Archivist’s News (Spring 2005)

by Joseph Ciccone

As many of you know, the ANS will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2008. One of the ways we plan to commemorate this is by writing an updated history of the ANS, the last having been written in 1958. To help with this, the ANS Archives has initiated an oral history program. This column will explain what is involved and how you can help.

What Is“Oral History”?

An oral history is sometimes referred to as an orchestrated biography. In it, an interviewer asks an interviewee a series of questions about a topic. The interview is recorded and transcribed. The transcription is then revised and deposited in a repository, where it is made available for researchers. In our case, the completed oral histories will be deposited in the ANS Archives.

Why Are Oral Histories Important?

Everyone knows that a primary source of historical information in the written record. However, existing written records do not always provide a complete picture of the past, for a number of reasons. First, decisions or events may not have been memorialized in writing. Secondly, even where the decisions or events were originally written down, the writings may have been lost. Such situations are particularly true in our modern society, with its reliance on non-permanent communication tools like the telephone and email.

As a result, oral history interviews can serve as important supplements to the existing written record and provide researchers with a more complete picture of what occurred and why.

How Will We Conduct Our Program?

In our program, we will invite potential candidates to participate. Assuming they will, we would schedule individual interviews. Prior to each interview, we will provide the candidate with a proposed agenda in which we list topics and questions we would like to discuss. Before the recording begins we will ensure that the candidate is comfortable discussing the topics on the agenda. Only after we have agreed on the topics to be discussed will the recording begin.

We have given great consideration as to whether we would record the interviews in video or audio-only formats. Video recording interviews is tempting because it is possible to use the footage in a variety of ways (e.g., documentaries) which audio-only recording does not permit. However, there are a number of significant limitations to video recording, which include:

  • Increased Cost: The interview would cost more since proper videotaping would require additional staff to monitor the video equipment during the interview.
  • Interviewee Discomfort: Many people do not feel comfortable speaking on camera, so the interviewee may be less likely to speak candidly.
  • Preservation Complications: With video formats rapidly changing, obtaining equipment to maintain the tapes after the interview can be more difficult.

Because of these limitations, we will record the interviews on audiotape.

After the interview is completed, we plan to transcribe the tapes. Transcribing the tapes makes it significantly easier for researchers to access the subject matter contained in the interview. In addition, it will help to ensure the preservation of the original recordings, since repeated use of the audio tapes can damage or ultimately destroy the primary record of the interview.

Once the tapes have been transcribed, we will send a copy of the verbatim transcript to the interviewee. At that time, the interviewee can make whatever emendations he deems necessary for accuracy. It is this revised version — the one revised and approved of by the interviewee — which will be bound and ultimately made available to historians writing the history of the ANS.

Who Will Be Interviewed?

With a limitless budget, we could interview everyone “with a story.” To focus our efforts, we initially hope to interview former staff, Councilors and Fellows who either were in leadership positions or had significant tenures. We have already approached several individuals and are scheduling the first round of interviews for later this spring. If, however, you know of someone you think would make a good candidate, please do not hesitate to contact me (212-571-4470, x1312 /