Living to Tell: Narrating Catastrophe through Oral History

NEW YORK, June 22, 2005 - The Columbia University Oral History Research Office (OHRO) is sponsoring its annual two-week international Summer Institute in Oral History from June 20 to June 30, 2005. The theme of the 2005 Institute is “Living to Tell: Narrating Catastrophe through Oral History.”

The focus of this year’s Summer Institute will be on the challenges of using oral history to document catastrophe in its immediate aftermath, as memory communities arise, or are strengthened by the very events that threaten their existence. The Institute will explore ways memory communities form after a catastrophe to solidify, identify, and justify historical grievances, create public commemorations, and contest the sanctioned memories of the state and opposing communities.

Through reflecting on the oral histories of September 11, 2001, the Fosse Ardeantine massacre in Rome, and the enduring crises of health and poverty, faculty and fellows will consider how individual witnesses, suffering from crises of representation, try to find personal meaning in the aftermath of trauma.

“This year we will look at the convergence of historical, political, cultural, psychological and physical definitions of catastrophe, and the strategies people use to make meaning of loss and suffering,” explained Mary Marshall Clark, Director of the Oral History Research Office. “We will also examine how people and institutions use memory to manipulate relations of power in situations of catastrophe, and explore the ways that oral history can create opportunities for authentic ways of telling and hearing.” 

In addition to lectures, presentations, and discussions on this year’s theme, there will be practical workshops on interviewing, developing community history projects, and recording audio and video oral histories for multimedia environments. The Summer Institute will also feature video and audio documentaries, and visits to local museums and archives.

Faculty in the 2005 Summer Institute will include Alessandro Portelli, Professor of American Literature of the University of Rome; Steve Rowland, founder and President of CultureWorks of Philadelphia; Linda Shopes, Historian, Pennsylvanian Historical and Museum Commission, Massachusetts; Kim Rogers of Dickinson College; Rita Charon, Director of the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University; Jeff Friedman of Rutgers University; Marylene Cloitre of New York Medical School; Sharon Kofman of the Columbia University Psychoanalytic Institute; Ronald Bayer and Gerald Oppenheimer of the Columbia School of Public Health; Gerry Albarelli of Sarah Lawrence College; Cynthia Ai-Fen Lee of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas; Mary Marshall Clark, Director, OHRO; Amy Starecheski, OHRO; Jessica Wiederhorn, former Associate Director, OHRO; and Ronald Grele, Director Emeritus, OHRO. For more information please call the Oral History Research Office at 212-854-2273.

The Columbia University Oral History Research Office is the oldest and largest organized university-based oral history program open to the public in the world. Founded in 1948 by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Allan Nevins, the oral history collection now contains nearly 8,000 taped memoirs, and nearly 1,000,000 pages of transcript. The program is also a center for teaching and research, offering opportunities for students, visiting scholars and fellows.

Columbia University Libraries is one of the top ten academic library systems in the nation, with 9.2 million volumes, over 65,650 serials, as well as extensive collections of electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, and other nonprint formats. The collections and services are organized into 25 libraries, supporting specific academic or professional disciplines. Columbia Libraries employs more than 400 professional and support staff to assist faculty, students, and researchers in their academic endeavors. The Libraries’ website at is a gateway to its print and electronic collections and to its services.

06/22/05 JD