Center for Oral History
The Center for Oral History develops and curates a growing collection of comprehensive, professionally conducted oral history interviews with those who contribute to scientific and engineering practices, from lab technicians and post-docs to National Academy members and Nobel laureates.
Our mission is to ensure that current and future scholars and interested individuals are able to understand science, medicine, and technology from the perspective of practitioners, as recorded in their own words. We aim to create and maintain a collection that’s an accurate representation of everyone in science and engineering, including those who have traditionally been marginalized or completely written out of the historical record.
The Center for Oral History serves as a significant force in contributing to the history of the sciences and engineering in the 20th and 21st centuries. We have collected hundreds of oral histories about scientists and engineers, their practices, and their lives, from their earliest childhood memories to contemporary discussions of science education in the United States and abroad, among other topics.
What Is Oral History?
Oral history is a method of preserving the unwritten past through the narrated recollections of individuals. Structured interviews designed with specific goals in mind can help historians understand the role that an individual played in an event or a culture, or can help document the history of a scientific object or technique. Some oral histories focus on broad topics in an individual’s life—family life, childhood, education, factors influencing career decisions—and some explore more specific issues, like the development of an organization, the moment of innovation, or the social and environmental effects of a scientific practice or manufacturing process.
We use our skills as oral historians to capture aspects of history not otherwise preserved in written form in order to develop a clearer picture of the past. Our interviews typically last from four to six hours and are conducted over a two- or three-day period, though some of our interviews are shorter and some much longer. In addition to the transcripts, we preserve all recordings and research materials generated in association with the interview.
Why Focus on Science?
The growth of scientific knowledge poses special challenges for historical analysis. As the generation, transmission, and influence of scientific knowledge have expanded, the tools we use to make sense of them have also evolved. While the traditional published record of experimental results and technological innovation is preserved for posterity in journals and books, these documents record only the public face of science. The rich history of everyday life in the sciences—the messy vitality of laboratory, library, production plant, and wider community—does not find its way into the documentary record. Oral history interviews reveal the hidden side of modern science, technology, and medicine. In some cases they offer the only way to capture the nuances and complexity of the scientific enterprise.
Principles and Practices
The Center for Oral History is committed to ensuring that the history of modern science is preserved in the words, beliefs, thoughts, and actions of its practitioners. Our purpose is to develop and maintain—in accordance with the Oral History Association’s guidelines—collections of oral history interviews with people who have contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge in the 20th and 21st centuries. The center facilitates all facets of the conduct of our oral histories, from choosing interviewees and creating interview protocols to processing oral history transcripts and establishing relevant, standardized research materials for scholarly use.
Contact the Center for Oral History
If you’d like to donate completed oral history interviews, or if you have inquiries about training opportunities or general questions about the work of the Center for Oral History, contact: