As one of the world’s leading centers for the practice and teaching of oral history, the Columbia University Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) seeks to record unique life histories, document the central historical events and memories of our times, provide public programming, and teach and do research across the disciplines. CCOHR is housed at the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE).
Since its founding in 1948 as the world’s first institutional home of oral history, the Center for Oral History has been a resource for scholars, students, activists, artists, and many others to mine the living history of New York City and of our world. The Columbia Center for Oral History holds over 20,000 hours of recorded and transcribed interviews, regularly consulted by almost any author writing on the 20th and 21st centuries. From lengthy biographical interviews with individuals such as Anne Braden, Bayard Rustin, Francis Perkins and Thurgood Marshall to large dedicated projects on the history of philanthropy and of social and political activism, to over 600 personal accounts of New Yorkers after September 11, 2001, the archive represents diverse approaches and perspectives on the flows of history in American culture and key events.
In 2013, we formalized our ability to carry out this ambitious mission by moving from the Columbia Libraries to the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE). INCITE also hosts our Master of Arts program in oral history, which is the only program of its kind in the country. Through these alliances, we are able to choose projects that are closest to our unique mission and capabilities in oral and visual media, and link them to ongoing research and teaching. The Oral History Archives, still located in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Butler Library, preserves, catalogues and gives access to each new project and interview we produce.
Our work focuses on the life history approach in order to connect biography with its larger socialcontext. Inclusive biographies offer us insights into the full life of the person and thereby provide a glimpse into the evolution of society, as well as the individual person, in defining the context for later social and political actions. In many cases, these later actions can be understood and explained only by such subjective factors as belief systems, personal psychology, ideologies, visions and dreams.
Life history interviewing is also resonant with recent developments in the historical profession and in other social science disciplines. In historical studies, most scholars now search for data about motivation in order to gain a sense of either the interior life of social processes or an internal view of these processes. They seek information about the more complex processes of personality development, the formation of political consciousness, and the intersection of action and belief. In the words of Jean Paul Sartre, they are interested in what was "done to people but also in what people did with what was done to them."
Part of the action of cultural construction which allows people to create their own histories through their own activities has its origins in the attitudes and visions that motivate their actions. To understand their history, one must understand the process by which such consciousness emerged, and the effects of consciousness on cultural construction. In oral history, that can best be done through the collection of biographical histories in which social, political, and cultural history is illuminated through the telling of a life story.
Oral history is, in this sense, the quintessential historical text. Involving, as it does, historians and public figures in the creation of their own documents, oral history merges past and present in the dialectical transformation of text into cultural artifact. Increasingly, our work is focused on the patterns of memory that are developed across lines of social difference, locally and globally.