Mission & Philosophy


Our mission is to record unique life histories, document the central historical events and memories of our times, and to teach and do research across the disciplines.

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 11 million volumes, over 150,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, and graphic and audio-visual materials. The services and collections are organized into 22 libraries and various academic technology centers. The Libraries employs more than 500 professional and support staff. The website of the Libraries is the gateway to its services and resources: library.columbia.edu.

The Interdisciplinary Center Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE) cultivates public intelligence concerning socially and culturally vital ideas that can be advanced by research, education and conversation at the interdisciplinary seams that the social sciences share with one another, the humanities, the life and behavioral sciences: incite.columbia.edu.

The Columbia Center for Oral History Research's mission is to record unique life histories, document the central historical events and memories of our times, and to teach and do research across the disciplines: http://incite.columbia.edu/ccohr/



Our work has focused on the life history or autobiographical approach, to complement our more topical interviews. Inclusive biographies offer us insights into the full life of the person and thereby provide a glimpse into the evolution of society, as well as the individual person, in defining the context for later social and political actions. In many cases, these later actions can be understood and explained only by such subjective factors as belief systems, personal psychology, ideologies, visions and dreams.

Life history interviewing is also resonant with recent developments in the historical profession and in other social science disciplines. In historical studies, most scholars now search for data about motivation in order to gain a sense of either the interior life of social processes or an internal view of these processes. They seek information about the more complex processes of personality development, the formation of political consciousness, and the intersection of action and belief. In the words of Jean Paul Sartre, they are interested in what was "done to people but also in what people did with what was done to them."

Part of the action of cultural construction which allows people to create their own histories through their own activities has its origins in the attitudes and visions that motivate their actions. To understand their history, one must understand the process by which such consciousness emerged, and the effects of consciousness on cultural construction. In oral history, that can best be done through the collection of biographical histories in which social, political, and cultural history is illuminated through the telling of a life story.

Oral history is, in this sense, the quintessential historical text. Involving, as it does, historians and public figures in the creation of their own documents, oral history merges past and present in the dialectical transformation of text into cultural artifact.  Increasingly, our work is focused on the patterns of memory that are developed across lines of social difference, locally and globally.