Building on a Tradition of Oral History
Summer 2016, Vol. 48, No. 2 | Historian's Notebook
By Jessie Kratz
The National Archives History Office's Oral History Program helps preserve the institutional memory of the National Archives by building on the agency's rich oral history tradition.
The presidential libraries have long collected oral histories of individuals with insight into an administration. However, the National Archives' first attempt to document its own history through oral interviews began in 1969.
Then Archivist of the United States, James "Bert" Rhoads, asked staff to suggest names for an oral history project covering the agency's early years. In late 1971 he asked Philip C. Brooks, recently retired director of the Harry S. Truman Library, to embark on the first large-scale National Archives oral history project.
Over the next two years, Brooks interviewed several high-level former staff, including fourth Archivist of the United States Robert Bahmer. Most of Brooks's subjects had come to the National Archives when the agency first began hiring staff in 1935, and the 15 completed interviews provide vital insight into the agency's formative years.
In November 1984, Archivist of the United States Robert Warner appointed archivist Rod Ross to conduct oral histories to document the agency's General Services Administration (GSA) years, 1949–1985. Ross completed 22 interviews with former National Archives and Records Service (NARS) employees as well as individuals outside the agency who had been instrumental in securing independence from GSA.
In addition, Ross "grandmothered" into the collection a 1982 interview with longtime and beloved employee Sara Jackson.
In June 2005 the National Archives Assembly—a professional organization of past and present Archives employees—began the Legacy Project. The project has collected interviews of nearly 40 NARA staff and donated them to the National Archives.
However, the establishment of the National Archives History Office in 2013 was the first time the National Archives devoted staff to a permanent oral history project. The office created the Oral History Project to collect the historical experiences, insights, and perspectives of staff and former staff. The interviews help us understand the agency's culture, work practices, decision-making processes, historical actions, and events.
Aside from myself, History Office staff and interns conduct the interviews. In addition, National Archives staff nationwide have volunteered to interview their colleagues and submit the interviews to the History Office. We will preserve all the interviews in the official records of the National Archives.
Over the past three years, the office has collected more than 30 interviews with a broad array of staff and with even a former Archivist of the United States.
We create transcripts of all the oral histories and will soon put transcripts of all unrestricted interviews online. We are also working to make transcripts of the previously conducted oral histories—Brooks, Ross, and the Legacy Committee interviews—available online as well.
The National Archives Oral History Project will be a key resource in preserving the institutional memory of the National Archives and help us better understand the agency's past.
Jessie Kratz is Historian of the National Archives and Records Administration.