UC Berkeley Library

About the Oral History Center

Content section: 

Mission 

OHC director Neil HenryThe Oral History Center (OHC), a division of The Bancroft Library, documents the history of California, the nation, and the interconnected global arena. OHC produces carefully researched, audio/video-recorded and transcribed oral histories and interpretative historical materials for the widest possible use. OHC was formerly known as the Regional Oral History Office.

 

 

Photo: Former OHC director Neil Henry

History

Oral history at The Bancroft Library had its beginnings in the work of the nineteenth-century historian of the American West for whom the library is named, Hubert Howe Bancroft. Bancroft recognized that missing from his vast collection of books, journals, maps, and manuscripts on western North America were the living memories of many of the participants in the development of California and the West. In the 1860s he launched an ambitious project to interview and create biographies of a diverse group of Californians.

The resulting volumes of “Dictations” continue to provide valuable primary source material for historians.

The office that became the OHC was established in 1954 as the Regional Cultural History Office. By 1958, under the leadership of new director Willa Baum, the name was changed to the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO). Richard Cándida Smith was director from 2001 to 2012, and Neil Henry was named director in 2012. The name was changed again in 2014 to the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library.

Activities

OHC has carried out interviews in a variety of major subject areas, which include: politics and government; law and jurisprudence; arts and letters; business and labor; social and community history; University of California history; natural resources and the environment; and science, medicine, and technology.

Interviews have been used as source material for monographs, books, articles, stage productions, radio programs, video and film documentaries, websites and blogs, and dissertations and theses. OHC has conducted over 4,000 oral histories, which totals tens of thousands of interview hours. Nearly every interview that has been transcribed is available for the public to read on the OHC website.

Interviews are conducted with the goal of eliciting from each participant a full and accurate account of the events central to their lives and to the broader world. The interviews are transcribed, lightly edited for accuracy and clarity, and reviewed by the interviewees, who may augment or correct their spoken words. The reviewed and corrected transcripts are printed and bound, often with photographs and illustrative materials. Archival copies are placed in The Bancroft Library. The Bancroft Library also houses the original audio and video recordings, many of which can be accessed in the library’s reading room.

In addition to conducting interviews and producing transcripts, OHC historians are productive scholars who publish their oral history-based research in the field’s top journals and academic presses; moreover, they regularly contribute to newspapers and blogs and are featured on radio programs and video documentaries. OHC historians also actively participate in the teaching mission of the university. Along with regularly speaking at conferences and organizing symposia, OHC staff host an advanced oral history institute each summer which attracts scholars, public historians, and others from around the world interested in learning oral history methodology. Nearly 500 people have attended the institute since it began in 2002.