As far as the eye can reach it extends, a heaving, swelling sea of green . . . . the whole landscape showed design, like man's nobelist sculptures. How wonderful the power of its beauty! Gazing awestricken, I might have left everything for it.

~ John Muir, 1867

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Our Voices. Our Stories: Oral History

Unidentified family, Fowler, Ca., 1914 - Paul Hutchinson Glass Plate Negative Collection

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. It was history being shared around the dinner table when family gathered and recounted memories. It was history that we recorded in 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 African American 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 1950s 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 1950s 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.


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, Shaver Lake: several regarding life in the Sierra region.

R.C. Baker Museum, Coalinga: 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. 


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.









Willa K. Baum, Transcribing and Editing Oral History (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1977).

Ellen R. Epstein and Rona Mendelsohn, Record and Remember: Tracing Your Roots Through Oral History.

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

Donald Ritchie, Doing Oral History (New York, Twayne Publishers, 1995).

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

Last Updated Sunday, February 23, 2020 - 05:42 PM.