Advantages of the Oral History Association’s Publications

My biggest find was stumbling upon the published transcripts of the early Oral History Association meetings. The first two were published books, all other publications after that were periodicals distributed by the OHA, with the seventh year’s periodical no longer being a transcript, but a series of essays, book reviews, and a bibliography.

The central question of my thesis revolves around answering the question of why the number and scope of oral history interviews exploded in the late 1960’s. In the past, the go to explanation for why there was an explosion of interviews was that the portable tape recorder became available to the average consumer, making interviewing easier and less expensive. However, by looking at the fact that transcripts were still very expensive, and storing the magnetic recording tape was even more so, that theory can be debunked. It was in the OHA publications that various historians and archivists discussed the high cost of recording tape and transcripts.

While trying to either confirm or debunk the tape recorder theory, I also discovered alternative explanations. A very interesting fact was that the OHA had been established in 1968, which is very near the beginning of the increase in oral histories. I thought it might be possible the creation of the OHA at least added to the increase in oral history interviews being conducted. However, after looking at the OHA committee notes from 1968-1983 (I wanted to make note of the issues the OHA was facing even long after the explosion of interviews, but before the rise of digital technologies in the late 80’s) I found that the OHA had focused on bringing individuals from various other Oral history organizations, local oral history societies that had been established, archivist’s associations, and non-historian groups that often used the interview format to gather information, into their ranks as members. Their focus was on getting these members and regulating them, not expanding oral history, which would suggest they did not directly increase the number of interviews being conducted.

The publications also raised another possibility which I have not yet been able to research in it’s entirety: while large institutions were trying to hold their transcripts to a high standard, thereby increasing the cost per page to produce a transcript, many smaller institutions, such as local organizations and libraries, were not creating the same quality of transcript. This meant that they could create transcripts for less. Small local organizations were also recipients of government grants starting in the late 1950’s, which gave them access to funds they otherwise couldn’t have acquired. This creates an interesting situation in which smaller organizations were more easily able to produce transcripts, leading to an overall increase in the number of interviews being done nationwide. I look forward to further flushing out this theory by looking into the grants awarded for local history in the 1960’s.