Category Archives: Oral History

New Exhibition | Dynamic Archives: renaming and identifying collections

Why would an archivist change the name of a collection? That’s the central question behind a new RBML exhibit.

Dynamic Archives features examples of archival collections and materials whose naming, identifying and meaning have had to keep up with historical, social and political perspectives, as well as translation practices and epistemologies. Continue reading

Remembering 9/11 through oral histories

To say that the events of September 11, 2001 had a lasting impact on New York City, the nation and the world would be an understatement.

In the days after the attack, the Columbia Oral History Research Office, as the combined research and archives arms were known then, had the foresight, skill and tact to design and execute a large-scale oral history project to hear from New Yorkers about how 9/11 had already changed their lives.

Under the leadership of oral historian Mary Marshall Clark,

The September 11, 2001 Oral History Project consists of five projects and programs focusing on different areas of inquiry related to the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center. As of the tenth anniversary, the project as a whole amounts to over 900 recorded hours (23 hours on video) with over 600 individuals.

Click to play video on The New York Times’ website.

You can hear excerpts from some of the oral histories from this New York Times article and read more about the project.

Oral history interviews with Supreme Court justices

Who will be the next Supreme Court Justice to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy?

The confirmation hearings to vet this administration’s nominee have begun. Reporters are describing what went down on day one as unlike anything they’ve seen before in, collectively, years of judicial reporting.

While you watch and wait to see what happens, stop into the RBML’s Center for Oral History Archives and read transcripts with past Justices.

Here are the interview transcripts we have available in our reading room:

Lebron james in white judge wig and robe

If you only know TV judges, please come read some oral histories with actual judges.


New Collection | Black Journalists Oral History Project

Oral History master’s student and RBML graduate student worker, Kyna Patel, was part of the team that organized and processed a collection that documents important moments in black journalism in America.

The Black Journalists Oral History Project consists of interviews with journalists, editors, publishers, and various members of the black press about a wide range of issues. Conducted by Henry G. La Brie III in the 1970s, the interviews cover: aspects of running a newspaper (editing, printing, getting news, advertising, etc.), the Kerner Commission Report, the historical role of the black press, the white establishment press, and several other topics related to race and journalism.

yellow book cover for Perspectives of the Black Press 1974

Some of the oral history interviews in the Black Journalists Oral History Project. Mercer House Press.

In helping process this collection, I read and listened to transcripts and audio from these interviews and stumbled upon many things that were not on my radar. Accounts of the suburbanization and white flight’s effect on local black press’ circulation, how the success of Ebony paved the way for black models to be hired more for national advertising, and the obstacles and dangers encountered by journalists reporting and gathering-news-while-black were either new to me or expanded upon in a more real and accessible way than what I learned in school. Continue reading

Featured oral history | Max Pruss, the captain of the Hindenburg airship

One can’t help but notice the explosion of podcasts available for download from sources both commercial and nonprofit.

The Columbia Center for Oral History Archives fields requests for permission to use excerpts from our oral history collection in radio and podcast productions. In addition to any restrictions or permissions that might apply, as Curator of Oral History, I consider the integrity of the project: will the oral history narrator’s story be served and/or augmented by the production?

A recent example of good use of our oral history collection is this story from the CBC’s podcast, The Hook. Max Pruss, air pilot of the ill-fated Hindenburg. Pruss sat down with, as it was called then, the Oral History Research Office in 1960 as part of our Aviation Project. For The Hook, Pruss’ granddaughter Viola, produced this documentary, Finding Max.

Hindeburg airship crash

Photo | David Erickson | e-strategycom | Flickr


Now open for business: The Federated Department Stores oral history collection

neon open for business sign

Photo: @opensourceway, Flickr

One of the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives’ specializations is business history. Notably, in 1965, the oral history research office conducted a number of interviews related to the history, business practices and the evolution of consumer tastes of the Federated Department Stores from its founding in 1929.

Continue reading

Event | Push Play

Thursday, April 5, 2018, 6:00 PM  7:30 PM, Knox Hall Room 509

Two women in front of whiteboard.

Push Play is a collaboration between OHMA alums Liza Zapol and Nicki Pombier Berger.

Push Play explores the embodied experience of interviewing as a way of examining how we remember, how we ask narrators to engage in memory, and what is, or is not, included in the archive. We draw on creativity and sense of play as a way of pushing through limits in the practice of oral history. Read more about this participatory workshop.

This event is FREE and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. For more information, please email Amy Starecheski at

Event | Performing Listening in the Context of Memorial Audio Walks

Thursday, March 29, 2018, 6:00 – 7:30 pm, Knox Hall 509

The Columbia Center for Oral History Research continues its series on Oral History and the Arts.

Does a performance of memory need to include words? When is it necessary and appropriate to re-present someone else’s oral history testimony? What roles do listening, remembering and going public play in the performance of oral history? In this talk, Professor Luis Sotelo (University Concordia) will explore these questions by looking at a series of examples of work by him, by social actors (memory activists), and by other artists.

This event is FREE and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. Read more about the workshop.

A Wrinkle in Time author talks about choosing the writer’s life, motherhood and a villain for her novel

Columbia Center for Oral History Archives blue and white logoAs if coming out of a wrinkle in time itself, the oral history interview for author Madeleine L’Engel’s jumped out at me when I was looking for something else entirely.

That’s not a wholly unique experience since, as a relatively new curator here in RBML, I have yet to grasp the total depths of the oral history collection here. But given the fantastical nature of her most popular young adult novel, A Wrinkle In Time, and the hotly anticipated premier of the Ava DuVernay-directed film, it’s not surprising that L’Engel related materials are making themselves know.

As most of our oral histories demonstrate, L’Engle’s 1976 interview is an enthralling look at the memorable moments that shaped her as a person and as a writer. These three excerpts cover why being an only child inspired her to write at a young age, the inevitable conflict one experiences if one is a writer and a mother, and (***spoiler***) why the villain in her most A Wrinkle in Time is a brain.

The full-interview can be heard and read in Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. 

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin on the class conscious roots of SNCC

Since the 1990s, with social historians looking back on how we’ve told the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin has come to the fore as a central leader in the movement. Specifically, for decades, he was the unsung hero behind the conceptualization of the 1963 March on Washington. But more than that, this civil rights strategist’s life was intersectional before intersectional identities were theorized in academia’s scholarship.

Bayard Rustin gif telling about his civil rights activism.

A Black History Month salute to Bayard Rustin through oral history. Gif credit: Sundance DocNow/@FOXADHD via Giphy

In this wide-ranging oral history from our collection, Rustin sat down with an interviewer in 1987 and shared his reflections on everything from trade unionism to the seeds of Black politics in Garveyism to the struggles of the day, such as bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Here’s a clip of Rustin’s thinking on how the emergence of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) reflected shifts in African-Americans’ class consciousness.


You can hear more from Rustin and others on the civil rights by searching our Oral History Portal or stopping in to the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives at Columbia University.