Columbia Center for Oral History


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A. Purpose and Program Description

The Columbia University Columbia Center for Oral History is the only oral history archive in the country that is not limited by region and topic in its collection policies. In general we are guided by two differing principles. In the first case we try to collect in areas where the collection is already strong in order to enable patrons to consult as complete and complex a set of interviews as possible. Thus, since the Collection is so strong in the New Deal era, we will try to interview any New Deal participant not already in the Collection. Similarly, with the Eisenhower Administration, or New York City cultural life we seek opportunities to do oral histories for participants.

On the other hand we feel it vital that we build in areas where we are less strong, such as African-American history, women’s history, or gay and lesbian history. In such cases, priority is given to areas where there have been major curricular developments in the University, such as the establishment of the Institute of Research on Women and Gender or the institutes for Research in African-American Studies and African Studies. In such cases we try to work with the faculty in their areas of specialization.

Areas in which we do not collect because other institutions and projects in the New York area concentrate upon these areas are: Holocaust survivors, union histories, or certain projects in social history. Social history presents a problem because much of what would be collected is of limited use over time, but we try wherever possible to concentrate upon institutions (such as the Northside Center for Child Development), or leadership broadly defined. Outside of these areas of social history, we try to work closely with community or other projects working in those areas in the sense of giving workshops, advising on grant proposals, etc.

We also accept donated collections when they fit into our Collection, such as a recently accepted set of interviews with academics who were affected by loyalty and security policies in the 1950’s, and a series of interviews on the history of heroin. In such cases, we always search for funds for processing and if such funding cannot be found, we simply store the tapes. More and more often we are being asked to house tapes produced by faculty in the process of their research which we cannot do because we do not have the storage space or resources to deal with such large collections.

B. General Selection Guidelines (see classed analysis for detailed statement)

Overall, the Libraries’ existing collection, its current acquisitions commitment, based upon available resources, and its collecting goal for Oral History are all at the research level.

C. Specific Delimitations

  1. Formats Collected: We collect and accept oral histories including tapes and transcripts. We do not collect sound documents such as speeches, seminar recordings, radio programs, etc.
  2. Imprint Dates Collected: We collect contemporary and 20th century America oral histories.
  3. Languages Collected: We collect the English language extensively and oral histories in all other languages very selectively.
  4. Places of Publication: We collect oral histories from North America extensively and from all other countries very selectively.