Oral history is the process by which interviews are recorded to document the lives and stories of everyday people as they describe their experiences during important historical events. As I conducted my research for my final paper, I found that several scholars had traced the roots of oral history to the archives themselves. Several archives create oral history projects and its own archivists even conduct these interviews to expand the scope of their collections in support of their mission.
One particular example that I found to be the most fascinating was Columbia University’s September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project. In the days and weeks following 9/11, Columbia’s Oral History Research Office prepared the project to interview as many different people as possible to gain an understanding of people’s thoughts and emotions of those living in New York City in the midst of the chaos. It was an inclusive project, recording the voices and memories of hundreds of people, including Afghan-Americans, immigrants, refugees, and other marginalized groups who faced fear-based violence from other Americans in such a time of uncertainty.
What most interested me about the project was that the project was conducted just a few weeks after 9/11. During my first week of graduate school last year, I learned that one of the four pillars of public history is immediacy. Public historians ask themselves what a particular community needs at any given moment. In the case of Columbia’s project, the immediacy of 9/11 was more than evident.
I do think that conducting projects in the midst of important events serves to create a valuable piece of historical documentation for the future. However, it is also concerning that the oral historians in this case are also affected, at least indirectly, by the events of 9/11 as well. They lived, worked, and played in New York City and its surrounding areas just as their informants did. Archivists, of course, are never neutral in any of these scenarios, but their participation in this project is especially contentious because they also have experiences that may color the way in which they conduct interviews. Perhaps this is a positive thing because it becomes a way to connect with informants and potentially better shapes the narrative. Either way, Columbia’s foresight in creating this record will be an invaluable record of one of the most defining moments of American history.