Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4


ESSAY AND COMMENT                                                  49


The True Profile of the Harding administration will emerge only as the

new historiography is joined with a modification of the old.


Professor of History,

Ohio Wesleyan University



Oral History in Ohio



During the past half century as the telephone and computer are replacing

the personal letter and the telegraph, a new era in historical research is

emerging. No longer does the detailed letter serve as the major source of

expression, for the dominant mode of communication in the atomic-space

age is personal conversation. Leaders in many stations of American life can

manage their roles quite adequately without committing much of their ac-

tion or thinking to the cold permanency of ink and paper. Usually only

their conclusions settle into the printed pages of newspapers, magazines, re-

ports, and form letters.

How does the American historian of the recent period seek to penetrate

behind the often superficial written records to probe the cycle of background

events and the obscured motivations of the participants? One technique now

widely used by historians is called oral history. Defined simply, oral history

consists of tape recorded interviews with persons (respondents) by a trained

historical researcher (interviewer) for the purpose of documenting opinions

and events not readily available in written records. The tapes are then

transcribed into typed memoirs that may be used immediately or in the fu-

ture by qualified researchers.

The first oral history program in the United States was begun at Colum-

bia University by professor Allan Nevins in 1948. In the two decades since

that date, about thirty professionally staffed programs have been established.

The majority of the larger programs are at major graduate universities on

the east and west coasts and at the six presidential libraries, while there are

smaller programs at historical societies, company archives, and special li-

braries. Usually these have focused on subjects that relate directly to the in-

terests of the sponsoring institution. Examples of some of the well estab-

lished oral history programs plus a sample of a few of their many completed

interview projects are as follows: University of California, Los Angeles (his-

tory of motion pictures and California water problems); Kennedy Presiden-

tial Library (life of John F. Kennedy); National Library of Medicine

(American medicine) ; Princeton University (career of John Foster Dulles);