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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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Fall 2004
In Their Own Words
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Though Mink gave the field a critical push forward, UCLA’s program could not have started in ’59 without a champion or champions. Clearly someone in the University of California system grasped the importance of oral history at a time when other universities were taking a wait-and-see approach; UC Berkeley started its program, the second in the country, in 1954. Five years later, the UC regents, urged ahead by historians, librarians and other members of the university’s community, funded UCLA’s program to ensure “equal treatment” of the northern and southern campuses, Mink says. The mission of UCLA’s program was, and still is, to focus on the people and history of Southern California.

Illustration of a microphoneSince its inception, UCLA’s interviewers have collected more than 800 histories, most of them multi-session interviews lasting six to 12 hours and sometimes longer. Famous subjects include former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley ’41, director George Cukor, “Popeye” animator Dave Fleischer, artists Robert Irwin and Ed Kienholz, architect and father of the California ranch house Cliff May, choreographer Bella Lewitzky, blacklisted Hollywood writers, many current and former UCLA faculty and, in keeping with oral history’s traditional focus on the unsung, hundreds of lesser-known individuals. Major series in the collection include the Central Avenue Sounds histories of local jazz musicians, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Design Heritage interviews with associates of the seminal Prairie Style architect.

Each interview requires days of research and preparation by one of the program’s six staff members. The interview takes place in multiple sessions spread over several weeks. The complete tape — the program still uses audiotape, although it is trying to obtain funding to upgrade to digital recorders — is stored in the climate-controlled Southern Regional Library Facility on the UCLA campus. Aside from occasional problems with “sticky shed,” the name given to the physical disintegration of a layer of tape, even the oldest interviews remain playable. Written transcripts and an audio copy of the interviews are available through the UCLA Library Department of Special Collections. A handful are available online through the California Digital Library, but for now, librarians say, there is not sufficient funding available to post the entire collection on the Web.

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