Category Archives: Oral History

Chinese oral histories at Columbia

In many ways, both professionally and collegially, the addition of Yingwen Huang, is a boon to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

In particular, Ying has brought both archival and historical perspective on several oral history interviews and supplementary archival materials that were bequeathed to the, as it was known then, Oral History Research Office at Columbia.

In this post, Ying showcases the Chinese Oral History Project, a 1959 oral history project begun with Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History and the Claremont Graduate School’s China missionaries project. Ying’s diligent work on this collection addresses valid concerns regarding the processing, cataloging and accessibility of these valuable collections that offer a window into the historical dynamics shaping modern China.

As the Communist party took over mainland China in 1949, Republican officials began to leave for Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States. In 1957, Clarence Martin Wilbur, the professor of Chinese history at the Columbia University’s East Asian Institute, was inspired by Allan Nevins’ American oral history project to start a Chinese oral history project and saw the possibility of procuring primary historical sources using oral history interviews to capture the life stories of these prominent Chinese political officials living abroad. Professor Franklin L. Ho, who at the time was the Professor of Chinese Economics, agreed to join as the project’s co-director. The project officially began in 1958 and ended in 1980. Over two decades, the project’s oral historians interviewed a total of 19 prominent Chinese figures from the Republic of China period and produced a total of 16 extensive oral history interview transcripts in English, with many later were translated and published in Chinese and English. The project also collected eight autobiography manuscripts from related individuals as well as 13 interviewees’ personal papers.

Over two decades, the Chinese Oral History Project’s oral historians interviewed a total of 19 prominent Chinese figures from the Republic of China period and produced a total of 16 extensive oral history interview transcripts in English…

The Chinese Oral History Project (COHP) documents the legacy of the COHP at Columbia University dating from 1958 to 1980. The collection primarily consists of administrative records, photographs and portraits of the interviewees, interview reports and transcript drafts, sample audio recordings, as well as related autobiographies that the project’s organizers collected. Records from the collection document the close connections between the project staff and the interviewees. Researchers who wish to learn more about the history of the lives of the interviewees as well as their collaborative work with the project will find the collection useful.

The Chinese oral history project not only contributed to the timely acquisition of primary historical materials for the study of modern Chinese history, it also initiated and promoted the interest of oral history in Taiwan and later in mainland China. In 1958, Hu Shih, the first interviewee of the Chinese oral history project, was appointed as the president of the Academia Sinica. After returning to Taiwan, he advocated and supported oral history in Taiwan. During Dr. Hu Shih’s oral history interview in 1958 as noted by his interviewer Te-Kong Tong, he had strongly encouraged another individual to participate and “to leave a record for the future generations”.

Interview report with Dr. Hu by Te-kong Tong, 1958, page 2. (Note: The full name of Dr. Niu mentioned in the excerpt is Niu Yongjian 鈕永建). Chinese oral history project collection; Box 6 Folder 11 | Rare Book and Manuscript Library

The oral history project at the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History began in 1959. The project was initially subsidized by Columbia and later funded by the Ford Foundation. The project focused on collecting oral histories from important political and military figures who settled in Taiwan after the Communist took over in mainland. The interviews documented the lives of political figures representing nearly all provinces of Republican China. The Academia Sinica oral history project deposited a total of 37 finalized handwritten oral histories transcripts, photographs, diaries, and memoirs at Columbia.

The interviews documented the lives of political figures representing nearly all provinces of Republican China.

With the Chinese version of these prominent political figures’ memoirs later published in the Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China, the Chinese oral history project and the Academia Sinica oral history project are viewed as the foremost oral history projects that documented the life of Chinese political figures during the troubling period of China dating from the early to mid-20th Century.

Another oral history project housed by the oral history archives related to religious missionaries based in China is the Claremont Graduate School’s China missionaries project. The project, started in 1969 and funded by Henry Luce Foundation grant, collected oral history interviews from 44 individuals who worked as missionaries in China. The oral history transcripts were later deposited at Columbia.

The Oral History Archives at Columbia also house two versions of the Peter H. L. Chang (Zhang Xueliang) oral history transcripts as well as his papers that were opened to the public in 2002 on his 100th birthday. One of the interviews was conducted by T. K. Tong in 1990 and another by the Chang sisters (Chih-ping Chang-Sobelman and Chih-yu Chang) from 1990 to 1993.

In addition to the aforementioned projects that mainly focus on the Republic of China period, the oral history archives also collected oral histories of Chinese-Americans in New York as part of the September 11, 2001 Telling Lives Oral History Project and the Nobel Laureates Project on scientific research project, which include the Reminiscences of Tsung-dao Lee and the Reminiscences of Chen Ning Yang.

Thank you to Chengzi Wang and his article,  “Chinese Oral History Collections at Columbia: Toward Better Access” in the Journal of East Asian Libraries. 

Columbia Professor key to climate science, dies at 87

Professor Emeritus Wallace Broecker, a noted climate scientist with Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, died 18 February 2019 at the age of 87. His scientific contributions are being touted in major news sources, notably his landmark paper on increased carbon dioxide levels as a predictor of rises in global temperatures, which gave us “global warming” as a popular descriptor.

Located in the oral history archives is an interview with Prof. Broecker from 1997. The interview is wide-ranging, but a through line is Professor Broecker’s conviction that one must stand up for the science.

quote by Broecker

Search: Oral history interview with Wallace S. Broecker, 1997

The transcript is available for review in the RBML readings rooms. Or, as the Lamont-Doherty Observatory oral history collection is also available online, you can read the transcripts via the American Institute of Physics website.

New and Updated Collections | January/February 2019

rows of archival boxes in a white room

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Head Archivist Kevin Schlottmann shares collections newly opened or updated by RBML archivists.

Now available

Al Jaffee Papers
Al Jaffee (born March 13, 1921) is a comic artist best known for
creating MAD magazine’s iconic Fold-In feature. The collection
contains extensive original artwork, including sketches, tracings, and
proofs documenting Jaffee’s creative process. Publishing and
commission contracts, correspondence, clippings, and a small amount of
programs and ephemera from fan conventions and other public
appearances are also included.

Columbia College Records
This collection is composed of the general files of Columbia
College’s Dean’s Office and the correspondence of Columbia College
administrative officers during the years 1892 through 2019. A review
of this collection allows researchers to gain insights into the
interaction of Columbia College faculty and administrators with
students, fellow faculty members, parents of students, and
administrators of other colleges. Continue reading

Talks & Workshops | Oral History and the Future: Archives and Embodied Memory

The Oral History Master of Arts Program is pleased to announce the spring portion of its 2018-2019 workshop series: Oral History and the Future: Archives and Embodied Memory

Oral history is a conversation about the past that takes place in the present and is oriented towards the future. How is this future orientation made real?

Oral history as a research practice, particularly in the United States, has been defined by a focus on recording and archiving in institutional repositories. But people can be archives too, and oral history-telling practices more broadly often depend on embodied memory, on person-to-person transmission. And because people have been formally recording and archiving oral histories for over seventy years, we are now living in the futures imagined by earlier generations of oral historians.

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Summer Institute in Oral History announced

The Columbia Center for Oral History Research’s 2019 Summer Institute in Oral History will focus on the challenges we face in documenting the political present when secrecy and distortions of truth threaten the most vulnerable in open societies.

What role does public memory and the search for meaning play in rescuing and preserving the stories that we most need to hear?

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Want to learn about oral history?

January 26 | Location: Columbia University, Knox Hall

Photo by Vanilla Bear Films on Unsplash

Looking to learn something new in the new year? Join the Oral History Master’s (OHMA) program for an intensive day of workshops with OHMA faculty and alumni! Register now – these always sell out!

OHMA will also be hosting their annual Spring Open House that very same week on the evening of Thursday, January 24, 2019! The Oral History Archives at Columbia often accepts stellar oral history projects from OHMA students that align with our current collecting priorities. The OHMA open house is a good opportunity to explore the research, teaching and employment opportunities in a field that keeps gaining in its methodological strength and topical inclusiveness.

Marking World AIDS Day with oral histories from the collections

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

On December 1, health care practitioners, among others, are recognizing World AIDS Day. The goal is to bring awareness to the fact that AIDS and HIV remain a global pandemic. This year’s theme is “Know Your Status.”

World AIDS Day BadgeFor some historical perspective on the AIDS crisis, we had look at a few of the 74 interviews that make up the Physicians and AIDS oral history project housed in the RBML. About the project,

To construct a collective biography of the early AIDS doctors, Ronald Bayer, Columbia University professor of public health, and Gerald Oppenheimer, associate professor of clinical public health, turned to oral history. After extensive preparation, interviewing, and editing, they published AIDS Doctors: Voices from the Epidemic, an historical account of the epidemic through the eyes of the doctors who experienced it.

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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.

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