Menu Sidebar

OHR Conversations: Janice Fernheimer on “Sustainable Stewardship” in the College Classroom

In this OHR Conversations, Janice Fernheimer, co-author of “Sustainable Stewardship: A Collaborative Model for Engaged Oral History Pedagogy, Community Partnership, and Archival Growth,” describes the processes at the heart of her classroom/archive/community partnership at University of Kentucky.

Drawing from the recently published article, “Sustainable Stewardship: A Collaborative Model for Engaged Oral History Pedagogy, Community Partnership, and Archival Growth,” co-authored with University of Kentucky colleagues Doug Boyd, Beth Goldstein, and Sarah Dorpinghaus, Janice Fernheimer shares how she and her partners have developed a collaborative and sustainable model for working with oral history in the college classroom over multiple semesters, in both first-year writing courses and upper level electives.

Listen to a student created podcast, an audio essay written by Fernheimer’s students in WRD 112: Writing Jewish Kentucky in Fall 2017 about the student organization Hillel at the University of Kentucky. 

OHR Conversations is a recurring series of audio and video interviews with the authors of recent Oral History Review articles. 

Listen to audio only.

Janice W. Fernheimer is the Zantker Charitable Foundation Professor and Director of Jewish Studies and Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of  Stepping Into Zion: Hatzaad Harishon, Black, Jews and the Remaking of Jewish Identity (University of Alabama Press 2014) and co-editor along with Michael Bernard-Donals of Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice (Brandeis University Press 2014).  Along with her research collaborator Dr. Beth L. Goldstein, she established the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence (JHFE) Jewish Kentucky Oral History Project, a repository of 103+ oral histories for Jewish Kentuckians housed at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. As part of the model for sustainable stewardship her team developed, more than 50 undergraduates have presented or published research emerging from the Jewish Kentucky Oral History Project. In collaboration with author/illustrator JT Waldman, she is currently authoring an archives and oral-history based transmedia project America’s Chosen Spirit, which includes a webcomic and podcast series that detail the influences of Jews and other minorities on the Kentucky bourbon industry.  

Featured image: Community members and students working together. From left to right: Lowell Nigoff, Garry  Hoover, Allison Gant, Morgan Weilbacher. Courtesy of the co-authors. 

5 Questions About: Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer

We’ve asked authors of books with reviews in the upcoming issue of the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, sociologist Robert Gay discusses Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer.

Matthew Barr’s review of Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer is currently available online.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

My book tells the story of a young man who, in the early 1980s, became involved with the Brazilian drug trade. Posted to the border with Bolivia, he took advantage of his role as a corporal in the Brazilian Navy to supply cocaine to Rio de Janeiro’s favelas which were increasingly under the control of a criminal organization known as the Comando Vermelho (CV). Eight years into his career as a trafficker, he was arrested in Rio and sent to a civilian prison where he joined the CV and emerged as one of its leaders. Information about the internal structure of gangs and their uncontested control of the prison system is extremely hard to come by. Fortunately, I was able to access this information as a product of what is now over thirty years of continuous fieldwork in the favelas.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer. Robert Gay. Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2015.

The book is essentially a recorded conversation between me and “Bruno” that I conducted over the course of seven visits to Rio between January 2007 and March 2008. I first met Bruno in 1999, a few days after he was released from prison. It wasn’t until seven years later, however, after we had become friends, that he literally turned to me one day and said, “I’m ready to tell my story,”—a story he hadn’t told anyone and that was tearing him up inside.

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

This is the second book I have written using this approach, which I love, because it brings what is hopefully a compelling and revealing story to life! I have no training as an oral historian and, to be honest, had little or no experience going in. At a certain point in my career, however, I grew tired of writing up my research in the usual dry, third-person, social scientific format. So, I tried my hand at storytelling and have never looked back!

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Since I am not one, I have no idea! Seriously though, I hope that oral historians will appreciate the conversational style of the book. In most oral histories that I have read, the interviewer’s voice is silent. I decided to include mine to give the reader a sense of how the story unfolded and the nature of the relationship between Bruno and me. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it’s a technique that has become more common.

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

I want readers to come away with an appreciation of how complicated the situation in Rio specifically and Brazil more generally has become. And how the policy decisions, made by the authorities, end up making things much worse. Drug gangs and the criminal organizations that coordinate their activities are the direct result of decades of state repression and neglect of low-income communities. Sadly, however, the policy response is always the same: more repression and more neglect.

OHR Conversations: Densho

In this installment of Oral History Review‘s OHR Conversations, Editorial Assistant Nicole Strunk interviews Tom Ikeda, the founder and executive director of Densho. Together they discuss how the oral history project approaches saving the testimonies and experiences of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. 

Listen to audio of the conversation between Tom Ikeda and Nicole Strunk. 

Featured image: Lange, Dorothea. Concentration Camp Street Scene. June 29, 1942. Still image. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

5 Questions About: South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After


We’ve asked authors of books that are going to be reviewed in the upcoming edition of the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen discusses South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After

Sharon D Raynor’s review of South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After  is currently available as an advance article. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

My book is about the men – and women – who served in the South Vietnamese armed forces (the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces or RVNAF). I wrote it because South Vietnam and its soldiers have largely been forgotten, ignored or misrepresented in the vast historiography of the Vietnam War. More than a quarter of a million South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in action and nearly a million wounded. Their stories deserve to be heard and taken into the historical record. My book not only covers all branches of the RVNAF including the Women’s Armed Forces Corps but also deals with the aftermath of war for the South Vietnamese.

Many of these former soldiers lived hard lives after 1975. Communist Vietnam did not recognize their service in the postwar era, and their military cemeteries were razed or left to decay. Former service personnel registered for re-education believing that they would return to their families after ten days but ended up spending years in the Bamboo Gulag, where an unknown number died. The government also interned women and children in re-education camps. Those who were able to do so escaped from Vietnam as boat people in the late 1970s and 1980s or left under the Orderly Departure Program. My book also covers the refugee experience, and the ways in which host countries have dealt with issues of loss, grief, and trauma among minority communities.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Oral history is central to my book, as I used the method to create an archive of primary source material. My work is based on 54 oral histories of former servicemen and women as well as oral histories of their family members including spouses and children. One of the main outcomes of my work was the creation of a key new oral history collection at the National Library of Australia. These oral histories will be preserved for future generations and for a time when Vietnam can finally acknowledge this part of its history.

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

Oral history involves interaction with people. When I conduct oral history interviews, I am listening to people reflect on and retell their lives. This can be particularly difficult for refugees and veterans, many of whom experienced internment and state censorship in postwar Vietnam. I am conscious of the fact that they are telling their stories as a gesture of trust. I would not be able to do my work were it not for the generosity of interviewees in contributing their time to my project. I am grateful for the opportunity of recording these lives and memories.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

The material in my book is genuinely innovative, involving the stories of men and women whose experiences and perspectives have seldom been heard, and certainly not quoted at length in a book. Most were junior officers – and some were in the ranks. Many were interned after the war and left their country as refugees. Having resettled overseas and reconstructed their lives, they have a double lens on the war.

While I had prepared broad questions for interviews, my purpose was to enable veterans to speak about their lives, their perceptions of events, and what mattered to them rather than extract answers to specific questions. Veterans were conscious about the silencing of their histories, and provided me with additional material such as service magazines, unit histories, photographs, and copies of articles printed in local community newspapers or on websites.

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

South Vietnam may have ceased to exist in 1975, but it lives on in the memories of those who served. Military service played a central role in the lives of these former soldiers. Servicemen and women, even after defeat, internment, exile, and the erasure of their history by the postwar Vietnamese state, remember their former country and their former service with pride.

Oral History Association 2019 Annual Meeting Submission Reminder

The editorial team of the Oral History Review is already anticipating our favorite time of year: the Oral History Association’s annual meeting. This year, we are headed to Salt Lake City, October 16-19 for a few days of invigorating discussion of the state of our field. The theme for 2019 is Pathways in the Field: Considerations for those Working In, On, and Around Oral HistoryAs editors, we spend our time scouring the paper sessions for the most innovative and thought-provoking scholarship focusing on the methods, theories, and practices of the discipline, and bugging those presenters to submit articles to our journal or guest posts to this blog. We also arrive with boxes full of books in hopes that you will take one home to read and review for us. And we always make new friends, as OHA is the most welcoming and inclusive membership association around. 

For more information, see the 2019 Call for Papers. The submission guidelines for proposing a session or paper can be found here. Make sure to get your proposals in by February 3, 2019.

Behind the Scenes at OHR: The Book Review

In the fourth installment of our series exploring behind the scenes at OHR, book review editor Nancy MacKay talks about the ins and outs of writing a review for the journal. We always are looking for smart readers like you to take on a book or media project to review!

By Nancy MacKay

The equation is simple: Book + Reviewer = Book Review, voila, the review is written, published, read by all of you, and the author can bathe in the attention that justifies their years of research. But this simplicity is deceptive. There are many variables hidden in the equation that affect the final published review and the impact it will have on the author of the book, the intended readers, and the scholarly community over time. Many of these variables are determined by circumstances outside the control of the reviewer, such as books chosen for review, editorial policy of the publication, the readers of the journal, and serendipity. That’s for another day; in this post I’ll share my thoughts on the components of a good book review and how the process works here at OHR.

“A genuinely useful review goes beyond a mere summary of a book’s content, beyond a mere catalogue of missteps, and provides substantive intellectual engagement with, and evaluation of, its argument. What makes a review a serious contribution to scholarship is the reviewer’s contextualization and analysis of the book’s value to scholarship in the discipline.” — Lynn Worsham

Why Book Reviews?

Last month I polled some OHR reviewers with this question, raised by the Australian author John East: if writing a thoughtful book review is time-consuming and is not especially valuable on a reviewer’s C/V, then why put so much time into writing it? I was gratified to see from the responses that OHR reviewers had no problem taking all that time to write reviews, citing the personal satisfaction of sharing their expertise, reading deeply and analyzing a book, and exploring a subject in depth as the rewards of the task. 

It’s great that OHR reviewers find the work gratifying, but what about the value of book reviews to our scholarly community? The answer to this question is not as enthusiastic. Lynne Worsham, editor of JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, & Politics begins skeptically in “The Endangered Scholarly Book Review,” lamenting that fellow journal editors worry that reviews eat up valuable journal space that could be used for articles, require too much editorial time for the benefit derived, are too often poorly written, and not read with frequency. Kevin Steinmetz, book review editor of Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology, also weighs in on the value of book reviews, citing the most practical benefit of book reviews as a way for scholars to keep on top of an increasingly prodigious flow of newly published material in abridged form. 

At OHR, we don’t question the importance of reviews. We highly value the new books and media projects that come our way, our thoughtful community of reviewers, and we understand that book and media reviews are appreciated by our readers. If anything, we are growing the review section of the journal. In addition to books, OHR reviews non-print and media projects including performances, exhibitions, digital projects, documentaries, podcasts, applications, and emerging new media formats. If you are interested in writing a media review, contact digital editor Janneken Smucker.

Here are some really good reasons for reviewing that I’ve observed in my first 12 months at OHR:

Graduate students find reviewing a quick way to practice analytical and writing skills, to get their name into print, and to get free feedback.

Young professors, having recently completed a dissertation, may be right on top of the current scholarship in their field, and are thus often considered the most qualified reviewers.

Seasoned academics can use book reviewing as opportunity to apply a lifetime of wisdom garnered to evaluating new scholarship, and to delve deep into the ideas raised by scholars and to begin a dialogue.

Independent scholars and experts in related fields bring a fresh perspective to reviewing books for OHR, raising issues, asking questions, and expanding the opportunity for dialogue.

What Makes a Good Book Review?

There is a certain formulaic necessity to an effective book review. The reviewer needs to convey specific information to readers about the work at hand in a format that is clear, consistent, and predictable. There are certain components that go into a successful book review of any kind. OHR gives reviewers more specific writing guidelines, soon to be updated, that speak to the mission of the journal and content. 

The body of the review consists of description, analysis, and evaluation of the book. These approaches are not mutually exclusive. Elements of each are incorporated into the body of the review, though it is also fine to separate them, for example, to devote a paragraph to evaluating the work.

Description is a straightforward recounting or summary of the contents of the book. Description can be organized sequentially, chapter by chapter, or thematically. The emphasis and level of detail depends on the book, the discipline, and the journal’s mission. An OHR review should include a detailed description of how the author employs oral materials. If the format or presentation is noteworthy, for example, a book that is highly illustrated or that contains links to interviews online, it should be noted in the description as well. The description forms a significant part of the review but does not constitute a review by itself.

Analysis refers to the breaking-down of a topic into smaller parts in order explain a complex concept. Since not every topic of the book is of equal value to the OHR readers, the reviewer can select themes that illustrate a point or need more lengthy explanation. Reviewers can draw on their own expertise of the topic and use examples from real life or other written sources. Analysis is an expository process and does not include value judgment.

But evaluation does. It consists of a thoughtful opinion by the reviewer, pro and con, of the book’s merit, worth, and significance, always backed with illustrations or evidence from the reviewer’s expertise or research. It is fine to offer constructive criticism, but it should be balanced. (If a book has too much food for criticism, it probably shouldn’t be reviewed.)   

Other writing considerations

In addition to description, analysis, and evaluation, reviews incorporate additional common components.

Citation. Publication details about the book usually supplied by the journal. OHR specifies a format in the writing guidelines.

Comparison. Talk about how the book fits into the existing body of literature. Does it cover new material? A new approach? Does it challenge existing thought? Does it update existing literature? Do some research if you are unsure and cite related books by name.

Author’s qualifications. Mention the author’s relationship to the subject and her qualifications in writing the book. This section need not be lengthy, but some mention will help readers understand the author’s perspective.  

How the author uses oral history.  How are interviews used to further the author’s thesis? Did the author conduct interviews or draw on archival interviews?  How does the author’s methodology line up with oral history best practices and principles? How is the interview content presented in the book? How much of the narrators’ voice comes through in the book? A discussion of the book through the lens of oral history is an important component of every review and what makes OHR reviews unique within the larger body of scholarly literature.

Examples and quotes. Carefully selected quotations and examples will strengthen the points made in your review, give readers a sample of the author’s writing style and add interest to the review. Don’t go overboard: examples from the book should be few and carefully selected and should support your main job of providing a critical analysis of the book.

Book Reviewing at OHR   

Oral history crosses the traditional boundaries of disciplines, and the journal seeks to do the same in its content. Our readers, reviewers, and book/media works selected for review match this diversity. Titles in our regularly updated inventory of books-for-review include works in performance studies, community activism, qualitative research, digital humanities, archives, and public history, if they are appear to hold interest for OHR readers.  You can also recommend a book or media work for review by completing this form.  AND keep an eye out for the upcoming issue of OHR.

Further Reading

John W. East, “The Scholarly Book Review in the Humanities,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 43, no. 1 (October 1, 2011): 52–67. 

Steven E. Gump, “Special Section on the Value of Scholarly Book Reviews,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 50, no. 1 (October 1, 2018): 1–7. 

Linda Shopes, “Developing a Critical Dialogue About Oral History: Some Notes Based on an Analysis of Book Reviews,” The Oral History Review 14, no. 1 (January 1, 1986): 9–25. 

Society of Scholarly Publishing, The Scholarly Kitchen. Blog consists of daily posts on current issues in scholarly publishing.

Nancy MacKay is the book review editor and a reviewer for the Oral History Review; author of Curating Oral Histories (2nd ed., 2016), reviewed 45:1, April 2018); and the co-author with Barb Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, of The Community Oral History Toolkit (2013), reviewed 42:2, September 2015). Current research interests include community oral history, metadata for oral history, and scholarly publishing. Nancy would like to read every book she sends out for review.

You can contact Nancy by emailing

Featured photo by Flickr user Wonderlane shared courtesy of a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The Freedom Archives and Decolonizing the Past

The Freedom Archives is a non-profit educational archive located in San Francisco dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of historical audio, video, and print materials documenting progressive movements and culture from the 1960s to the 1990s. We’ve asked Nathaniel Moore and Claude Marks to discuss the expansive project. Here, they reflect on the role that oral histories within the archive play in creating deeper understandings and decolonizing the past.

How did the Freedom Archives begin?

During the mid-1960s, many young people in the San Francisco Bay Area were involved in producing radio programming dedicated to documenting people’s history, anti-colonial struggles, and social movements of the era. This programming often combined in-depth interviews and reports on social and cultural issues; activist voices from a number of social justice movements; and original and recorded music, poetry, and sound collages. They were broadcast over KPFA and the Pacifica Network, as well as on KPOO radio based in San Francisco.  The vast majority of these programs were independently produced by collective groupings, all with a commitment to anti-imperialism, human rights, internationalism, and highlighting marginalized voices and movements unheard in or distorted by the establishment media.

In the late 1990s, this diverse core of original radio producers and cultural workers organized a working group to restore and catalog these historical tapes, saving them from further deterioration and loss, and making their historical value and lessons accessible to future generations—thus launching The Freedom Archives.

How has the Freedom Archives project changed or developed since then?

Over the past twenty years, the Freedom Archives has become a national and international source of media of great interest to young people and students, but also to teachers, diverse community organizations, media outlets, filmmakers, activists, historians, artists and researchers.  We regularly produce original documentaries and educational media for use within schools and as tools for community building. We’ve also designed and launched a digital search engine that allows for increased access to our holdings through a less academic and more user friendly exploration of our materials. This site is media-sample-driven; advanced users can still use Boolean search logic but all users can now use keywords, or simply explore our site by using visual or other media-based cues.

We also maintain an active youth development program that encourages engagement with historical materials and provides media production training as well as fostering a love for progressive history. We have developed strong, cooperative, and effective partnerships and project based connections with a number of youth organizations, local high schools, community colleges, and 4 year colleges and universities. Since 2003, hundreds of young people have passed through the archives as a result of our program. 

In what ways can the oral histories and historic audio in this archive either supplement or change understandings about the past? Can you share an example of how this occurs?

In August 2017 we released a documentary titled Symbols of Resistance which focuses on the emergence of the Chican@ Movement in Colorado and New Mexico in the 1970s through stories around the struggle for land,  the student movement, and community resistance against police repression. These stories are largely absent from official histories of the period and had previously been shared and passed down primarily through the oral remembrances of friends and family members who knew the martyrs. Thus, this film is an important step in preserving these important narratives for generations to come.

These stories also represent an important component of the Chican@ struggle that is often not well understood—that the movement was not limited to organizing agricultural workers. By uplifting perspectives of urban Chican@s challenging police violence; issues of land rights, colonialism, and the legitimacy of the US-Mexico border; and situating the movement in the context of other 1960s social movements, it expands how we understand the significance of Chican@s in this country and globally. By deepening people’s understanding of the roots of struggle, we’ll be able to amplify how this history can inform and strengthen current organizing efforts and movement building.

How has the role of the stories saved in the archive changed in response to today’s political moment?

In many ways the stories are even more important today given how knowledge is being erased to reinforce and justify colonial history. We have also brought many historical stories to light over the years through our website, social media, and documentaries, allowing the stories themselves to regain life and importance and showing the richness of primary sources when studying the history of resistance.

What is the importance of preserving these marginalized voices as well as the importance of making them available to the public?

There is an overwhelming need for young people to have access to educational resources that assist them in unearthing lessons of the recent past and lifting up voices intentionally removed from the dominant views of history. This “subjugated history” is the history of resistance, the history as told by the colonized and not by the conquerors. We see our role as preserving the voices of liberation and concepts supporting freedom and justice—not the voices of the powerful that gained land and riches through the violence and brutality of genocide, slavery, and oppression. By preserving, creating access, and disseminating alternative stories to those normally taught in text books, we help people to understand and challenge the oppressive structures around them.

Now that the organization is approaching its 20 year anniversary, is there anything that the Freedom Archives would like to reflect on or look forward to?

We’re appreciative of all the people who have contributed to making the Freedom Archives what it is today. We hope to continue our collaborative work with other small and independent collections and continue to build a space that embraces alternative histories. Our ongoing focus is expressed in our mission statement—to preserve the past, illuminate the present, and shape the future.

This contribution was co-written by one of the Freedom Archives Founders, Claude Marks, and archivist Nathaniel Moore. Marks has been involved in all of the CD and video productions of the Archives, and has continued his activism, especially in support of political prisoners. Moore has worked with the Freedom Archives since 2012. He holds degrees in African Studies, African-American Studies, and Library and Information Science.

Featured image is the Freedom Archives Logo

5 Questions About: Oral History in Latin America: Unlocking the Spoken Archive


We’ve asked authors of books that were recently reviewed in the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, David Carey Jr discusses Oral History in Latin America: Unlocking the Spoken Archive

Read the review by Yolanda Chávez Leyva in OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

With a keen eye for Latin America’s unique linguistic, cultural, political, and social milieu, this guide to conducting oral history research addresses methodological, ethical, and interpretive issues in ways that make it applicable to postcolonial societies. Ranging from studies of elites to society’s most marginalized members and characterized by diverse topics that range from the environment and immigration to foreign relations, this book explores the ways scholars have adeptly used oral history to revise the study of Latin America’s past and reconsider its present. It also offers a road map of sorts for students and scholars interested in using oral history methodology to understand the past in Latin American and other postcolonial regions.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Oral history is at the center of this book. With oral traditions dating back hundreds if not thousands of years, Latin America is a rich region in which to study and practice oral history in light of the region’s unique linguistic, cultural, political, and social milieu.

Oral History in Latin America: Unlocking the Spoken Archive. By David Carey Jr. New York: Routledge, 2017. 252 pp.

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

In Latin America as in many parts of the world, understanding the recent past is contingent upon oral sources. This is especially true in societies where a large number of people are illiterate and where storytelling remains an important means of transmitting knowledge. As such oral history is a crucial methodology for understanding how scenarios of terror and dispossession powerfully shape the experience and worldviews of poor, rural, indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and their relations with the state. Oral history can be used to decolonize studying the past, particularly in Latin America where nations that have been subjected to violent colonial and neocolonial forces continue to strive for more just, equitable, and peaceful societies.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Grounded in Latin America, this book deploys case studies and examples in ways that will resonate with oral historians whether their area of expertise is Latin America or other regions of the world. While deeply exploring the politics in which oral history takes place, this book offers methodological discussions of techniques and practical advice on how to organize and conduct oral history research. It is as helpful for oral historians in the field as it is for oral historians in the classroom.

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

In light of Latin America’s colonial and neocolonial experiences, decolonizing research and analysis is particularly imperative. Oral history is a crucial tool for deconstructing the past from the perspectives of everyone from marginalized rural indigenous and Afro-Latin Americans to urban Hispanic elites

Behind the Scenes at OHR: The Reviewer

In the third installment of our series exploring behind the scenes at OHR, book review editor Nancy MacKay talks about what it takes to be a reviewer for the journal, along with the rewards of doing so. We always are looking for smart readers like you to take on a book or media project to review. 

By Nancy MacKay

Of all the tasks in my job as OHR book review editor, nothing gives me as much pleasure as getting to know you, the reviewers. Almost every day I interact with book reviewers who write me with a question about their book review, an apology for a late submission, or just to check in to say hello or offer a new idea. Most of them I “meet” for the first time through the email conversation. If I am lucky our paths cross at a conference and we can meet in person. Since there is no renumeration and little prestige in writing book reviews, most reviewers do it for the personal satisfaction.

Who are OHR Reviewers?

There are currently 360 reviewers in the OHR database, and around 100 are currently working on reviews. Though the vast majority are based in the US, Canada, UK and Australia, we also have reviewers from Japan, Chile, the Netherlands, Belgium and India, broadening the base of life experience and cultural perspective. Many have expertise in modern history or related areas like ethnic studies, women’s studies, or memory studies. A significant number work in professions that use oral history, such as education, library and information science, cultural heritage, museum curation, performing arts, and community activism.

Many make their professional home in academia, as graduate students (including a number of students or recent graduates of Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program), professors, or directors of oral history programs within the university. Others work in libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies. The final group consists of independent scholars. This wide range of reviewer expertise and experience translates to a richer experience for the reader.

Why Write Book Reviews?

In his 2011 article, “The Scholarly Book Review in the Humanities: an Academic Cinderella?” (Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Oct. 2011. p.8. doi: 10.3138/jsp.43.1.52), John East posed a logical question: “[It is] clear that the writing of a thoughtful and useful book review must be a time-consuming process (especially if the reviewer conscientiously reads the book from cover to cover). It is also clear that a published book review is not highly rated (or rated at all) as a research output. The obvious question then is, why do scholars write book reviews?”

The responses to his survey are what would be expected: I am asked to by the editor (73%); I want to inform colleagues of a new book I like (52%); I think this book will be an important contribution to the field (48%); and I think it will look good on my CV (28%).

That got me wondering how OHR reviewers would answer that question, so I put it out to a few of them. Here are some responses:

“As an oral historian and historian I believe it’s important to engage deeply with the work of other scholars. Reviewing is a way to keep on top of literature, and to be involved in the oral history community and to develop relationships with editors.”

“Reviewing hones my critical review skills. As an oral historian and historian I believe it’s important to engage deeply with the work of other scholars. Reviewing is a way to keep on top of literature, and to be involved in the oral history community and to develop relationships with editors.” Holly Werner- Thomas, Columbia University, OHR reviewer for one year. [Most recent review: The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu, forthcoming, 46:1, 2019]

“I love reading and writing analytically and combining those skills is central to writing book reviews. It’s a great opportunity to apply our knowledge and passion by selecting a text within our area of interest and critically writing about the book that will, hopefully, encourage OHA readers to read it.” Daisy Herrera, California State University, Los Angeles OHR reviewer for one year. [most recent review, Latina Lives in Milwaukee, 45:2, 2018].

“Since oral history is a continually evolving discipline, it’s exciting to contribute to that development in real time, and to be an active voice in the worldwide conversation about the issues that shape it.” Bud Kliment, Columbia University. OHR reviewer for one year. [Most recent review: Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals, forthcoming 46:1, 2019]

“It’s a way to give back to OHA.” Troy Reeves, University of Wisconsin, Madison, OHR reviewer for 13 years.  [most recent review, Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting, 45:1, 2018]

“I would like to expand my intellectual horizons by reading books to review and to contribute to the community of oral historians. [Former] book review editor David Caruso asked me to review a book in my subject area and I found this connection would benefit the Japanese oral history community which is less developed than in the US.” Mari Nagatomi, Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan.  OHR reviewer one year. [Most recent review: Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race Through Musical Performance, 45:2 (2018)]

“I want to take an analytical look at how authors use oral history in their study of the subject. I only review books that match my subject interests and expertise. They often become part of my personal library.” Barbara Sommer, Independent Scholar, reviewer for 20 years. [Most recent review: Politics in the Corridor of Dying: Aids Activism and Global Health Governance, forthcoming, 46:1 (2019)]

Becoming an OHR Reviewer

It is clear from the comments above that OHR reviewers are enthusiastic about reviewing and cherish the opportunity to give back to the community. The field would be diminished without book reviews, which in some circles are considered a kind of post-publication peer review.  Book reviews can have a long-term impact for the author of the book, the journal where the review appears, and the oral history field, which I will discuss in a future post. Here are four qualities that make a good reviewer:

  • Broad expertise in oral history and the subject of the book
  • Can deliver a neutral, unbiased review (i.e. has no connection to the author)
  • Can write well in an analytical style
  • Responsible, can follow writing guidelines and meet deadlines

Here are some tips and comments that seasoned reviewers have shared:

 “OHR makes it pleasant to write a book review and I highly recommend it for anyone who interested. I intended to write only one review, but now I am in it for the long run.” Daisy Herrera

“You’ll probably read the book more carefully and remember it better when you have the responsibility of reviewing it. Be diplomatic in reviewing. Constructive criticism is fine, but be sure to mention some strong points. Remember that the book you are reviewing represents a chunk of the author’s life energy, time and commitment.” Teresa Bergen, writer, oral history transcriptionist, author of the forthcoming Transcribing Oral History (Routledge, 2019). OHR reviewer for 12 years. [most recent review, Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, 45:1, 2018]

“Given such responsibility, I think that anyone interested in critiquing oral history efforts, in print or otherwise, should choose subjects that they know and care about, since an informed reader will produce reviews that reflect authority and, with luck, an enthusiasm that’s contagious.”  Bud Kliment

Joining the reviewer community does not obligate you to write regular reviews; it gives you access to our inventory of books to review and to occasional email updates from me. The first step in becoming a, OHR reviewer  is to complete the Reviewer Profile form, usually followed up with email correspondence with me. The information on the form gives me an idea of your subject interests, your availability, and the address to send you a chosen book. There is also a question about your interest in writing media reviews, such as podcasts, documentaries, and digital projects. You can browse our online selection list of books available for review at any time and choose one you would like to review. Fill out the form on this page to request a book for review and I’ll get in touch about the details and arrange to have the book sent to you. Also familiarize yourself with the  detailed writing guidelines. I will record your book in the database and assign a due date, usually in about six months. And you can contact me any time for questions or general support. I hope to see your name in my inbox soon! Email address: 

Next post: “The Review,” will bring together all the components of this process to explore the final product. Or is it really the final product? Stay tuned!

Nancy MacKay is the book review editor and a reviewer for the Oral History Review; author of Curating Oral Histories (2nd ed., 2016), reviewed 45:1, April 2018); and the co-author with Barb Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, of The Community Oral History Toolkit (2013), reviewed 42:2, September 2015). Current research interests include community oral history, metadata for oral history, and scholarly publishing. Nancy would like to read every book she sends out for review.

You can contact Nancy by emailing

Featured photo by Flickr user Wonderlane shared courtesy of a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Listening Beyond the Sound Bites of Guantánamo Bay

Founder of Witness to Guantánamo, Peter Jan Honigsberg shares in this guest post, the origins and significance of this project that documents the experiences of those who have worked, lived, or were detained in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

By Peter Jan Honigsberg

Witness to Guantánamo’s mission is to document on film the stories of people who have lived or worked in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. We have interviewed 158 people in 20 countries, including 52 former detainees.  Others include prison guards, interrogators, interpreters, chaplains, medical personnel, civilian and military lawyers, military prosecutors, high-ranking military officials, high-ranking government officials, and family members of the detainees.

We began our project because we believed that if the stories were not documented now, the memories would fade and the voices would disappear forever.  We launched Witness to Guantánamo in 2008, and are completing our work a decade later in 2018; no one else in the world has done this work. 

With seed money from a local Northern California family foundation, we were able to travel to five countries and interview 16 former detainees during the first summer of our work in 2009. Those interviews gave us credibility. We then applied to larger foundations for continued funding.  We raised more than 1.6 million dollars over the life of the project.  Although we were supported by American foundations, a significantly larger portion of our funding came from foundations in the U.K.

Our powerful video testimonies capture perspectives from different kinds of people on both sides of the wire.  Official U.S. government documents have never reflected many of these perspectives.  

Most of the 780 detainees who were held in Guantánamo were purchased by the U.S. military for bounty from Afghan and Pakistani soldiers.  Former detainees told us that they were sold to the Americans for amounts between $3,000 and $30,000 each.  The men were first brought to Bagram or Kandahar Air Force Base in Afghanistan, where they were brutally tortured.  From there, they were flown to Guantánamo. The first group of twenty men arrived in Guantánamo on January 20, 2002.

The detainees we interviewed described Guantánamo as more of a psychological torture prison, than a physical torture prison – although, of course, physical torture was always present.  The psychological torture included prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, and sensory deprivation.  The detainees described how the psychological effects were more devastating that the physical torture, often continuing after they were released from the prison, sometimes profoundly affecting them for years later. 

Nearly all the men in Guantánamo were held in the prison without charges. Only a handful of men were convicted, and about half of the convictions were overturned on appeal. Although the Bush and Obama Administrations released nearly all of the 780 men, many had spent years—some a decade or longer—in the prison before they were released. 

Forty men remain in the prison today, under the Trump Administration. Of these 40 men, seven are in military commission proceedings. The commission proceedings for these men have been ongoing for more than a decade, with no resolution.

In his second day in office in January 2009, President Obama issued an executive order announcing that he would shut down the prison within one year.  That did not happen. Facing opposition, Obama never succeeded in closing the facility throughout his administration. 

We heard many incredible and surprising stories from the people we interviewed over the decade.  A former prison guard told us that he became Facebook friends with former detainees that he used to guard at the prison. He then flew to London to meet and embrace the men.

A military prosecutor told us that after realizing that the juvenile he was prosecuting in Guantánamo had signed a confession in a language he did not speak and could not read, the prosecutor left the military base in Cuba and entered a monastery. 

A human rights lawyer who had dedicated herself to representing the detainees in Guantánamo became so stressed and traumatized by her work that she quit and moved her family and herself to another country.

The interrogator known as the “King of Torture,” apologized three times for his actions during our filmed interviews with him.

We were not journalists looking for sound bites.  We were filming the stories for history, and to create a public record. We emphasized to all the interviewees that we had no agenda. People were free to tell their stories in their own words for as long or short as they wanted.  One person interviewed for six hours over two days.  Another spoke for 20 minutes. The average was two hours.

At first, we worried that by telling their stories the detainees could be re-traumatized.  Fortunately, the opposite occurred. Many of the former detainees expressed relief at the end of the interviews. They found the interview experience therapeutic. They thanked us for the opportunity. 

The University of Southern California Shoah Foundation was our inspiration. Established in the 1990s, the Shoah Foundation documents the Holocaust, as well as serves as a response to Holocaust deniers. Over the years, the Shoah Foundation has filmed interviews with more than 52,000 survivors.  My father was one of the survivors who told his story on camera to the Shoah Foundation. 

Witness to Guantanamo’s filmed interviews are housed in perpetuity at the Duke University Human Rights Archive. The university will preserve and update the interviews as technology evolves, and post most of them on the Internet. Because of restrictions, a few interviews will only be available on a dedicated computer at Duke.  Excerpts from the interviews are available on our website. 

Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, has written a book about his work as founder, director, and interviewer for Witness to Guantánamo.  The book will be published in fall 2019 by Beacon Press.

Please follow the project on Facebook, YouTube and @WITNESSTOGTMO on Twitter.

Older Posts

Oral History Review

OHR on Twitter