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Oral History


DOCUMENTING CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL MEMORY: ORAL HISTORY IN THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE



Janet A. McDonnell, Ph.D.
Bureau Historian
National Park Service
Presented at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians
April 2002



The National Park Service has a unique and important role in documenting and preserving the nation's cultural and historical memory. Since its establishment in 1916, the Service's primary mission has been to conserve park natural and cultural resources and to make those resources available to the public. Oral history is uniquely suited to that mission and is directly linked to the missions of many of the 385 parks in the National Park System. In its recent report on the role of national parks in the 21st Century, the National Park System Advisory Board observed that the parks were "places to stimulate an understanding of history in its larger context."1 At a Park Service conference in 2000, renowned scholar and historian John Hope Franklin, chair of the Advisory Board, emphasized the important role that the national parks play as places where visitors can hear about important, complex subjects, such as the struggle for racial justice, women's rights, and the rights of workers. The Service, he said, had a unique opportunity to teach "in real places about real history and real nature with real things."2 What better way to make history "real" than to allow people to recount their experiences in their own words.


Oral history has long been a particularly valuable resource and tool within the Service for preserving cultural and historical memory. Park Service rangers, interpreters, historians, archeologists, ethnographers, and cultural landscape specialists use oral history to document the history of individual parks, as well as the events and people the parks commemorate. They use it to document the lives and cultures of the people associated with the parks and to provide important information about properties and structures within park boundaries. The size and scope of the oral history collections and projects within the Service vary tremendously. There are large, well-established collections and projects such as the Ellis Island Oral History Project with nearly 2,000 interviews, as well as small collections with fewer than a dozen tapes. A few programs, such as the one at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, date back to the 1940s or 1950s and are among the longest-running oral history programs in the nation.


The Service's projects and collections are remarkable in their diversity and uniqueness. For example, War in the Pacific National Historical Park in Guam uses oral history to document the personal experiences of individuals involved in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Park volunteers and contractors interview Japanese veterans who served on Guam about their experiences and provide the park with a rare Japanese perspective of the war. The oral history collection at Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania includes interviews with individuals who were associated with steam era railroading in the Northeast and the railroad preservation movement. At Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska, a memorial to the pioneers who settled the American West, the staff conducts interviews related to the homesteading experience. The project includes an interview in Alaska with the last American homesteader. Point Reyes National Seashore in California uses interviews to document the regional cattle ranching industry.3


With increasing frequency, parks use oral history to support their interpretive programs and to create interpretive products such as exhibits, movies, and videos in visitor centers and museums. Oral history is a particularly useful tool for parks that commemorate relatively recent events, where witnesses are still living. Park interpreters recognize that statements of actual participants in a historical event bring realism and immediacy to a historic site or a collection of artifacts. As a staff member at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Alaska explained, "only those stories from the participants can really bring history alive."4


Oral history is also a valuable resource for writing the histories of individual parks and the history of the National Park Service as a federal agency. Interviews with current and former park employees, park neighbors, policymakers, and program managers provide rich source material for these histories. Senior Park Service historian Dr. Richard Sellars, for example, conducted over two dozen interviews with planners and policymakers within and outside the Service to support his landmark history of natural resources in the national parks, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History.5 Oral histories also provide important source material for historic resource studies, such as the one at Manzanar World War II Relocation Camp National Historic Site in eastern California - a site devoted to protecting and interpreting the cultural, historic, and natural resources associated with the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during the war.


Parks use oral history to record various perspectives on major events, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, and to gain further insights on well-known figures such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Sandburg, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They also use it to broaden our understanding of some of the most important movements in American history such as immigration, civil rights, and women's rights. Sometimes interviews provide parks with their only source of information about a particular event, site, or individual. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, lying north of the Arctic Circle, for example, conducted oral history interviews with native Alaskan elders to document the last caribou hunt conducted from kayaks in Little Chandler Lake.


Service ethnographers, archeologists, and cultural landscape specialists use oral history to collect individual life histories and migration histories, as well as histories of communities and of tribal settlement. They use it to document and interpret the traditional uses of particular objects and artifacts, to get information about the changing uses of a specific landscape, and to locate demolished buildings.


In their pamphlet, Using Oral History in Community History Projects, Laurie Mercier and Madeline Buckendorf observed, "By giving voice to people not included in the usual historical sources, oral history can provide a fuller, more honest picture of the past by answering the hows and whys of human action."6 Parks increasingly use oral history to give voice to those who have been silenced or ignored, such as women, minorities, and immigrants. In some instances, projects address painful subjects such as discrimination, segregation, and disenfranchisement.


George Washington Carver National Monument, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, and Nicodemus National Historic Site are just a few of the parks that use oral history to record the contributions and experiences of African American leaders and communities. George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri, Carver's birthplace and childhood home, started an oral history project in the 1950s to help tell the story of George Washington Carver and the surrounding area in southwestern Missouri in the 1870s. Many of the interviews were with individuals who knew Carver in his formative years. Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Virginia commemorates the life and contributions of Maggie Lee Walker, a prominent African American community leader and one of the first women to establish and be president of a bank. The park has documented the history of the local African American community by interviewing former employees and residents and descendents of African-American slaves. At Nicodemus National Historic Site in Nicodemus, Kansas, the only remaining western town established by African Americans during the Reconstruction period, oral history has supported cultural landscape and historic structures reports and a Historic American Buildings Survey.


Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site commemorates the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision ending legal racial segregation in the nation's public schools. The park conducts oral history primarily to support its interpretive programs at Monroe school, the segregated school attended by the plaintiff's daughter in Topeka, Kansas. Interviews relate to the history and development of the site and the associated cultural resources in Topeka. The park recently completed a series of interviews with plaintiffs in the Brown case, to include interviews in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia.


Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama preserves the airfield, historic hangar, and other buildings at Moton Field, where the first African American military aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen received their initial flight training during World War II. Historians and ethnographers interview pilots, flight instructors, administrators, mechanics, nurses, secretaries, and wives who participated in the Tuskegee Airmen experience. This allows the airmen, their families, and others to explain their history in their own words. Park Service staff will use the information to help guide the rehabilitation of historic Moton Field and to support interpretation in a planned museum.


Other park projects focus on women and immigrants. At Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts, staff members use oral history to document the changing structure of the post-World War II textile industry in Lowell and the impact of those changes on workers, managers, and the local community. They also record the experiences and contributions of the immigrant workforce and female textile workers. The Ellis Island Oral History Project, housed in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, is dedicated to preserving the first-hand recollections of immigrants coming to American between 1892 and 1954 when Ellis Island was in operation. The interviews examine everyday life in the immigrants' countries of origin, their family histories, reasons for coming to America, experiences on the ship, processing at the Ellis Island facility, and adjustment to living in the United States.


Some of the World War II-related sites use oral history to incorporate more diverse perspectives. The new Rosie the Riveter-World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Oakland, California, established to commemorate those who supported the war effort, already uses oral history for park planning, cultural resource studies, administrative history, and interpretive programs. Interviews provide valuable information about the home front experience, the role of women and minorities in the war industries, and the structures and functions of the Oakland shipyard. The USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii accumulated hundreds of video and audio tapes that record the perspectives of those who witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, to include military personnel and civilians from both sides.


At the National Park of American Samoa, oral history is an invaluable tool for preserving the history of Samoan natives. Samoan history for the most part is still retained only in the oral tradition, such as legends, songs, and speeches, and much of this history is being lost. In 1997 the park began systematically interviewing residents in nine villages who were between the ages of 55 and 95 to help preserve this history. As one staff member explained, "The power of oral tradition and history are well embedded in the minds of the elders in the culture. It is for a fact that once an elder of a culture dies; their story dies with them." 7


Among one of the most technologically advanced projects is PROJECT JUKEBOX at Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska. The project, initiated in 1991, is a cooperative effort between the Service and the University of Alaska to document the lives of the people associated with the preserve to include local residents, trappers, hunters, miners, as well as Service planners and managers. The web-based project includes oral histories, transcripts, photographs, maps and other resources. The tapes have been converted to a digital format and saved on compact disks. Staff, visitors, and researchers use a computer workstation to select topics and pull up recordings, transcripts, and illustrations at their own speed. Unfortunately, fewer than 20 percent of the interviews have been transcribed because of lack of funding, staff time, and management support. There is a similar PROJECT JUKEBOX at Gates of the Arctic that includes interviews with residents of villages in and near the park, trappers, hunters, and park staff. Oral history is not a part of the annual budget in either park, and dedicated employees sometimes conduct the interviews on their own time, at their own expense.8


Although oral history often plays an important role in the National Park Service and is an invaluable tool in preserving cultural and historical memory, its practice and use have been limited. At present, oral history in the Service is generally a sporadic endeavor that seldom reaches its full potential. Oral history efforts are often loosely structured, sporadic, and implemented in a piecemeal fashion. Projects are often launched in response to immediate needs, rather than as part of an overall objective or plan.


In response to a recent survey of oral history throughout the National Park System, many parks expressed great interest in improving their oral history programs but indicated that they lacked the necessary resources to do so. They spoke passionately and at length about the wealth of untapped resources available, as well as their "race against time" to collect them. They reported that limited resources prevent them from gathering what one park employee called "this incredible resource." 9 Sadly, one park after another cited instances of important interview candidates passing away before they could conduct interviews.


Despite the importance and urgency of some interviews, parks staffs have often found it very difficult to obtain recognition for oral history as both a legitimate historical resource and a management priority. Perhaps because of its low priority among Service managers, the practice of oral history in the Service suffers from a severe funding shortage. Often these funding shortages are directly linked to problems with inadequate equipment, tape processing and preservation, training, and staff availability. Many parks reported that the absence or shortage of funding was a "constant concern" and "significant constraint" on their projects and programs. Few parks designate funding for oral history on an ongoing annual basis, and many have no funding at all for oral history. In some parks, oral history is considered part of the historian's or other staff duty to be squeezed in when possible; other parks rely on grants, donations and volunteers to fund and implement their oral history projects.


A few parks have demonstrated great initiative and creativity in securing funds from park associations, academic institutions, and other private sources. For example, Harry S Truman National Historic Site was able to digitize half of the transcripts in its collection through a cooperative effort with Middle Tennessee State University. Denali National Park and National Preserve has a cooperative oral history project with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to document the Service's management of mountaineering at Mount McKinley.


Related to the challenges posed by funding shortages, park staffs often have little knowledge, experience, or training in the practice and use of oral history. Training opportunities are limited. Often the only training consists of a single park employee attending a particular oral history conference or workshop.

Appropriate recording equipment, like training, has a great affect on the quality and usefulness of interviews, but often the quality of the equipment suffers from funding limitations and from a lack of foresight. Although some parks use professional quality recording equipment and one park even has a professional recording studio, others rely on inexpensive hand held cassette recorders. Too often the use of inexpensive recording equipment has limited future uses of oral history interviews.


While the majority of parks have adopted some sort of guidelines or standards for conducting, preserving, and using oral history, as with equipment, there is great inconsistency. Roughly a quarter of the parks that responded to the recent survey reported that they used the existing Park Service guidelines.10 These 1984 guidelines are cumbersome and dated, particularly the sections related to legal issues and new technologies. A slightly smaller percentage of parks indicated that they used the Oral History Association's standards and guidelines. Roughly 10 percent of them, however, reported that they did not use any guidelines or standards at all.


Many parks described the difficulty of operating with limited staff and, in some cases, without a historian or cultural resources specialist. Oral history is just one of the already weighty and complex responsibilities faced by limited park staff and is often not considered a priority. Parks have coped with staff limitations in some creative ways. War in the Pacific National Historical Park, American Memorial Park, and Lowell National Historical Park, all with fairly dependable outside funding sources, use or plan to use contracts for interviewing and tape transcription. Other parks have been able to find limited assistance from larger parks with well-established programs.


Some parks have helped ease the problems of staffing and funding shortfalls by sharing resources and information and establishing partnerships. These parks reported that they have received guidance and resources (release forms, equipment, etc.) from other parks and from outside the Service. Some parks have also formed cooperative agreements with academic institutions, professional organizations, or other parks in order to aid their oral history programs. But there is a need for much more information sharing within the Service and with professional organizations.


As with the other aspects of oral history, many parks reported that their efforts to process and preserve tapes were hampered by the lack of resources. Despite the widely recognized importance of transcribing oral history interview tapes, transcription has remained a fairly low priority within the Service. Tape transcription is often the first element of an oral history project to suffer when funding or staff time become scarce. The Service's oral history tapes and transcripts are supposed to be accessioned and catalogued as museum property under procedures outlined by the Service's museum program. The shortage of staff time and funding, however, means that many oral history interviews and collections often are not properly catalogued and finding aids are rarely produced. Not surprisingly, preservation treatment is minimal.


Most parks give researchers unrestricted access to their collections. But without finding aids, indexes, or catalogues, a researcher would have great difficulty locating and using the tapes and transcripts. Moreover, while most parks open up their oral history collections to researchers, very few do anything to publicize those collections. The park oral history collections contain a wealth of material that would be of great interest to researchers and scholars from within and outside the Service, if these collections were better publicized.


It is widely recognized that documenting cultural and historical memory pose unique challenges. Interviewees confuse dates, telescope time, and rearrange their memories. They forget names, places, and other details; they are not always candid about mistakes or problems. Some interviewees understandably are reluctant to discuss sensitive, controversial, or painful issues. Yet, for the National Park Service, the most pressing challenges seem to be the more practical ones related to funding, staffing, training, equipment, and tape preservation.


Although the Service has some truly superb oral history projects and collections, remarkable for their breadth and uniqueness, there are serious weaknesses. Oral history in the Service is presently an inconsistent, poorly supported endeavor that frequently faces great difficulty in producing useful and lasting historical resources. There is currently no Service-wide oral history program; oral history practices and procedures vary widely from park to park.


It is clear that oral history fills many varied needs in the Service and has often been conducted and used with great success, but it also has a far greater potential than is currently being met. Although many parks have valuable collections of interviews, their worth has too often been lessened because the tapes are of poor sound quality, untranscribed, missing release forms, poorly preserved, or because the interviewers lacked sufficient training and experience. Continuing to regard oral history as a low priority will almost certainly lead to the loss of irreplaceable resources.


While Service leaders might often be slow to give oral history the priority it deserves, park staffs continue to make great efforts to record and preserve the voices of the past.


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