Q&A with oral historian Dr. Samuel J. Redman from University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Department of History

Dr. Samuel J. Redman, Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst‘s Department of History and Center for Heritage Samuel J. Redmanand Society, speaks exclusively to London Oral History in this Q&A about his role, why it’s important to have a national oral tradition and what his top tips are for maintaining a familial oral history archive.

London Oral History (LOH): How did you first become interested in oral history and the past?

Dr. Samuel Redman (SR): First of all, thanks for the invitation! Hello to your readers from across the pond – Massachusetts, U.S.A.

As this is London Oral History I’ll start with a short story. For as long as I can remember, my family has been interested in history. My dad is a retired attorney who majored in history as an undergraduate. He still reads history books indefatigably. My mother is a retired elementary school teacher (probably where I picked up my love for teaching). When I was 12 my parents took my sister and me to London as tourists. It sounds terribly cliché to say this as an American, but the experience of visiting the United Kingdom (and subsequent trips back to Europe) helped open my eyes to different kinds of history from a young age. I came home with a new appreciation for the past, but it wasn’t until later I became seriously interested in the study of history.

Oral history didn’t enter my thinking about studying the past in any meaningful way until much later – and entirely by accident.

Another specific cliché about oral historians is they often grow up in families of storytellers. In my case, this was most certainly true. I’m naturally curious and love hearing good stories, but it was not until an assignment in an undergraduate class at the University of Minnesota, Morris, did I even hear the term, “oral history.” The assignment asked students to record and transcribe a pair of short interviews. I completed the assignment and found the work interesting, but I didn’t catch the oral history “bug” until several years later.

LOH: Why did you decide to specialise in public and oral history at an academic level?

SR: After finishing my B.A. at the University of Minnesota, Morris, I worked in the museum world.

First, I spent time as an intern at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, then part-time work at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, followed by another short gig at the Colorado History Museum in Denver. These experiences continued to open my eyes to the great variety of approaches to studying the past. I worked with archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and even paleontologists. I consulted with indigenous communities working to repatriate sacred historical objects and human remains of their ancestors. Friends and colleagues from the museum world offered valuable advice and, after much consideration, I chose to apply to doctoral programs to continue my training. Like my sister, I seriously considered studying for an advanced degree in the United Kingdom, though I eventually chose to start graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Berkeley proved to be a stimulating and challenging adventure.

I was incredibly fortunate to have a supportive advisor, Dr. Richard Cándida Smith. Cándida Smith was, until recently, the Director of UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), and an unfailingly supportive advisor and mentor in graduate school. I was hired part time to help lightly edit and process oral history transcripts at the office. I took the gig mainly to pay the bills but, in retrospect, it was an important part of a transformative discovery process for me in oral history.

Oral history seemed a strangely underused method for accessing information about the past and helping to reinterpret past events in new historical narratives.

The technology, too, seemed to be on the verge of radically advancing the field in exciting new ways. The work was interesting, but my attention eventually went back to my dissertation research based in museum archives.

LOH: Why do you think having a strong national oral history tradition is important?

SR: During our time at ROHO, my wife and occasional oral history partner in crime, Dr. Emily Redman, led a study of best practices of oral history on the web.

Emily is a historian of science and, before taking on the web study, she completed several extensive oral history interviews with prominent scientists on the Berkeley campus and beyond. As part of a larger process overhauling ROHO’s web framework, our team took several weeks over the summer to study, in some depth, the websites of different oral history programs throughout the United States and around the world. The study proved at least two things.

First, there is an enormous degree of potential for digital oral history tools. 

This is only going to emerge into better clarity in the coming years. The second point is less optimistic. Many of the early oral history websites put online in the mid-to-late 1990s and just after are falling into disrepair as funding for maintenance of these resources dries up. We found great counter-examples, however – for instance the British Library’s Sound Archive.

Clearly, these programs are emerging from the context by which they are surrounded

so understanding something about national traditions in oral history, as well as traditions in storytelling, oral tradition, archives, and libraries proves important. Beyond that, however, successful oral history projects take funding to complete and preserve, so the level of commitment can become apparent over time.

Online oral history archives function best when on up-to-date platforms

but keeping any online resource up to date requires fairly routine maintenance by experts and fundingBeyond studying web resources, I also had the opportunity at Berkeley to consult with scholars from emerging oral history programs in Japan, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates. During these meetings, we exchanged ideas (often through translators) about outreach, project management, and oral history theory. Recognising the particularities of each national oral history tradition is critical in understanding the context from which each oral history program emerges. To understand these materials as sources it is necessary for us as readers to carefully consider how these recordings came into existence, who stands as the intended audience, and what cultural, social, or political constraints shape the collection and preservation of the sources. Beyond this, however, I would also argue there are definite commonalities stretching across cultures making the collaboration with non-Western oral historians especially valuable.

LOH: Can you tell us more about some of the previous work you’ve done, for example at the Regional Oral History Office, and how that influenced your career to date?

SR: At ROHO, I began by helping to lightly edit professionally transcribed interviews being completed as part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) Oral History Project.

Following this experience, I was offered the opportunity to take on my first major life history project through the oral history office: an interview with paleoanthropologist F. Clark Howell (1925-2007). Howell was terminally ill during our interview, and we worked our way collaboratively through his lengthy history of contributions to the field of anthropology and the study of human origins. Howell was one of the first American archaeologists to work on the question of human origins in Africa for sustained periods.

It was as this stage in my training I learned how oral history could become more than a celebratory method for recording nice stories.

was afforded the chance to ask Howell critical and sometimes difficult questions about the history of anthropology (a major interest of mine). The interview suffers from several limitations. It ended too early. Howell’s failing health and subsequent death made his editing of the transcript impossible. My blind spots and experience as an interviewer were also serious drawbacks. But the oral nevertheless offers an insightful portrait into F. Clark Howell’s life and career, and helped introduce me to the richness of oral history as a methodology and a source.

In one section of the interview, Howell recalled his experiences as the first U.S. anthropologist granted permission to view the purported
Piltdown Man fossils firsthand in the early 1950s at London’s Museum of Natural History.

Howell was a young graduate student and junior faculty member at the University of Chicago. He would later continue his career at UC Berkeley. Howell’s contributions to the field of paleoanthropology were vast, and the opportunity of an oral history interview allowed him the chance to revisit some of the most consequential moments in his lengthy career.

But still I wasn’t yet bitten – at least not completely – by the oral history bug.

Following a year away working in archives and writing my dissertation, I returned to Berkeley and the oral history office to take a position as Lead Interviewer for our Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front Oral History Project. When I started, the project had completed about 100 oral history interviews about the WWII home front experience in collaboration with the National Park Service. Working with a team at ROHO, I helped expand the project to include over 200 interviews and over 500 hours of fully transcribed and permanently archived oral history interviews.

In the process, I completed dozens of oral history interviews and, working with library staff, interns, volunteers, and other graduate students, I encountered people through the process I never would have otherwise had an opportunity to meet.

Meeting people like Edythe “Edie” Esser taught me a lot about the past, but these individuals also shared stories about life more generally and sometimes sought out friendships. Edie once called me to wish me a happy Valentine’s Day; she passed away only a short time later and her family shared a short clip from her oral history at the memorial service. Many others welcomed me into their homes and willingly opened up about their memories and feelings about past events.

Suddenly, things started to click.

At ROHO, our team successfully launched a new series on the experience of Japanese Americans during WWII. During my time at ROHO, I completed four in-depth oral history interviews with Japanese Americans who spent time in confinement camps during the war, including an interview with U.S. Representative Michael Honda (D-CA) who was later influential in advocating for reparation payments to the survivors of the internment camp experience.

I also helped launch a major new project to document the history of the San Francisco: Oakland Bay Bridge.

The Bay Area’s “other bridge,” it is sometimes overshadowed by its famous counterpart, the Golden Gate Bridge. When completed in 1936, however, the Bay Bridge was an inspiring engineering marvel in a time of great hardship during the Great Depression. It was the largest bridge in the world. The bridge put people to work starting with its original construction, but has since served as an important site for opportunity since it opened. We interviewed bridge painters, engineers, tow truck drivers, and toll booth operators. Despite the significance of these structures to the history of the greater San Francisco Bay Area – today they serve as major transportation arteries in a major urban area – the bridges are surprisingly poorly documented in the existing historical literature. Our project sought to document the experiences of workers who spent all or some of their careers on the Bay Bridge.

Although the oral histories speak to a number of consequential symbolic and philosophical questions, the project emerged from practical concerns.

A 1989 earthquake led to a partial collapse of the Bay Bridge and a new replacement span was finally completed in 2013. Since the original bridge was designated as a historical landmark, a historical mitigation process was required; our oral history project was chosen to help capture some of the many memories about the Bay Bridge. The project resulted in over a dozen new interviews, which were featured in a temporary museum exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California and will now permanently live online via a website and platforms like YouTube. The archive is also permanently preserved at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley for future generations of scholars. My hope is that future historians of California, labour, transportation, and the environment will find the interviews of value to their own work.

LOH: What does your day-to-day role involve as Assistant Professor at UMass Amherst’s Department of History?

SR: As a brand new member of the faculty here at UMass Amherst, this is a question to which I’m still figuring out the exact answer.

Amherst is in western Massachusetts, nearly a two hour drive from Boston. We’re set in a idyllic, rural valley and UMass is part of a Five College Consortium (including also Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, and Hampshire College). This is an ideal setting to study history. We not only have a tremendous community on campus and strong research resources, each of the different campuses maintain their own unique archives and special collections. Their departments are also filled with smart and interesting colleagues who add richness to local programs, events, and conferences.

Each day is different and I’m finding you need to be effective in managing your time.

I spend time each week teaching, working to establish my research programs, and working on service activities. My service activities this year include service on our Graduate Studies Committee and consulting with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Of all my responsibilities here at UMass Amherst, I enjoy my time with the students most as they always challenge me in new and unexpected ways. I teach courses in general U.S. History, but I’m also fortunate to teach several more methodologically oriented courses. These include an introductory course to Public History and a course entitled Theory and Method of Oral History.

LOH: What practical techniques have you learned in the course of your academic work that can be applied to establishing an oral history family archive?

SR: Start with the basics.

Make an outline. Have a plan. These things are true with almost anything, but I see them as especially true when establishing an oral history archive. I advise people save everything in multiple formats: the good ‘ole fashioned paper transcript is still one of the best ways to save an oral history long term.

When doing an oral history interview, it is best to start with the basics there too.

the first questions I typically ask are aimed at establishing the foundation for the interview: who is this person, where are they from, and in what other ways do they choose to identify themselves? From there, I work to address more complex questions, sometimes drawn from archival research, other times following up on something mentioned earlier by the narrator. Learning to be an effective oral history interviewer is more of an art than a science. Some techniques work in certain settings and fall flat in others. Trial and error is a big part of it.

Oral history interviews can also benefit from, or be made problematic by, the relationship of the interviewer and interviewee to the subject being discussed in the interview.

Sometimes this dynamic can be thought of in insider/outsider terms, other times the interpersonal situation is defined more by generationality than anything else. All oral history interviews are coloured by one dynamic or another, so my view is that it is most often best to lay as many cards out on the table as possible, to be honest and direct in what you are trying to document. Beyond that, however, the person giving the oral history interview is the star of the show. A good oral history interviewer knows when to back off and let the narrator do their thing, seeking only points of clarification and serving as an active listener.

LOH: What impact have both world wars had on the study of oral history, in your opinion?

SR: In the United States, the modern field of oral history emerged in the wake of the Second World War.

U.S. Army historians worked to record the perspectives of soldiers within only days or weeks of wartime events. Columbia University founded an oral history center in 1949 and Berkeley in 1954. Later, the Library of Congress started an oral history project to document the memories of veterans in the United States.

Today, those interested in oral histories of the Second World War now benefit from decades of recording different perspectives on the war.

The USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles records testimonies of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. The Densho Foundation in Seattle records and preserves the perspectives of Japanese Americans sent to confinement camps during the war. The Rosie the Riveter / WWII Home Front National Park and UC Berkeley have recorded over 200 oral histories on the experiences of individuals living in the United States during the war.

LOH: Have you got any advice for our readers in terms of creating an oral history archive that can be maintained for generations?

SR: Record everything and save everything in the highest quality format you can possibly afford.

Then make multiple copies of everything in different formats and consider donating the material to an archive or library specialising in the long term preservation of these types of collections.

LOH: You’re currently working on producing a book manuscript of your dissertation. How is that going?

SR: Good, thanks.

The book manuscript is currently under review with a university press here in the United States.

LOH: What’s the most valuable lesson you have learned from your research on oral history or the stories you have recorded?

SR: I once asked a great historian and even better person a similar question.

Matthew Frye Jacobson of Yale University, who founded a documentary photography and oral history project called Historian’s Eye, said to me, “Even as despairing as I am, as a historian, about the state of our country right now, photographing things, listening to people, talking to people are practices that tend to keep you very alive. They keep you attuned to beauty, they keep you attuned to brilliance. You receive the humour and resilience that we carry around with us every day. So it’s both humbling, but also really energising, to do this kind of work.” He stated things far more eloquently than I could possibly muster, but I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment. The chance to meet new people, hear interesting stories, and preserve memories for future generations has made my life far richer. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have opportunities and help others in the field of oral history.

Let me add one thing: there are a million reasons to put off something you want to do, like an oral history project.

Other responsibilities – writing a dissertation, lack of funding, inexperience – many different factors gave me pause. In retrospect, however, I’m grateful to have made the decision just to go for it. People generally like sharing their stories and are grateful you’ve made the effort to help them preserve their memories. Without the work of oral historians, these perspectives and unique insights into the past might be forever lost to history.

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