In the 1930s, journalist, biographer, and Columbia professor of history, Allan Nevins began to worry that future historians would find a dearth of evidence documenting the personal side of historic events because ephemeral telephone conversations were replacing letter writing.
Nevins began experimenting with what he called oral autobiography: interviews with “living Americans who have led significant lives,” (Gateway to History, 1938).
Nevins conducted his first interview on May 18, 1948 and the field of oral history was born. This exciting new historical research methodology attracted the support of historians Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. and Richard Hofstadter, cultural critic Lionel Trilling, and other preeminent intellectuals of the time. The Columbia Center for Oral History Archives is now one of the largest oral history collections in the country, containing over 10,000 interviews.
Today, Nevins would probably consider himself a Public Historian because of his passion for writing history for a popular audience. Nevins believed that by highlighting personal stories and biography, history writing would be more appealing to most Americans.
Early oral history interviews focused on distinguished leaders in politics and government, the “Great Men” of history. Over time, the biographical collection grew to include interviews with notable figures in philanthropy, business, radio, publishing, filmmaking, medicine, science, public health, law, military, architecture, and the arts. Beginning in the 1980s, with Ron Grele as director, the collecting approach expanded to include histories of the New Left, Civil Rights, and peace movements, and explorations into the cultural construction of memory.
Now, the CCOH Archives’ companion center, Columbia Center for Oral History Research is directed by Mary Marshall Clark and housed at INCITE, where it administers an ambitious research agenda with the goal to record unique life histories, document the central historical events and memories of our times, provide public programming, and to teach and do research across the disciplines.
As the Oral History Archives approach 70 years old, it is with great excitement that we are working to bring this impressive collection into the digital age. The collections continue to grow with the work of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, as well as donations and acquisitions. Our newly hired Curator for the Columbia Center for Oral History, Sady Sullivan, and Oral History Archivist, David Olson, are embarking on initiatives to improve access to these incredible oral history interviews. This work includes digitizing fragile media such as audio reels and cassettes, and designing online access, including tools which will make the audio and video searchable. Allan Nevins would be proud to know that the voices of history that he captured continue to be heard today.
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