of Oral History Working Group,
of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Professor of Women's Studies
of Electrical Engineering
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs
Professor of the History of Technology
Institute Archives and Special Collections,
Director for Public Services,
Oral History Working Group was convened at the request of the
Chancellor, Larry Bacow, in April 1999, to co-ordinate oral history
efforts across the campus and to help ensure that projects are
carried out in a professional manner to preserve the material
for MIT and other scholars. The Group submitted the following
report in response to this charge.
MIT has always focused on the present and the future. The founding
of the Institute Archives and the MIT Museum in the 1970s was
the first institutional recognition of the importance of MIT's
heritage both to the Institute itself and to the world. Important
parts of this heritage are the memories of members of the MIT
community and their reminiscences of events and personal interactions.
In particular, it is an urgent task to record information from
the people at the Institute immediately after World War II when
both research and education underwent profound changes at MIT.
Many of these changes had a major influence on the development
of science and technology research and education throughout the
Oral histories are recognized as vital supplements to the written
documentation that is the basis of the information used for developing
histories. The open questioning and human interaction characteristic
of good oral history taking enhances the written record. To quote
from the Oral History Program set up by the Chemical Heritage
technical, and business careers are most often measured in terms
of the published record and the "bottom line"--experimental
results and technological innovations that are usually preserved
for posterity in journals and books. But these documents record
only the public face of science.... The rich history of the everyday
life of the chemical sciences and technologies--the social networks,
patterns of patronage, and the "messy vitality" of the
laboratory, library, and production plan--is not finding its way
into the documentary record. How to preserve that unwritten past?
Buried in the memories of scientists and engineers are the reminiscences
of events and personal interactions that form the supporting structure
of the established literature. Oral histories uncover and preserve
Recording oral histories is expensive. It is a resource-intensive
procedure that requires research and preparation, transcription
and editing, and long-term preservation of the material, as well
as carrying out the interviews themselves. As a rough guide, one
hour of tape will require between ten and twenty hours of transcribing
and professional editing. If the process is to be of greatest
use to historians, people trained in the process of taking oral
histories need to be involved and the purpose and content of an
interview needs to be carefully considered. In summary, a professional
oral history program requires a substantial commitment and needs
There are many educational opportunities inherent in an oral history
project; indeed one project manager commented that some of her
students considered their work as the "highlight" of
their time at MIT. Certainly developing oral histories helps in
learning "life skills" and the attributes of an "educated"
individual, as defined in the report of the Task Force on Student
Life and Learning. UROP is the best way of involving undergraduates
in an oral history project, particularly for preparation and transcribing;
undergraduates usually do not have the skills to take good histories.
2. Oral History at MIT
There have been a number of oral history projects completed across
the Institute. Details can be found in Appendix 1.
The only formal oral history program at MIT was an Institute initiative
in the 1970s when the Dean of Engineering and Dean of Humanities
raised foundation money to hire a faculty member, Professor Charles
Weiner, to set up a program. This program, begun in 1975, inaugurated
a number of projects that make up the major part of the oral history
collections in the Institute Archives. As well as interviews with
individuals such as Harold Edgerton and Charles Stark Draper,
a number of larger projects were carried out including Women in
Science and Engineering, the history of the Physical Science Study
Committee and the emergence of Ocean Engineering. In addition,
the program received major grant funding for a project researching
the development of recombinant DNA. The program was involved in
undergraduate teaching and also ran IAP courses. Eventually, the
focus of Professor Weiner's work at MIT changed and the oral history
program came to an end.
Two substantial oral history projects are being carried out currently
at the Institute: Blacks at MIT; and Women at MIT. The Blacks
at MIT project includes over 220 oral histories taken from faculty,
administration and alumni/ae, with interviews ranging in length
from 15 transcribed pages to over 100. The Women at MIT project,
run by faculty member Margery Resnick, uses UROP students to interview
women alumnae. In addition, faculty member Mary Parlee is researching
a project on the changes that occurred in the study of behavior
after World War II, and Larry Gallagher, Bob Randolph, and Warren
Seamans recently made a series of videotaped oral histories of
groups of retired faculty.
2.4. There have been a number of informal reminiscence projects
that often include short oral history interviews. Examples include
the Building 20 reminiscence website, organized by EECS, and Glorianna
Davenports's award-wining interactive website "Jerome Wiesner,
1915-1994, A Random Walk through the Twentieth Century."
The international importance of MIT, its faculty, and its research
means that many people have been interviewed about their work
at MIT as part of other institutions' projects. Examples include
the IEEE History Center's Rad Lab Project, the National Museum
of American History's Computer Oral History Project, and ongoing
projects by the discipline societies such as the American Physics
Society and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
3. Recommendation 1: The formation of an Oral History Advisory
An Oral History Advisory Group would have two roles. The first
would be to act as a resource for oral history projects, to advise
departments and other groups who are considering such projects.
Secondly it would, in a limited way, encourage departments and
other MIT groups to consider undertaking an oral history project.
The current Oral History Working Group would help form this Advisory
Group which would be organized by the head of the Institute Archives
and Special Collections. Oral History Programs are almost invariably
run out of archives; they are the appropriate place to house the
resulting material, and the process often results in the donation
of additional paper documentation by the interviewee. The Advisory
Group would comprise representatives of the MIT Museum, the STS
Program, the Science and Engineering faculty, and other interested
parties such as MIT Press. This group would meet at least once
The Advisory Group will produce general guidelines for oral history
projects, focusing on equipment and expertise needed, best practice
in the field, and advice on generating useful material.
The Advisory Group will gather information about oral histories
of members of the MIT community held at other institutions.
If the Advisory Group is to play a proactive role in supporting
and/or initiating oral history projects, more resources would
be needed. This would include a financial commitment to long-term
preservation of the tape recordings.
4. Recommendation 2: MIT Oral History Grants
Purpose of grants
The Working Group strongly believes that many faculty, provided
with adequate support, would be interested in interviewing emeriti
faculty in their own field. To encourage faculty to consider a
small oral history project, perhaps as part of their research
or as an adjunct/extension of their research, the Oral History
Advisory Group would make grant money available towards such projects.
Members of faculty involved in oral history projects unanimously
state that administrative support, in particular for helping with
transcription and editing, is the single most important need for
the successful completion of a project. Such support would ideally
include a graduate student with some interest in the subject area.
Oral history grants could be used to employ graduate students,
over the summer, for this purpose.
Applicants would have to demonstrate the relevance of the project
to the history of MIT and would be required to submit the transcripts,
tapes, and finding aids to the Institute Archives within a reasonable
Setting up a Pilot Program
The Institute Archives could administer a limited program for
fiscal year 2000, with applications being considered by members
of the Oral History Advisory Group. The group would draw up application
guidelines, including eligibility criteria.
This program would need to be advertised widely within the Institute,
particularly to encourage subject specialists to consider a project.
The Advisory Group would also specifically lobby department heads,
particularly when it is considered desirable to interview a specific
person. This would have the added benefit of raising awareness
of the importance of oral history projects in particular and the
needs of historical documentation in general.
5. Recommendation 3: An MIT Oral History Program
Purpose of Program
The purpose of an MIT Oral History Program would be to provide
raw material for the study of MIT's activities over time, and
the influence it has had on the development of science and technology
in particular. Institutional histories have a limited value. However,
projects which would be of great interest would be the history
of research and educational advances at MIT; a historical consideration
of the interdisciplinary model of research and how it has flourished
at MIT; MIT as an educational institution; and the development
of different laboratories.
The effort would concentrate on those aspects of history which
are not well documented in official papers.
5.1.3. There are a number of projects which could be carried out
while the major participants are still available for interview,
- The development of biology at MIT
- The postwar development of science-based engineering at MIT,
led by the late Gordon Brown
- A history of the Center for Theoretical Physics
- A general project to interview emeriti faculty
This program would produce a series of audio/video tapes, and
searchable transcripts of those tapes, which are grouped around
an important theme of MIT's history. The tapes would be permanently
deposited in the Institute Archives.
The tapes would be a resource for a variety of end products. This
might be an academic piece if a faculty member initiates the project,
or the information could be used for more informal purposes to
produce publications, interactive web sites, multimedia presentations,
and exhibitions. A series of illustrated monographs, linked to
specific projects and which would capture the substantive MIT
"issues," could be produced for the Institute's 150th
anniversary in 2011. These would act as a focus for the celebrations
around that time. Publications such as these would require organization
by a separate group, probably led by MIT Press or another committee
established for this purpose.
Setting up a Pilot Project
A pilot oral history project should be organized, with seed money,
to act as a model for other programs. After its successful completion,
further projects could be set up in collaboration with potential
funders, such as the Spencer and Sloan Foundations.
Working Group would like to thank the following people for their
help and advice in preparing this report:
Lois Beattie for the preparation of the Appendix
Copies of the full, written report are available from Jane Pickering
of the Oral History Advisory Group
Report of the Oral History Working Group
Tech Talk Article