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Members of the Oral History Advisory Group

Report of the Oral History Working Group

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Report of Oral History Working Group,
Summary Version

September 1999

Working Group Members

Philip Khoury,
Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Mary Parlee,
Visiting Professor of Women's Studies
Paul Penfield,
Professor of Electrical Engineering
Jane Pickering (Chair),
Director, MIT Museum
Robert Randolph,
Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs
Merritt Roe Smith,
Cutten Professor of the History of Technology
Megan Sniffin-Marinoff,
Head, Institute Archives and Special Collections,
MIT Libraries
Virginia Steel,
Associate Director for Public Services,
MIT Libraries

The 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.

1. Introduction

1.1. 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 world.

1.2. 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 Foundation:

Scientific, 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 these reminiscences.

1.3. 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 broad support.

1.4. 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

2.1. There have been a number of oral history projects completed across the Institute. Details can be found in Appendix 1.

2.2. 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.

2.3. 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."

2.5. 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 Group

3.1. 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.

3.2. 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 a semester.

3.3. 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.

3.4. The Advisory Group will gather information about oral histories of members of the MIT community held at other institutions.

3.5. 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

4.1. Purpose of grants

4.1.1. 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.

4.1.2. 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.

4.1.3. 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 timeframe.

4.2. Setting up a Pilot Program

4.2.1. 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.

4.2.2. 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

5.1. Purpose of Program

5.1.1. 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.

5.1.2. 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, for example:

  • 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

5.1.4. 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.

5.1.5. 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.

5.2. Setting up a Pilot Project

5.2.1. 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.


The Working Group would like to thank the following people for their help and advice in preparing this report:

Philip Alexander
Margery Resnick
Warren Seamans
Charles Weiner

and Lois Beattie for the preparation of the Appendix

Copies of the full, written report are available from Jane Pickering

Members of the Oral History Advisory Group
Report of the Oral History Working Group
Tech Talk Article