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Federal Writers’ Project Revisited as a Listening Project

The Federal Writers’ Project, an initiative of the New Deal’s Federal Project One, included one of the first large scale oral history projects which employed out-of work writers and journalists to conduct interviews with 1000s of Americans, including many who had grown up enslaved. The narratives remains a vital record for understanding nineteenth and early twentieth century American life. And the project’s legacy has endured through fiction and historical writing. A new podcast, The People’s Recorder, explores that legacy and examines how we might apply the model of the FWP to recording the stories of the present day. David Taylor, the podcast co-host, explains more.

By David A. Taylor

More than anyone expected, the New Deal arts programs turned out to be a large cultural experiment with a legacy that often gets overshadowed by their role as a short-term sop for unemployed people during the Depression. The Federal Writers’ Project, just a small part of the Works Progress Administration, is a prime example.

In June 2023, the Library of Congress set out to rectify that impression with a symposium called “Rewriting America: Reconsidering the Federal Writers’ Project 80 Years Later” which revisited the Writers’ Project in view of recent scholarship. While the Writers’ Project is often remembered mainly for a series of WPA state guidebooks that it produced, keynote speaker Alessandro Portelli set the frame for a new understanding.

Calling it “a huge listening project,” he focused on the Project’s interviewers, and considered how that experience of conducting fieldwork affects the interviewer, the interviewee, and the culture.

 In Harlem, Ralph Ellison interviewed a man named Leo Gurley from South Carolina at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox. Gurley told a story about a guy in his hometown who could make himself invisible and evade the oppression of Jim Crow. The story lodged in Ellison’s mind for years. “He probably felt that on the lower frequencies, it was speaking for him and for all of us,” Portelli said, echoing the last lines of what became Ellison’s major novel, Invisible Man (1952). Those interviews with Harlem residents, many of them from the South, showed Ellison that his journey was not an aberration. His experience of training north from Oklahoma was part of a larger movement even if it didn’t yet have a name.

Fieldwork conducted by the 1930s interviewers was shifting their self-perceptions as it was shifting the canon, just as fieldwork today shifts thinking in our time and can reveal larger movements.

That’s also the theme of a new podcast from Spark Media, The People’s Recorder, which looks at the Writers’ Project (along with a few examples from other New Deal arts programs) to examine the legacy in efforts to document events like the Covid pandemic. Then as now, people doing culture work asked, who gets to record history? Whose stories get told?

The Writers’ Project, noted Portelli, came at a time of “rediscovery of folklore as a democratic force for the present.” The FWP’s national director for folklore, B.A. Botkin, held a more expansive conception of folklore than many folklorists of his time, encompassing modern industrial life. There was a “sense of creating a democratic culture from below,” in Portelli’s words. “I think the Federal Writers’ Project was one of the key moments in that point of view.” (Portelli’s full talk at the Library of Congress is here.)

Portelli recalled that in Italy when he was younger, musicians bemoaned the fading of traditional music from the streets. “One day I realized that the streets of Rome were brimming with music,” he said. “But the music had been brought precisely by the foreigners. So you had Senegalese drummers on one corner, Romanian fiddlers on the tramways, Filipino choruses in the churches. And the city was brimming with music, but … it was a music that we somehow refused to recognize as the actual folk music of Rome today.” What do we mean by tradition? “You always have this talk about roots when you talk about folklore,” but suddenly he had a sense that “we should talk about wings, we should talk about feet, about the ways in which songs travel.”

Other speakers that day talked about under-studied WPA writers: James Sun shared his research on Gerald Chan Sieg, who wrote of her Chinese-American community in the South, and Noreen Rivera described research on Aurora Lucero-White’s folklore work. (Both are included in Rewriting America: New Essays on the Federal Writers’ Project.) They brought to mind Ellison, who defended the FWP to an audience at the New York Public Library in the 1980s, saying that it documented communities that had long felt unheard before.

FWP interviewers were often the first people to ask those communities for their stories. In doing that, they spurred innovation. Susie R.C. Byrd, a Black interviewer in Virginia, wrote how she “let down her buckets where she stood” and recorded an enclave of slavery’s survivors that she found near her in Petersburg.

In Wisconsin, Oneida FWP interviewers innovated forms for writing the Oneida language. Oscar Archiquette, after documenting elders in their language, was inspired to become a civic historian and seek historical evidence supporting Oneida land rights. That effort was also reflected in Oneida comedian Charlie Hill becoming, in the 1970s, the first Native comedian to perform on a national television broadcast. Hill used the history gathered by Archiquette and others – and the sly humor embedded there – to upend stereotypes.

With new scholarship and reconsideration of the archive, we continue to unfurl that experience. As Sara Rutkowski, editor of Rewriting America, said in her remarks, “history becomes richer with time”; that includes “the extraordinary archives here, to which we bring our contemporary eyes.”

David A. Taylor is author of Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Turner Publishing) and a producer of The People’s Recorder. He teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.


Author interview: Doug Lambert on Oral History Indexing

In OHR’s 2023 special issue on “Disrupting Best Practices,” Douglas Lambert presented an overview of the last several decades of oral history indexing, a strategy for creating entry points in oral history audio and video. Here, we ask Doug a few questions about the practice and what it means for the state of the field of oral history.

Tell us what Oral History Indexing is and why practitioners and archivists do it. What should an oral historian know about OHI?

Oral History Indexing (OHI) is a set of practices that involves creating access to digital audio/video collections at the timecode level. In 2021, I brought some established practitioners together at the Oral History Association meeting to talk about their indexing systems and methods. Those presentations became the basis of case studies for my OHR paper, where I summarized the work of the Shoah Foundation, the University of Kentucky (OHMS), and several other remarkable online sites featuring dynamic, electronically-linked access to oral history collections.

Better access is why we do OHI. Recording oral history on long tapes or even digital files is not enough. Transcribing them may help, depending on your goals. But if the goal is to publicly present whole, raw interviews, which is often the case in oral history, you need to provide users some meaningful mileposts and thematic cues by which to navigate. OHI is about developing roadmaps to browse and explore within and across interviews, because consuming them linearly is typically not feasible.

OHI is serious A/V content management and oral historians embraced it early on and went deep. It is much more sophisticated than, say, thematic chapter labels in YouTube videos, which only came about recently. I coined “OHI” for the paper, first to characterize existing applications in oral history. But also, I wanted to have a framework to understand these institutions and systems—which evolved mostly independently—as a collective. Building from this initial survey, we can begin to look across systems, see what they have in common and not, and move toward planning future development intentionally, building on the wisdom gained in the first three decades of OHI.

Is OHI driven by technology or need?

I would say OHI is driven by the intersection in a three-way Venn diagram between tech, need, and ambitious oral historians diving in and putting it all together. I see it like this:

OHI is predicated on technology. Technology is the road, or the infrastructure. Computers, multimedia, databases, instantaneous linkage to timecodes, the internet—those have available to use for decades.

The “need” is the ability to provide access points if you expect and desire for people to consume raw interview content. If there was any point in recording an interview collection in the first place, there is a need for providing decent access to it, and OHI aims to do just that.

The third factor is the human intelligence of oral historians. Technology just sits there until we make something of it. The real OHI work still involves creating or editing the segment elements: timecodes, summaries, digests, keywords, titles, etc. The contextual choices OHI curators make regarding these elements creates the access points. 

What conclusions did you draw from analyzing various collections’ approaches to OHI?

My article was mostly an inventory of various OHI approaches in the oral history field over 25 years, accompanied by some commentary. The real analysis is yet to begin, where we examine elements across systems: How do different OHI practices create segments and why? How do they most effectively deploy controlled vocabularies? Analyzing parameters across systems will help optimize future OHI practices, and it can also reveal where and how AI might best play in.

How do you imagine OHI may change as artificial intelligence continues to evolve?

First, I assume that anyone serious about their research or collections will never leave everything up to AI. There will always be a handshake between human intelligence and aesthetics and the tools that make the processes easier and better. AI automatic speech recognition (ASR) transcripts, though imperfect, are fast and cheap to make. Availability of better ASR is already affecting choices, like when and how to create transcripts, or even whether to build an interface for synchronized transcripts or an index.

The most exciting thing I see, is that because AI/ASR transcripts are loaded with timecodes linked to the media down to the word, they already are a form of index themselves. If you take an ASR transcript and add a theme/title periodically next to a timecode, you essentially have a thematic index. My friend Mike Frisch has been pursuing methods in this vein for years already, essentially creating hybrid index-transcripts. He does this using an indexing software called TIM that I developed with TheirStory, which we originally built to leverage AI/ASR transcripts in building OHMS indexes.

These improved ASR transcripts with timecodes may start to make the distinction I outlined between synchronized transcripts and indexes obsolete. With ASR in the mix, new tools, methods, backend workflow systems, front-end display systems, etc. will look like neither the synchronized transcripts nor OHI interfaces we have known. The entire OHI enterprise is ready to enters its next evolutionary stage. We should take a closer look at where we’ve been and select the best bits, while we embrace what AI has to offer and see what grows. I’m eager to attend and present at the upcoming Oral History Association “AI In OH” virtual symposium, July 15-19, 2024, and learn more about how to harness AI for good in our field. 

See the supplement to my article here, with lots of links and demos. 

Douglas Lambert is an engineer who began working in the field of oral history and audio/video content management in the early 2000s when he joined the Randforce Associates—a consulting firm established by oral historian Michael Frisch—to pursue new practices in thematic, timecode-level indexing for long-form recordings. As Randforce’s Director of Technology, he led dozens of projects, helping clients develop multimedia data and online displays for better access to oral histories and other a/v content. Building on his master’s degree in environmental engineering and supported by a National Science Foundation fellowship, he earned a PhD in civil engineering using oral history interviewing and indexing methods. His dissertation analyzed the results of a multidisciplinary NSF study, where a team of researchers recorded anecdotal and experiential knowledge from technical and nontechnical professionals about Superfund-era groundwater contamination. Lambert went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History at the University of Luxembourg, where he codeveloped the initial version of the Timecode Indexing Module (TIM) software tool. He is currently a research scientist and project manager in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY). He continues to apply approaches and methods from oral history indexing in multidisciplinary projects and to develop the open-source version of TIM.

OHR Welcomes New Editor-in-Chief

As 2024 began, Abby, Dave, and Janneken wrapped up their six years serving as editors of the Oral History Review, and Holly Werner -Thomas stepped in to lead the new editorial team. We asked Holly a few questions about what she plans for the next several years. This is a first in a series of posts featuring members of the new team.

What new directions do you anticipate going in during your tenure?

I first want to thank the outgoing editors – Abigail Perkiss, Dave Caruso and Janneken Smucker – for all of their work and creative vision in making the Oral History Review into what it is. We are going to be building on their work, and also the work of the editors who preceded them, Kathy Nasstrom, Troy Reeves, and Kim Porter.

Most readers won’t know this, but at one time, the Review mostly published project-based work. While it was good work, it didn’t necessarily offer new insights into the field, but rather reported on project-based research. The difference can be subtle, and the journal continues to receive many submissions that are project-based only. However, while using oral history to make an historical argument is an important component of oral history, as is oral history that documents events, especially when the written record is insufficient, the journal’s mission is to offer new insight into oral history practice, theory, and methodology.

A project (whether the authors’ own work, or analysis presented from an archival collection or elsewhere) is therefore the first necessary element of a submission, but published articles strive to push beyond projects toward insights that all readers will gain something from. An example might be the difference between if, for his renowned essay, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, Alessandro Portelli had set out to collect the experiences of those who were connected to the police killing of a young steel worker in a town in Italy (perhaps there was a dearth of written records), versus analyzing the varied memories collected in those oral histories surrounding the killing of this young Italian worker, as well as what those reconstructed memories in turn said about Italian society, and, significantly, how oral history as a methodology was the only way to gain that insight. Anyway, we want to continue on that path, but do have Special Issues and other ideas planned.

What Special Issues or sections do you have planned?

We have several ideas, and I’m sure there will be more. The first Special Issue that we have planned is the one already announced on Oral History and Disability, which is slated for Spring 2025, with a submission deadline of March 31, 2024. We wanted to begin there for several reasons, not least because Disability Studies is an enterprising field, but also to emphasize the technological practices inherent in oral history that focuses on disability. I think it’s going to be a really dynamic issue.

We have a lot of ideas for other special issues, although with only two issues a year published, some of these may become special sections. These include but are not limited to: Oral History and the Arts, Oral History and Incarceration, Oral History and Climate Change, and Indigenous Oral History. Moreover, people in the oral history community will bring their own ideas and endeavors to us. One important one that comes to mind is the Oral History Association’s (OHA) upcoming virtual symposium on Oral History and AI. Who knows what that will result in in terms of publication, but I can certainly imagine a special section.

Speaking of technology, you’ve referred to it a couple times here. Anything that you want to add?

Yes, I want to emphasize our renewed focus on multimedia. We cannot know yet how this will tie into OHA’s new website, but I am hoping to make the interaction between the OHA website and to what is now the OHR’s blog, more explicit. The outgoing editors created this current site, with its own domain,, at the beginning of their term in 2018. At that time, submitting blog posts to OHR’s publisher took months of approval. Having a separate website was also a way for them to showcase multimedia connected to journal articles and communicate on a regular basis with the oral history community.

So again, I would like to make the interaction between the OHA website and the supplemental blog/website more explicit, perhaps with a visual or link on OHA’s landing page. The blog already uses graphics, audio, and author interviews. We hope to both continue building on what they’ve created, but more than that it is too early to say. Stay tuned.

The good news is, our current publisher, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, has recently developed the capability to showcase audio and even video in our digital issues. What’s more, the print and digital issues no longer need to mirror each other, as they did in the past. This means that we can refer to, say, an audio clip so that print readers can go online to hear it, but that online readers will be able to hear it directly within the digital text.

In terms of technology and publishing platforms more generally, clearly both are changing, and quickly, and some members want to see an Open Access journal. While not strictly Open Access, I want to emphasize that the Oral History Review is a hybrid, Open Select journal. Open Select journals represent most of Taylor & Francis’s journals, including those published on behalf of learned societies like OHA. According to T&F, this provides authors with the choice to publish their research on a traditional paywall basis or make their research Open via an Article Processing Charge (APC) if they have the funding to do so, or if their institution is in a read and publish (also known as transformative) agreement with T&F. Currently—and for the foreseeable future—the Oral History Review as an independent, peer-reviewed academic journal and its parent organization, OHA, rely on funding from subscription and membership revenue plus Open Access revenue received from APCs and transformative agreements. In turn, the OHA membership relies upon the Oral History Review for its content as the flagship journal of the oral history field. Still, I am sure that there will be many evolving discussions around publishing, platforms, and financial models as academic publishing and technology continue to evolve.

What about your team and your backgrounds? Is there anything you would like to mention beyond the OHA newsletter announcement that includes your bios?

Just that I feel really lucky to have the people we do in place. We are quite a varied group. I myself used to work in publishing before I became a historian and oral historian. I am based out of Los Angeles but have lived all over. Our copyeditor, Robert, is a librarian at the central library in Washington, D.C. Molly, our managing editor, is an academic historian based out of Montana. But I want to take a moment here to emphasize our wonderful new Review editors, the work they are seeking, and the fact that the journal needs reviewers.

Our new Book Review editor, Sharon Raynor, who we are really lucky to have working in this capacity (she is a professor of English and Digital Media, and works from North Carolina), will be on top of assigning newly published books pertinent to oral history for review, and will manage two new review sections, Classics Revisited and Featured Reviews. These will highlight specific work in the field. (I want to note that it was outgoing editor, David Caruso, who thought of both.) I’ve even asked Sharon to write a Classics Revisited review for 2024 on Bloods, Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History by Terry Wallace, on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary, and given Sharon’s own work in oral history and with Black American war veterans, she is the ideal person to write it. Other Classics Revisited features might include Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s by Kathleen M. Blee, which turns 35 years old in 2026. Featured Reviews might include the works of Luisa Passerini, E. Patrick Johnson, or Svetlana Alexievich. I’m sure there are many others to consider. For all book reviews, please contact Sharon for more information and to contribute (and please, follow through with those contributions!) at:

We are also lucky to have Bud Kliment as our Media Review Editor. Bud works with the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University and used to manage a record store. He is looking for significant applications of oral history in settings other than in books. For example, in music or theater pieces, museums or art exhibits, online archives, podcasts or other interactive presentations. Works to be considered ideally should be broadly available, with a lifespan that allows OHR readers to experience them, in person or online. The Media Review section will also be a wonderful place to showcase multimedia, so please always consider audio, video and visual elements when contributing. Bud can be reached at:

Do you have anything else to add that we haven’t covered?

I’m excited, we’re excited, to be working together and within the larger community. We are happy to be working with the new OHA Executive Office at Baylor University—they’ve all been so helpful there—and look forward to getting to know the people on OHA’s Council and learning from the committees. There is also some turnover on the Editorial Board and a new Editorial Board mandate coming soon, so also stay tuned for those exciting developments.

And finally, I’d just say, and it sounds painfully obvious, but if you plan on submitting an article, please read the journal. We have noticed that because submitting authors represent many different disciplines, they tend to speak through those using both jargon and references that are opaque to people outside of those disciplines. There is an assumption of knowledge about certain things (for example, an eminent sociologist you’re referring to by last name only), while at the same time a lack of engagement with current topics and conversations in the field. So, my advice is: Consider the audience. Our readers understand the value of oral history. At the very least, they will not need to be convinced of its value or told that its use as historical evidence was once contested by academics. On the other hand, readers of the Review will be a lot less likely to know the major figures or important literature in your own fields or subfields, or wherever you are working, so do please provide that context. Also, avoid jargon, and when you do use it, use it sparingly. Ensure that it is substantively adding to your own thesis but note that we prefer plain English in most cases.

That’s it for now but stay tuned. Send us your best work – and thank you.

Featured Image: New OHR Editor, Holly Werner-Thomas, discusses gun violence with narrator, and friend, Kenny Barnes, Sr., whose son was killed in a robbery in his store in Washington, D.C. in 2006. Listen to their interviews here. 

Author Interview: Estelle B. Freedman on Oral Histories and Sexual Violence

In OHR’s spring 2023 issue,scholar Estelle B. Freedman shares her findings from a macro-level analysis of oral history databases in order to analyze women’s memories and responses to sexual harassment and violence. Freedman’s research shows the potential of applying digital humanities tools for distance reading to the close reading of intimate details of oral histories. Her article,“’Not a Word Was Said Ever Again’: Silence and Speech in Women’s Oral History Accounts of Sexual Harassment” allows readers to contemplate historical changes in women’s responses, both silent and vocal, to sexual violence.

Please describe your project of mining archival oral history interviews and the methodologies you used to analyze them.  

The Stanford Oral History Text Analysis Project (OHTAP) began with a question: can archival oral history interviews provide a fruitful source for the historical study of sexual violence? My previous study of the political history of rape drew largely on public records such as newspapers and legal documents. I wondered what kinds of historical documentation might help explore past historical silences about sexual violence, including reasons why so many women had not spoken publicly, for so long. I was not interested in conducting an oral history project about sexual violence but in exploring existing life histories that tap into memories recorded over the past half century. My questions arose in part because of reactions to contemporary revelations of past assault and harassment that discounted women’s retrospective accounts, as if delayed reporting discredited their memory.   

Given the extent of women’s oral history projects since the 1970s, and the recent digitization of many of them, interview transcripts seemed promising tools for understanding both silence and speech. Sampling some of the searchable online collections produced intriguing accounts, including personal experiences, family histories, or political commentary. Working closely with Dr. Natalie Marine-Street, director of the Stanford Oral History Program (as well as a score of student interns over five years), OHTAP collected around 2,500 digitized interviews from nine repositories across the U.S. We processed the text and metadata, developed keyword searches and a digital search tool (named Winnow), and identified a subcorpus of around 450 interviews with relevant language. We then completed qualitative coding of the text surrounding the keywords (for example, distinguishing sexual assault and sexual harassment, and personal from political narratives). Students develop tools for matching qualitative coding results and interviewee metadata to explore demographic patterns (such as race and education) and change over time. I began close qualitative reading of the almost 900 discrete narratives these methods located within the interviews.  

One of our major goals has been to enable scholars who are not necessarily skilled in digital humanities to conduct digital searches of large databases of oral history interviews on any historical topics. An article that Dr. Marine-Street and I are now completing explains our mixed methods, including suggestions for standard practices that oral historians and archivists could adopt to expedite large scale digital searches.  

With the quantitative data we can ask about change over time in two ways: the year of interviews, and the historical eras in which narrators lived. By either measure, we find no linear expansion of speech over time but rather troughs and peaks. For sexual harassment by year of interview, for example, the proportion of accounts peaked during second wave feminism, after Anita Hill’s 1991 Senate testimony, and again after #MeToo. Mapping change over time by interviewee birth cohorts illustrates the importance of race in our analysis. For example, the proportion of Black women’s interviews that addressed sexual harassment remained fairly stable over the cohorts, but the proportions of white women’s interviews addressing this subject increased for those born between 1900 and 1959, then declined for the youngest cohort (born after 1960). 

How did the language (and silences) that women used to describe sexual misconduct change over time? 

Qualitatively, in reading the sexual harassment accounts for the period before the term emerged in the 1970s, I was struck by both continuity and subtle shifts in the nature of “bad old days” narratives. Describing the 1930s through the 1960s, interviewees often referred to women’s personal responsibility for the classroom or workplace indignities they described. Recalling the period after the mid-1960s – coincident with early second wave feminism and equal rights laws – the narrators used language and referred to strategies that began to hold men more accountable. The first incidents of women seeking institutional redress appear by the time that the feminist anti-violence movement formed in the 1970s. Beyond the scope of this article, interviews recalling the subsequent two decades detail a range of opportunities for reporting and resisting misconduct, including formal legal action and organized protests. The later interviews also highlight the role of women entering the professions as journalists or lawyers, as well as activists, in reshaping awareness of harassment.  

What can readers learn from your findings that add to the field of women’s history and oral history?  

First, we learned that even when women’s voices seemed absent from public discourse, oral histories may contain significant recollections of a topic that has seemed elusive to historians. Digital search techniques allow us to identify the terms they used at the time and then broaden our exploration in sometimes unexpected directions. Second, oral historians and archivists need to adapt the ways they process digital interviews and collect metadata about narrators and interviews to make possible large scale data analysis. Third, both data analysis and close readings confirm the crucial intersection of race and gender in the ways women experience, observe, and remember sexual violence.  

You show that women consistently implemented resistance measures to fight sexual discrimination. What did you learn about such resistance through your analysis?  

The answer is complicated. First, it is important to recognize that the retrospective nature of interviews conducted since the 1970s undoubtedly influenced accounts of the earlier period. Many women contrasted their past resignation in the face of harassment with their current understanding that they should not have had to put up with it. I found it striking, though, that in the decades before the naming of sexual harassment as a form of discrimination, interviewees rarely portrayed themselves as victims, even as they recalled teachers, employers, or co-workers who objectified, demeaned, or discriminated against them through sexual language and actions. Whether they complained about the extent of such behavior or considered it rare, narrators typically assumed that it was their own responsibility to evade harassment. Some reported doing so resignedly, putting up with classroom discomfort or leaving jobs. Other women proudly recalled their individual strategies for fending off unwanted sexual attention and, by the late 1960s, more of the recalled seeking formal redress.  

How do you anticipate language surrounding sexual misconduct will continue to evolve in the future? 

I’ve concentrated on looking back to understand prior usage – asking what terms preceded sexual harassment, or what terms beyond legal language implied non-consensual sexual relations. To build historical vocabularies, we identified relevant words and phrases within the text surrounding our initial search terms and added them to our searches. Some new language (such as hanky-panky) led to further accounts of both consensual and unwanted sexual advances, while other terms (such as ladies’ man) primarily revealed consensual relationships. Legal change clearly influenced how women referred to sexual misconduct, including the term sexual harassment, and law will continue to shape language. In the future, I expect less reliance on a gender binary (including the assumption that perpetrators are male or that “women” share viewpoints and experiences). I would like to think that future oral historians will employ more direct and less euphemistic or coded terminology for the range of human sexual experiences. 

On that last point, what most concerns me about the future is how oral historians will pay attention to subjects once considered off limits, including sexual or other kinds of trauma, for their questions will partly shape the historical record. For the history of sexual violence, we need to think carefully about distinguishing between a legitimate sensitivity to the privacy of interviewees and an unconscious or conscious aversion on the part of interviewers to discussing often troubling sexual (or other) subjects. Following the ethics of sexual consent, oral historians can request a narrator’s permission to approach a topic we once considered too private to discuss, in a way that presumes neither a willingness nor a disinclination to do so. Several of the interviewers in our corpus provide examples of listening attentively and allowing space for even painful sexual memories to surface, or to respect silence.

The digital humanities methods employed in your study of archival oral histories have great potential for other topics. What other topics are ripe for analysis? 

So many come to mind – most obviously, other topics once considered highly personal or publicly unmentionable. As a scholar of sexual history these include abortion, contraception, lesbian and gay relationships, and gender non-conformity.  For the history of the mind and body more broadly, personal memories of depression or of body image could enrich historical studies, as could narratives of life events such as childbirth, illness and disability, courtship and divorce, mourning.

If we could standardize processing of digital oral history collections, scholars would gain an enormous database for studying how people remember both their own experiences and their attitudes towards a range of historical subjects, from sports and recreation to culture and politics. I envision a time when archivists and scholars will regularly run digital searches on multiple collections to determine which ones would enhance a particular research project and benefit from digital humanities analysis.

Estelle B. Freedman is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in US History, Emerit, at Stanford University and a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Her ten books on the histories of women’s reform, sexuality, and feminism include No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (Ballantine Books, 2002), Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Harvard University Press, 2013), and (with John D’Emilio) Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (University of Chicago Press, 3d ed., 2012). She currently codirects the Stanford Oral History Text Analysis Project and is codirecting a documentary film that evolved from her oral history with folk singer and activist Faith Petric (1915-2013).

Featured image: “Dependents Waiting Room, West side, new dependents clinic.” 3 JAN 1957, Navy Medicine Historical Files Collection, via Flickr Commons. 

OHR Call for Submissions for Upcoming Special Issue on Oral History and Disability

The Oral History Review invites submissions with a special focus on intersections of oral history and disability. Submit full articles by 31 March 2024.

The Oral History Review is happy to announce a call for papers for a special issue dedicated to oral history and disability. It is currently slated for publication in Spring 2025. Oral historians often write and talk about inclusion, even radical inclusion. What does this mean in practice? What contributions have oral historians made – or can they make – to Disability Studies? What are the cultural representations of disability and how can oral historians add to a view of disability beyond the traditional, mostly medical, and socially constructed ones? What do the practices of oral historians with disabilities look or sound like? What can oral historians learn about communication from people with disabilities? And how do such themes as embodiment, trauma, and identity, topics oral historians often discuss, apply to disability?

For this issue, we especially want to encourage multimedia submissions and to push thinking around new technologies for both interviewing and oral history project outcomes. This might include, for example, for the blind and seeing impaired, not only audio but perhaps screen reader (or text-to- audio) software. For people who are deaf or hearing impaired, the use of signed interviews with video online (ASL), closed captioning, and downloadable transcripts. Or for people with neurocognitive differences, intellectual disabilities, and other conditions, anything from assistive devices to language cues within an interview to the use of photos to aid in story capture.

This special issue thus asks oral historians to explore:

  • Multimedia projects and the use of audio/video/photography
  • New technologies for both interviewing and oral history project outcomes
  • Access and accessibility
  • Visibility and its meanings
  • Stories before and after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act
  • The second wave of the disability rights movement, also called Disability Justice (DJ)
  • The role of oral history in Disability Studies and history
  • How disability is framed today and at different times and places
  • Disability and advocacy, family, and religious belief
  • Stories from the field of narrative medicine, which seeks to bridge clinical practice and patients’ emotional health and well being
  • What oral historians can learn about communication from people with disabilities, and/or from artists with disabilities who address the labor of care in their work
  • How oral history can be used to investigate the structural ableism that people with disabilities confront daily (spatial equity)
  • Disability and poverty, gender, or race
  • COVID-19 stories
  • And other themes that oral historians often address – embodiment, trauma, community, labor, inclusion/exclusion, identity – as applied to disability

It is estimated that one in four people in the U.S. alone live with a disability.

If you have questions, book and media review ideas, or would like to discuss your proposal in advance, please contact the incoming OHR editor, Holly Werner-Thomas, at by December 31, 2023. To submit your articles, use the OHR submission portal. The deadline for full manuscript submissions is March 31, 2024. 

OHA Annual Meeting Preview and Virtual Issue Launch

It’s once again that time of year when oral historians from across the globe unite for the annual meeting. Here we preview some sessions and events the editorial team is looking forward to.

By Janneken Smucker

We were supposed to all be in Baltimore for the Oral History Association Annual Meeting in fall of 2020. It’s gratifying after a few years of uncertainty and remote meetings that we can convene in the harbor of Charm City for the most welcoming of conferences, which brings together scholars, community organizers, archivists, students, educators, and oral history practitioners from every realm into our great big tent, centered on listening to the accounts narrators share in interview form. 

For our editorial team, this is a bittersweet occasion. We took Amtrak from Philadelphia to Baltimore Wednesday morning prior to a transition meeting we held with the new incoming OHR editorial crew, led by Holly Werner-Thomas and supported by Robert LaRose, Molly Todd, Sharon Raynor, Bud Kliment, who officially take over in 2024 (stay tuned for an interview with Holly). We have been at it for six years, faithfully attending annual meetings to convene with OHR’s editorial board, scout prospective authors by listening in on panels, staff our table in the exhibition hall, and most importantly, networking with oral history colleagues, old and new. 

You’ll find us in Baltimore at several events and sessions, including the Presidential Reception Thursday evening, and several panels. Please flag us down to say hi, and also introduce yourselves to Holly and team. 

As usual, we have published a virtual issue to mark the occasion of the annual meeting. OHR intern, Isabela Carvalho from West Chester University, has selected several articles from the OHR archive addressing the theme, with a focus on education and technology. Using articles from 1973 to 2023, her introduction traces the ways oral history educators have perceived the role of technology in the classroom. 

Author Interview: Katherine Waugh on “Failing to Connect?”

In OHR’s spring 2023 issue, scholar Katherine Waugh analyzes the methodological challenges oral historians face with technological fluctuations. Focusing on the post-pandemic wave of remote interviewing that has expanded oral historians’ ability to conduct interviews, Waugh considers the difficulties that scholars face in “connecting” to narrators in a virtual world. “Failing to Connect? Methodological Reflections on Video-Call Interviewing during the Pandemic” allows readers to think about the future of oral history methodology while examining our rapidly changing technological reality. Here we interviewed Waugh about her study and advice she has for oral historians conducting remote interviews.


Remote interviewing has the potential to change oral historians’ ability to reach marginalized individuals. What considerations should oral historians keep in mind? 

I think that the risk of excluding marginalized groups has always been an issue for oral historians. For instance, Sarah Dziedzic, in her article “Immunodeficiency and Oral History,” points out how rarely disability justice has been considered in oral history practice, and how damaging the fixation on in-person interviews can be. To me, it seems this unmoving commitment to one form of oral history interviewing as the correct and best method is the problem here; I think if we are truly to share authority with participants, then that needs to come into the sphere of project design too. There are many socio-economic factors that individual historians will never be able to overcome every time, on their own, but certainly being sensitive to individual circumstances and allowing room for flexibility in how we interview is useful. 

You write about how the recollection of memories through sensory experiences that can be neglected during online oral history interviews. What is your advice for tapping into memory without the aid of senses?

The main thing I learned during this process is that you’re never going to be able to experience or capture someone’s sensory memory entirely, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored, because so often it serves as a cue to other memories that can be vocalized. I found  something as simple as inserting deliberate sensory prompts such as “Can you remember what it smelled like?” to be surprisingly effective in eliciting further discussion. 

What is your advice on how to further connect with interviewees through emotions and expressions during online interviews? 

It is really tempting to jump straight into the interview when conducting them online,  because there’s none of the informal moments of setting up beforehand. In-person, I find those moments so useful for orientating the interview—you can usually get a sense if a participant is nervous, or what they might want to discuss for example—and it gives you a little bit of time as an interviewer to compose yourself in relation to that. So, I tried to just slow down before starting to record, allowing for more natural, informal conversation first. This did not necessarily make it any easier when it came to trying to observe and interpret interviewees’ emotions and expressions, but certainly having a greater sense of ease between us allowed me to probe them further on how they were feeling and why. In many ways, this gave interviewees a better chance to explore and express their emotions in their own words.

Do you see online interviews as the future of oral history? What do you predict?

No, I don’t think they’re necessarily the future, more another string in oral historians’ bow.  I think most importantly what has been shown is that oral history practice can adapt, and that project plans can be flexible. If we can use this flexibility and adaptability going forward, I think there could be real steps made towards increasing accessibility and inclusivity in oral history, both for practitioners and participants. 

Katherine Waugh is a final-year PhD candidate at Newcastle University, funded by the Northern Bridge Consortium of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her research uses life-narrative oral history interviews to examine cross-generational experiences of deindustrialisation in County Durham, UK, exploring the intersections of memory, place, and identity within communities in the present day.



5 Questions about Remembering Theodore Roosevelt

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Michael Patrick Cullinane discusses his book, Remembering Theodore Roosevelt: Reminiscences of His Contemporaries which is reviewed in the latest issue of OHR.

Read Rachel B Lane’s review of Remembering Theodore Roosevelt: Reminiscences of His Contemporaries

What is your book about and why does it matter? 

Presidents leave a massive archival footprint and Theodore Roosevelt more than most. He wrote hundreds of thousands of letters in his lifetime, more than any other president. Historians have churned over these letters for generations, and it seemed as though all the relevant historical resources had been explored. It turns out, an obscure oral history collection of Roosevelt’s contemporaries had not yet been discovered. And it reveals much about his family, the political context, and his legacy. Recordings made in 1954 and 1955 collected the testimony of friends and family before their memories of the former president would vanish with their death. While some of the recordings were transcribed and deposited at Columbia University, six reels of magnetic tape languished in a safe at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in New York City. The remnants of a larger oral history project, these recordings restore the voices of Roosevelt’s contemporaries. It also offers insights as to how oral history projects develop and how participants (interviewers and interviewees) cast shade on the past.

How does oral history contribute to your books?

Oral history is the heart and soul of the book. Each chapter includes two elements: an introduction to set the scene and a personal recollection by one of Roosevelt’s contemporaries. At the outset, I make the case that this collection has particular relevance for the field because it intersected with Allan Nevins’s Oral History Project at Columbia University. As one of the founders of the field, many of the interviewers came from staff on Nevins’s program or his graduate students. The Roosevelt Memorial Association who commissioned the interviews had a separate agenda to commemorate the centenary of Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday. Chairman of the Association Hermann Hagedorn knew Nevins, and established the link with the nascent oral history project at Columbia. Hagedorn also enrolled his daughter Mary in the university’s master’s program and paid her to transcribe and record the sessions. The administrative history of the project gives us a vantage into the maneuverings of this mid-century oral history project.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

This is the second oral history book I’ve edited, and I am a newcomer to the field. As a historian used to sources that have no tangible voice, listening to historical characters I know better on the page than in my ears has brought an added perspective. TR’s daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth spoke for three hours on one of the discovered reels. Her voice is like none other, at best compared to Katharine Hepburn speaking at high speed. What’s more, Mrs. Longworth’s reputation for an acerbic tongue comes through with greater clarity than published memoirs or edited reminiscences. Her recordings prove that the oral history project had removed sections of discussion, edited unsavory comments, and smoothed out grammatical errors – all of which diminished the spirit of Longworth’s statements. Working with the original audio maintains these intentions and intonations.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your books?

I never assume anyone will be interested in my books! I suspect people will come to Remembering Theodore Roosevelt for very different motives. The “Ted-Heads” as some Roosevelt scholars are known will scour the book for the details it sheds on the former president’s life and times. Oral historians and other historians interested in the mid-century historiographical turns will find the connection to Nevins or the consensus school of interest. Each chapter has its own allure, too. The reminiscences of Jesse Langdon, the last surviving Rough Rider, will appeal to scholars of the American West and overseas territories as he served in the Philippine American War. Henry Stimson’s decisions as a wartime Cabinet secretary features in the accounts of Trubee Davison. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt tells of her times with both houses of the Roosevelt family. And many more.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Theodore Roosevelt is in the title, and naturally the epicenter of the oral histories, but there is much more to the stories being told. Tammany Hall and New York politics from the 1880s to the 1960s, Harvard University, the North Dakota Badlands, and smoke-filled rooms at party conventions all feature. The recordings offer a rich contextual story to the familiar biographies.

New Issue Live!

We’re pleased to announce that the digital version of the Fall/Winter 2023 OHR is live and that paper copies have arrived in mailboxes. This issue, the last under the direction of our current editorial team, is devoted to the theme of “Disrupting Best Practices.”  We are grateful to each of the authors who contributed articles investigating ways we shake up our methodologies, and to the anonymous peer reviewers who lent their expertise in making this another valuable issue. The edition concludes with book reviews (volunteer to review or suggest books for review here!). Check out the full table of contents. 

In the coming weeks, we will feature some of the authors here in interviews and guest posts, with additional digital content. Stay tuned an be part of the conversation.


5 Questions About Fly Until You Die and Prisoner of Wars

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Chia Y Vang discusses her books Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in Vietnam War and Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Lifewhich she co-authored with Pao Yang and are reviewed in the latest issue of OHR.

Read former OHR editor Troy Reeve’s review of Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in Vietnam War. 

What are they about and why does it matter? 

Both books are about the lived experiences of Hmong men who were trained to be pilots to provide close air support to ground troops during the U.S. Secret War in Laos, which paralleled the larger Vietnam War. They tell the stories of war not of their own making but fought in their villages and towns and the struggle to make sense of life following the war. Fly Until You Die is a collective memory of the heart-wrenching stories of Hmong airmen and their loved ones as well as American veterans’ reflections on how they overcame enormous obstacles to train the men. Prisoner of Wars examines in-depth the tumultuous experiences of the only Hmong pilot veteran who was shot down, survived and was captured by the enemy, served several years in a prison camp before he was released and escaped to the United States. Many American veterans who served during the Vietnam War have written about their wartime experiences and post-war difficulties. My books matter because they highlight the lasting impact of the war on Hmong lives that is absent in dominant narratives of the war. 

How does oral history contribute to your books?

Vang, Chia. Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 

Like other historians, I have spent many years going through materials that are deemed important to be preserved. While archival materials at different institutions were instrumental for my research, the voices of marginalized groups like the Hmong pilots and their families are not found in official archives. Both books are informed by the oral histories I conducted in the interviewees’ homes across the United States. Because the life experiences of the people I wanted to study are not found in archives, my books would not have been possible without oral history. 

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Hmong people have a strong oral tradition where stories are not written down, but instead, they are passed on from one generation to the next. It was the ideal methodology for my research. As a methodology, oral history enables people to share their personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. While they are structured interviews, I appreciate the conversational nature of oral history interviews. 

I conducted the overwhelming majority of my interviews in Hmong language, then transcribed and translated them into English. As a multilingual researcher, it was a privilege to give interviewees the option to talk about their experiences in their native language where they could explain complex issues to make visible things that have been left out of historical records. 

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your books?

Vang, Chia and Pao Yang. Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2021.

I think fellow oral historians will appreciate the wide range of experiences I included in my books. Many historians are familiar with larger political and military aspects of the Vietnam War, but they cannot access the personal archives of Hmong veterans and families of pilots who were killed in action. The personal narratives are sometimes highly charged because they complicate what it means to be fighting for freedom and being free when they have become uprooted and displaced across the globe.  

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the books?

I would like readers to remember that the stories of these ordinary people who became entangled in a war that was decided by powerful leaders on the other side of the globe have extraordinary lived experiences worthwhile to remember as well.


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