, we didn't know that it was history being shared around the dinner table when family gathered and recounted memories. It was history that we were recording when we described to our diaries some of our very first experiences. It was history we were making when we joined with friends to do our part in coping with a national crisis.

If indeed history is to be found in the lives of ordinary people, how do we capture it? How do we get at what past times meant to people and how it felt to be part of those times? Quite simply, we ask people to tell us their stories and we listen when they do.

That is what oral history programs have been doing in earnest in the United States for the past 30 years. And what is being captured as a result touches on everything from family life and cultural customs to community events and societal movements. This article takes a look at oral history ---- how it developed in the United States, what notable programs have been created, and what the Historical Society's oral history program and collections include. We hope that as you read, you'll begin to think about your own stories ... and about stories you have heard that need preserving.


The reminiscences of former slaves were among the first oral histories collected in the United States. Other early efforts sought out the stories of blacks and poor whites in rural areas. This initial work, which was funded as a result of the New Deal, was all but forgotten until decades later when Black Studies and the oral history movement appeared on the scene.

Allen Nevins is the individual most closely associated with the development of the oral history movement. A biographer, historian and journalist, Nevins noted in 1938, while working on a biography of Grover Cleveland, that no one had interviewed Cleveland and his associates before they died. A decade later Nevins began what were pioneering efforts to capture the reminiscences of living Americans.

Nevins' first interviews were recorded in longhand, but by the end of 1948 a wire recorder had been devised, an electronic device for recording every word. The words of Judge Learned Hand were the first to be recorded by this device in 1949.

About that time, in addition to pursuing what were ostensibly oral autobiographies, Nevins also pioneered several "special projects" as they were called. The first of these projects was funded in the early 50s by a national organization of radio pioneers and was aimed at capturing the history of the early years of broadcasting. The second focused on Henry Ford and his empire. Some 430 persons were interviewed producing 26,000 pages of reminiscences, the largest industrial oral history project. Meanwhile at the University of Texas, a third project was developed that collected material on the history of oil wildcatting in Texas.

This pioneering work in the early 50s led UC Berkeley to establish its Regional Oral History Office that was the first multipurpose project to develop after Columbia's, and then in 1959 UCLA launched its own as well. Many more programs followed in the 1960s, facilitated by the portable cassette tape recorder. In fact, by 1964 oral history work was in progress across the country from Harvard to the Hollywood Museum. Museums, historical societies, corporations, labor unions, libraries, even churches were trying this new methodology. In 1967 the Oral History Association (OHA) was established. Clearly oral history had become a movement.

Sources: "Oral History" by Louis Starr, Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, vol. 20 (1977~ pp. 440-6]. Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, Editors David K. Dunaway and Willa K. Baum, second edition, 1996.


Did you know that you can go online and read excerpts from oral histories? Many exceptional programs have developed over the past fifty years to capture the voices, the stories, that document our country's history. We've noted a few of those programs here. Some you may already be aware of because they are part of the programming efforts at a museum you have visited. Others you may be less aware of because they are pursued within a university setting. Most we've listed here have websites, which you can visit if you want to explore their resources further.

Columbia University Oral History Research Office is the oldest and largest organized oral history program in the world. The collection now contains nearly 8,000 taped memoirs, and nearly 1,000,000 pages of transcript. These memoirs include a collection that focuses on the student movement of the I960s as well as one that chronicles the history of philanthropy.

The Ellis Island Oral History Project began in 1973 as an informal collection of interviews with people who had immigrated to this country through Ellis Island. The project picked up steam in the late 19805 with the restoration and preservation of Ellis Island by the National Parks Service. Over 1,200 interviews are on file; more than half of them have been conducted since 1990.

Minnesota Historical Society has used oral history to document the history of Minnesota since the early years of the oral history movement. The collection includes hundreds of interviews and addresses a wide range of topics: politics, business, labor, agriculture, the environment, ethnicity, religion and education. It is one of the oldest oral history programs administered by a historical society in the United States.

The Regional Oral History Office of UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library was established in 1954, but had its beginnings in the work of Hubert Howe Bancroft. Bancroft recognized that missing from his vast collections of books, journals, maps, and manuscripts on western North America were the living memories of the pioneers who settled the West. In the 1860s he launched an ambitious project to interview and create autobiographies of a diverse group of Westerners, and the resulting volumes of "Dictation" continue to provide valuable primary sources for historians. Today the work of the Regional Oral History Office preserves the history of the San Francisco, California and the Western United States.

The UCLA Oral History Program was established in 1959. The program has recorded and processed well over 500 interviews, ranging in length from one hour to seventy-six hours in length. The collection focuses on topics related to the Los Angeles metropolitan area and includes interviews with African American artists and community leaders, the Los Angeles art community, and biomedical scientists.

United States Holocaust Museum houses more than 7,000 audio and video oral history interviews -- one of the largest, most diverse centralized resources for Holocaust testimonies in the world. Since 1996, the Museum's Branch of Oral-history has been collecting testimony of collaborators, perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses of Nazi crimes, Roma (Gypsies) in the Czech Republic, and survivors in Israel and the United States.


  • Fresno County Library: approximately 242 oral histories including prominent valley business leaders and 119 interviews as part of the project "success through perseverance: Japanese Americans in the San Joaquin valley", recorded in 1979-80, funded by the national endowment for the humanities.
  • Fresno Pacific College: small collection which focuses on Mennonites in the region.
  • Henry Madden Library: (California State University, Fresno) contains the June English collection of approximately 19 oral histories of early pioneers and sierra forest rangers.
  • American Society of Germans from Russia: twelve oral histories from Volga German pioneers.
  • Japanese American Citizens League: (Central California District) active program with small collection of oral histories.
    Sanger historical society: 180 oral histories focused on early settlers, recorded between 1989-92.
  • Central Sierra Historical Society: several regarding life in the sierra region.
  • RC Baker Museum: fifty oral histories, primarily interviews and speeches given by community members.
  • Tulare Historical Society: nine histories that focus on early agriculture.
  • Merced County Historical Society: seventeen interviews of Merced county residents. 



Oral history is the systematic collection and recording of personal memories as historical documentation. In a sense, it is a form of storytelling that involves eyewitness accounts and reminiscences. At its best, it recovers and preserves important aspects of human life that would otherwise go undocumented. And while oral history is not always the best method for collecting statistical data, such as specific dates, places and times, it far surpasses any other for capturing how people felt at different points in time, for capturing the significance and meaning associated with people, places, things and experiences. In short, an oral history is about the human experience.



Suggested topics and questions for oral history

-American Memory- Library of Congress

Oral History Interviews


Transcribing and Editing Oral History. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1977.

Record and Remember: Tracing Your Roots Through Oral History.

The Tape-Recorded Interview: A Manual for Fieldworkers in Folklore and Oral History Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.

RITCHIE, DONALD. Doing Oral History. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Recording Oral History: A Guide for Teachers (and Others). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

August, 1977. Excerpt regarding her career as a milliner in San Francisco and Fresno’s theater life in the 1920s (interviewer Vivian Jones). Fresno Historical Society Oral History Collection, ethnic history project.

Bigby: ... Mrs. Brownely saw that she could use me at the Fairmont hotel, and she dressed me very, very beautifully. She would have me go in and take care of customers on the floor. I was very, very petite, I only weighed about a hundred pounds. She schooled me on how to walk, how to talk, how to act in this beautiful salon. This was because we took care of nothing but the carriage trade. Of course, I had taken care of Sophie tucker, and different movie people like Natacha Ramova, who was Rudolph Valentino’s wife. I had seen him many times and sat at the table with him and his wife in Mrs. Brownely's suite. She lived at the St. Francis Hotel one time. So I went to work at the Fairmont. On one occasion, I was called out to drape a veil on a customer. She had two ladies with her, and her clothes were just horrible, I thought. Unbecoming, ugly gray suede shoes, and the hat that she wanted me to drape the veil on was horrible. So I took the hat back to the work room, and I threw it up in the air and kicked it and made fun of it. I cut the veiling and pinned it to one side, and was going to walk outside and show her how it would look. Before going out, one of the designers called me back and said, "Mary, do you know who that is?" I said, "no." she said, "that's the Queen Mary, Mother Mary." I think I fainted it scared me so bad. Anyways, I went back And gave her nice service and pinned the veil on her. So I was cured there of Royalty…

QUESTION: Do you remember Ethel Waters playing the Orpheum Circuit [when you were living in Fresno?
BIGBY: Definitely I do because she stayed at my house. She was the first black female performer on the Orpheum Circuit. They played here every week. Of course, there was always a new star, she was one of the first.

QUESTION: Why did she stay at your home?
BIGBY: Because the hotels were prejudiced and they didn't allow negroes in the hotels at that time.

QUESTION: Most of the black stars that came to Fresno, they had to be housed in private homes?
BIGBY: They did.

QUESTION: Were these arrangements made in advance?
BIGBY: Through my husband who was downtown, he's well known. And I think through him there were many people who stayed at my house because of that. There were the Nicholas brothers. The William four, who were my oldest brother's stepchildren. They appeared on the same bill with Ethel Waters. The William four. They stayed at my house, and since I was such a terrible cook, my mother would feed them. She would board them.

QUESTION: Do you remember a street that was referred to as "Black Broadway"?
BIGBY: Definitely. That was F Street in west Fresno. Because all the action was on F Street…

Last Updated Friday, August 17, 2018 - 05:42 AM.