Collection Highlight | Meddlesome Practices: Oral Histories of Good Troublemaking in Business

[title card] Meddlesome Practices Oral Histories of Troublemaking in Business

Meddlesome Practices invites new directions in documenting business through the methodology of oral history. You can listen to our introductory podcast or read the text below.


In 1948 Allan Nevins, heralded by some as the “grandfather of oral history,” embarked on a methodological journey that would consume much of his scholarly career: to establish U.S. business practices as a valid line of inquiry in American historical study.

[quote card] How do we know what we know about American business practices?

A decade earlier, in his book The Gateway to History (1962), Nevins proposed reinvigorating historical study by making,

[quote card] "a systematic attempt to obtain from the lips and papers of living Americans who had led significant lives, a fuller record of their participation in the political, economic and cultural life of the last sixty years."

To this end, Nevins conducted scores of interviews. A particularly illuminating example of both the oral history process and historical sources created would be the experience he and Frank Ernest Hill had creating an oral history project of the Ford Motor Company. In a 1963 interview, Nevins describes the sometimes contentious process of creating oral histories “with integrity” when the subject of documentation is also funding.

Quote: We had two great problems to solve. One was that of finances. Once the office was placed in full operation it required about $36,000* a year to obtain a body of material which justified its existence...The library, out of the Bancroft Fund, supplied $9000 a year. That left something over $25,000 to be obtained in other ways, and for years I had to give a great deal of time to begging money in various quarters, or to devising to be sure, with the assistance and advice of others — paid operations.  At the same time we undertook paid jobs in assistance of corporations for other agencies which wanted a record of their past made, for any purpose whatever, and which were willing to pay for the accumulation of material, to make that record.   ...As the years went on it became a fixed rule that Columbia University would furnish only about a fourth, at most a third, of the money used by the Oral History Research Office, and that we would find the rest outside...  *Over $300,000 per year in today's dollars

Oral historian Donald Ritchie notes that “[c]orporations used these interviews for diagnostic purposes, for development planning, and to boost employee morale. He goes on to cite Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History at the British Library who criticized corporate oral histories, for being “a cozy and comfortable public relations exercise” that are “such projects are fatally flawed through being commissioned and funded by corporate bodies.” It’s an ethical conundrum that oral historians face when raising funds for projects, but also demanding academic freedom and integrity to stay true to their ethical standards.

We pose two questions:

[card with two questions] What can the history of Business Oral History tell us about past business practices?  And what needs to happen in the future documentation of business and business practices?

Of the thousands of interviews in the Oral History Archives at Columbia (OHAC), we’ve selected a few collections and excerpts for your consideration. Read and listen below. Also visit the new the Libraries Conference Room in the recently opened Columbia Business School in Manhattanville and a display in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s reception area featuring interview excerpts on how Columbia got into the oral history business.

Federated Department Stores project : oral history, 1964-1965

The Federated Department Stores was one of the largest department store chains in the U.S. from its founding in 1929 to its decline in the 1990s. The federation included Shillito’s, Lazarus & Company, Abraham & Strauss (originally known as Wechsler and Abraham), Filene’s, and Bloomingdales. This conglomerate of stores pioneered shopper credit in the midst of the Great Depression. The oral history interviews in the collection document changes over the years in Federated’s policies, methods, and objectives, changes in consumer tastes and buying habits, and the evolution of the organization. In line with Nevins’ goal of including Great Men in business as part of the greater American historical narrative, there interviews with the family and friends of Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder and board chairman. [enter collection page]

Source: CLIO; Ohio History Connection, “Federated Department Stories,” Ohio History Central

Black Journalists oral history collection, 1971-1972

The Black Journalists oral history collection’s ninety-three interviews document the history of the African American press from the late nineteenth century to the early 1970s, with a particular focus on the 1930s-1960s. Interviewer Henry La Brie III and the narrators address both the broader social context in which the Black press operated, as well as the practicalities of running a newspaper. In terms of operations, narrators discuss the economics of publishing, advertising, management strategies, printing technology, and competition with radio and television. [enter collection page]



Carnegie Corporation Oral History Project

The Carnegie Corporation Oral History Project traces the first 58 years of Andrew Carnegie’s central philanthropic organization. Officers, staff members, and grant recipients discuss its work in adult education, area studies, art education, cognitive research, education testing, library science, music education, national security, social science research, teacher education, and other areas. Other interviews detail the Corporation’s own administrative history, as well as its relations with other major foundations and the federal government. Others trace the work of independent agencies which originally received all or part of their funds from the foundation. In general, the design of the project was to provide comprehensive and candid information about the foundation, its work in the U.S. and abroad, and those who have served “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding. Central questions these exhibition clips address are what is the role of philanthropy for businesses? And is philanthropy itself a business? [enter collection page]


Continental Group project : oral history, 1974-1975

This collection spans seventy years (1904-1974) of Continental Can Company (now The Continental Group, Inc.) history as told by 226 retired and active employees from all job and management categories. Semi-skilled factory workers and chief executive officers alike discuss corporate and industrial development in a variety of packaging fields embraced by Continental: metal cans, crowns and closures, glass and plastic containers, folding and corrugated cartons, fiber drums, grocery and multi-wall bags, paper cups and tubs, and flexible packaging. Manufacturing operations are described in detail, particularly in can plants and paper mills. Prominent themes are technological change through research and engineering, labor relations, mergers and acquisitions, corporate strategies and organization, international business, and government relations. Individual careers are followed, illustrating employee morale, the work ethic, opportunity and mobility in an industrial corporation, the role of personalities in management, the decision-making process, company loyalty, and corporate social responsibility. The wider context of American life is brought out in many of the interviews, and readers will find material on World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II among other social, economic, and political subjects. [enter collection page]


Kerr, D. R. (2016). “Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History Practice in the United States.” The Oral History Review, 43(2), 367–391.

Nevins, A. (1938). The gateway to history. D. C. Heath and company.

Ritchie, D. A. (2015). Doing oral history (Third edition). Oxford University Press.

An oral history exploration of business practices and epistemologies

Credits: Kae Bara Kratcha (Entrepreneurship and Social Science Librarian), Kimberly Springer (Curator for Oral History), and Karen Wang (Columbia University Libraries Intern), Abbey Lovell (Columbia University Libraries Communications), Columbia University Printing Staff, and Esther Jackson (Scholarly Communication Technologies Librarian).
Thanks to: Amanda Bielskas (Director, Science, Engineering, & Social Sciences Libraries) and and Jeremiah R. Mercurio (Interim Director of Digital Scholarship)

February 2022