In Their Own Words
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The program’s selection policy
leads to some logical but surprising omissions. It does not collect
oral histories from people who have written an autobiography,
on the assumption that they will tend to repeat themselves. That
construct has, for example, eliminated legendary Bruin basketball
coach John Wooden from consideration.
Alex Cline has been collecting histories for the program for
16 years. Currently he is interviewing behind-the-scenes characters
from Los Angeles’ vibrant music scene of the late ’60s
to the early ’70s. The idea, says Cline, who is himself
an acclaimed jazz percussionist, came to him during an interview
with Todd Schiffman, who was the booking agent for The Doors,
Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and other famous acts, and whose
business partner in those days was the young David Geffen.
It is a project that defines perfectly UCLA’s niche. There
is no shortage of books about Jim, Janis and Jimi. But if not
for the oral-history program, who would take the time to show
what was really going on in the L.A. music scene? Cline is aware
of oral history’s struggle to be taken seriously, but his
own experience in the field leaves no room for scholarly quibbles.
“It’s important because, aside from filling a lot
of the gaps in terms of what might be available in the historical
record … it’s about us. It’s about people. It
personalizes, humanizes and in that sense vitalizes history,”
Cline also believes oral history has an edge in spontaneity
that is lacking in memoirs and diaries. A person’s comments
may be more valuable, Cline says, if they have less time to think
about how to present themselves. Memoirs, especially those of
the political variety, are famously plagued with self-justification
The search for a spontaneous exchange accounts in part for the
program’s reluctance to film its subjects during interviews.
Though she has not ruled out using video in the future, Teresa
Barnett M.A. ’00, the current director of UCLA’s Oral
History Program, feels subjects tend to be less guarded off-camera.