This week’s article comes from the oral history realm.  David Lance was a pioneer of oral historical research and Keeper of the Department of Sound Records of the Imperial War Museum in London in the 1970s.  From 1975-1981, he served as Secretary General of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives and then served three years as the Association’s President.  He then set up the Oral History Unit in the National Archives of Singapore.  He moved to Australia in the mid-1980s, first becoming Curator of Audio-visual records at the Australian War Memorial, then moving on to the Assistant Directorship.  His last professional position was as Manager of Policy Development at the Museum of Australia.

Lance published “Oral History Archives: Perceptions and Practices” in the Autumn 1980 issue of Oral History.  He provided a fascinating overview of the development of oral history archives, contrasting those in the United States and Britain.  He quoted another contemporary author in Oral History, Ron Grele, who wrote about oral history centers:

“‘Unlike archival projects . . . we did not seek to collect autobiographical narratives, but rather to establish a collection of information . . . on certain limited topics'” (62).

Lance pointed to the genesis of the practice of oral history in the United States at Columbia University under the direction of Allan Nevins.  He argued that the historian Nevins took an archival approach to gathering oral histories, listing four tendencies (59):

  • “a selection process which led to recording the same kind of informants as tend to leave written records”
  • “to try to produce autobiographical records for those personalities who had kept no such personal manuscript collections”
  • “wide range of questioning that sought to elicit from such informants any aspects of their experiences that might possibly be of interest to posterity”
  • “not to impose any hypothesis or detailed aims on the interviews conducted”

Lance explained that this autobiographical format of oral histories was not embraced in the same way outside the United States.  He drew these contrasts:

U.S.: focus on collecting; personalities; individuals

Britain: focus on research; subjects; groups

Lance cited several oral historians for other approaches to gathering oral histories:

  • Willa Baum recommended first doing a community survey to evaluate interesting developments before choosing interviewees.
  • William Moss suggested developing guidelines for an oral history program that would identify issues, subjects, and events.

Lance acknowledged that oral history archives were in flux, moving toward a more research-directed approach while not embracing the narrow focus of many projects organized by academic historians.  Browsing the finding aid of a repository near me, the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it seems that Moss’ emphasis on subjects and issues over prominent individuals has certainly taken hold in recent decades.