Nothing brings history to life more vividly than reading accounts from the mouths of those who witnessed or participated in these historical events. Oral history goes back (at least) to ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides, but it was in the 1940s, when historian Allan Nevins founded Columbia University’s Center for Oral History, that recorded biographical interviewing became established as a standard method of historical research. The practice became increasingly popular in the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of "new social history" and as recording equipment became more affordable and portable. Studs Terkel may be the form’s foremost popularizer, and his Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970) and The “Good” War: An Oral History of World War Two (1984) are still essential reading.
The Library has a wide range of oral histories in its collection, with content spanning the globe from Appalachia to Armenia and covering a wide range of topics: wars, sports, politics, labor, civil rights & race relations, religion, immigration, disasters and catastrophes, literature, music, even lighthouse keepers. You can browse a selection of them here. For this installment of book recommendations, staff members highlight some of their favorites in the collection.
Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World | Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, et al.
The late nineteenth-century saw the rise of the textile industry in the Carolinas and the growth of mill villages that functioned to an extent as self-enclosed communities well into the Great Depression. In the early 1980s, the staff of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina conducted interviews with more than 360 residents of those villages, gaining insight into working conditions, labor struggles, and family life. These interviews form the basis of Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1987. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the archivists thanked in the acknowledgments.) This is a scholarly work, but highly readable, using the interviewees’ own words to tell the story of a region undergoing rapid change and how its residents adapted to those changes. A companion website to the book can be found here. — Laura O'Keefe, Head of Cataloging and Special Collections
Long Hard Road | Thomas Saylor
The experiences of prisoners of war throw into relief the best and the worst of human nature, including arbitrary physical cruelty, amazing resourcefulness, and heroic comradeship. The voices of American men from all ranks and bases form this gripping collage, from those captured at Wake Island in December 1941 to others shot down while Germany collapsed in spring 1945. Some encountered humane civilians and inhumane guards; others just the reverse. Some escaped; many, many endured. None came home unchanged. Author Thomas Saylor adds minimal interjections for context and clarity, letting his interviewees’ dramatic, heartrending, revealing, and often funny voices shine through. Their tales are not for the faint of heart, but they are a unique window into the war and into the American mind. This title is available in the Library’s collection as an e-book through the Project MUSE database; though it’s from an academic press, it’s for a general audience and extremely readable. — Sara Holliday, Events Coordinator/Head Librarian’s Assistant
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk | Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
I read Please Kill Me on the advice of a friend, who sold it to me as a catalog of frightful behavior told by the transgressors themselves. He wasn’t kidding. Considering the amount of drugs and alcohol injected and ingested by the musicians, managers, girlfriends, writers, and other assorted hangers-on, it’s amazing that anyone can remember anything (or that any music was made). And yet, Please Kill Me proves to be an incredible record of the punk rock scene. With testimonies from Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, assorted members of the Ramones, Richard Hell and others, the books paints a vivid picture of 1970s New York. You don’t need to like the music to fall in love with the book, though a certain tolerance for the perverse and wayward among us will certainly help. It’s the wild and raunchy chronicle the punk rock scene deserves. — Patrick Rayner, Acquisitions Assistant/Circulation Assistant
First Person America | Ann Banks
I imagine a healthy contingent of our member community shares my fascination with the Federal Writers’ Project, although wonder at the nearly unfathomable notion of writer, historian, and folklorist as government-salaried professional is tempered by knowledge of the hardship and economic precariousness that necessitated such job creation in the first place. However, it was the FWP employees’ own prior vicinity to the breadlines that facilitated intimate rapport with interview subjects, many of whom they befriended at local haunts and interviewed over glasses of beer in their kitchens. In First Person America, Ann Banks curates eighty stories from thousands of unpublished ‘life-history narratives’ preserved in Project files dispersed across the country’s archives. Panhandle pioneers, medicine show pitchers, jazz key ticklers, stockyard waders, unapologetic streetwalkers, and further voices from the margins relay their prized anecdotes, tricks of the trade, communal tall tales, intimate memories, daily toil, and life philosophies. The material transcends historical documentation – in fact the Great Depression is rarely referenced – offering diverse portraits of survival both intimate and collective, modest and resounding. — Brynn White, Bibliographic Assistant / Digital Projects Assistant
Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides | Christian Appy
An oral history that made a strong impression recently is Patriots, a panoramic study of the Vietnam War. The subtitle includes “from all sides,” and Christian Appy does indeed handle a wide range of voices deftly, providing short introductions for context. 135 accounts are included from America, Vietnam and elsewhere, from government officials and top army brass to Vietcong guerilla soldiers and U.S. army privates, communists to anti-communists, war hawks to pacifists. Entertainers, anti-war movement organizers, writers, flight attendants, and more (famous and unknown) are also included. The result is an informative, vivid, well-rounded, memorable, and often moving history of the war from its beginnings in the 1940s to its end 30 years later. Another, much more specific, oral history of the Vietnam War that I recommend is Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. — Steven McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions
Edie, an American Biography | Jean Stein & George Plimpton
There is never a dull moment in Edie, An American Biography, which reads at the same manic pace as its subject’s short life. A New England society girl-gone-wild, Edie Sedgwick moves to New York City in the mid-1960s and quickly becomes the jewel of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Picking up eccentric friends and bad, bad habits along the way, Sedgwick’s life in the downtown art and fashion scene is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking. Jean Stein spent a decade interviewing hundreds of people who knew Edie – socialites, artists, professors, family members, and former flames – and the result is a vibrant, completely absorbing read. — Katie Fricas, Events Assistant/Circulation Assistant