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Fall 2004
In Their Own Words
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Once the poor stepchild of historical research, oral history has come into its own as a valuable tool for preserving the past

In Their Own Wordsby Carl Marziali
Illustration by Charles Hess

FIFTY YEARS AGO “ORAL HISTORY” was a term of low esteem in the academy, akin to “folklore” and “populist.” And when UCLA started one of the first recorded oral-history programs in the country, it risked looking more lowbrow than high-minded. Today, however, recorded oral history, popularized by such chroniclers as writer Studs Terkel, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and tens of thousands of family amanuenses, has a solidly respectable name.

When UCLA founded its Oral History Program in 1959, it was only the third university in the country to have done so. Columbia University was the first; its program started in 1948, and for many years thereafter few in academe took much notice. History, after all, had been established since the 19th century as a discipline based on the study of written documents. The advent of tape recording after World War II prodded the field to evolve faster than it might have liked. While technology offered a new way to preserve and study individuals’ accounts of events, many scholars were unconvinced of the value of this new approach.

James Mink ’46, M.A. ’49 was the assistant head of special collections in the UCLA Library in 1959. He recalls at the time that even the man appointed to chair UCLA’s new oral-history committee, John W. Caughey, was “extremely dubious” of this turn in historical scholarship. When Mink took the reins as director in 1964 he was determined to elevate its status. He convened the first national colloquium on oral history in 1966, which led to the founding of the Oral History Association. Two years later he sponsored the first nationwide training institute in oral history. More researchers began using oral history in their studies of underrepresented groups, and the discipline began moving toward the mainstream.

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