FAQs About the SAA Oral History Project

FAQs About the SAA Oral History Project

Why was this project done?

In celebration of SAA’s 75th anniversary in 2011, the Oral History Section initiated an oral history project as a way to honor SAA leaders and members and their contributions to SAA and the archival profession. The seed of this idea was planted at the 2008 meeting in San Francisco, during a “questions from the floor” open session at the Section meeting. At that time, the question was asked: does SAA have its own oral history project, and if so, are there standards and guidelines for conducting SAA interviews? Past Section Chair and SAA Fellow James Fogerty helped the steering committee lead a discussion about interviewing efforts in the 1990s, and how we could proceed with reviving the program. From there, the section began outlining steps for an anniversary project and assigned a liaison, Lauren Kata, to the 75th anniversary task force.  An inaugural interview was conducted live during the 2009 section meeting in Austin. The standing-room-only program featured Fogerty interviewing SAA Past President and Fellow David Gracy II on camera about his career and longtime participation in SAA.  For the next five years, 22 more SAA leaders were interviewed under the umbrella of the project, with the core of the interviewing taking place in 2010 and 2011.

How were the interviews selected for this project?

In planning the project, the OHS Steering Committee agreed that (1) it was important to begin by interviewing its senior leaders and longtime members, and that (2) other Sections and Roundtables should be included in the selection process. There was an effort to be as democratic as possible.  In addition to all living Past-Presidents being invited to participate, Sections and RTs were invited to submit recommendations from within their groups. The Section received 84 nominations from across SAA groups, which included the Past Presidents.  Potential interviewees were contacted via email, followed by an official letter signed by the co-chairs of the 75th anniversary. Some who were contacted declined the opportunity; some indicated maybe in the future; some never responded.  

Interviews were ultimately scheduled with those nominated leaders who were interested in and agreed to being interviewed, who were attending the annual meetings leading up to the anniversary, and who could fit a 2-hour interview into their schedules.

Ultimately, who was interviewed, and by whom?

Between 2009 and 2014, 23 interviews were conducted under the umbrella of the SAA Oral History Project.  The interviewees were nominated by groups across SAA.  Interviews were conducted by volunteers of the OH Section; a call for volunteers with experience in oral history interviewing led to a number of members volunteering their time and service toward the project.  All interviews were transferred and integrated into the SAA Archives.

Where did the interviews take place?  What was the environment like in which interviews were conducted?

The majority of interviews took place onsite in dedicated interviewing rooms at the annual meetings.  One interview (F. Gerald Ham) took place via phone. Another interview (Elsie Freeman) took place offsite at her home.  The OHS Steering Committee worked with SAA staff to secure a dedicated interviewing space that was as private and secure as possible, easily accessible in the conference hotel, and could accommodate two to three days of all-day interviewing.

How was the experience of interviewing during the annual meeting?

Interviewing onsite at the annual meeting was both extremely energizing, and challenging. Scheduled interviews were conducted back to back over the course of only a few days, in between other conference activities.  This schedule necessitated that both interviewers and interviewees fit their conversations in among their full SAA meeting schedules.  With the help of SAA staff, a dedicated video camera was brought to the meeting site each year, but with very little time and pre-conference access to the camera.  

Even with limited time and resources available to volunteers, the interviewing process turned out to be extremely rewarding, with much success, and ultimately created a positive and meaningful environment within which OH Section members could enjoy and participate in the 75th Anniversary.  

What is discussed in the interviews?

Depending on the person, their background, and their various roles in SAA throughout their career, interviews may be focused on stories, on personal reflections, or on advice to other archivists.  The range of specialities discussed includes but is not limited to :

  • History of EAD, Archival Management Software

  • Presidential tenure of specific leaders

  • Congressional Papers, Lone Arrangers, The American Archivist

  • Archival Education, Archival Consulting, Records Management

  • Social Justice in Archives, Regional Collaborations

  • Archival Advocacy

  • Early history of SAA

Are the interviews transcribed? Are the interviews arranged and described?

Yes! Yes! Processing of the interviews took place in two phases: a volunteer phase, and a grant-funded phase.  A majority of the interviews were processed and transcribed during the volunteer phase, by SAA member volunteers working remotely.  Videos were processed and transferred from DV tape to computer files by volunteers. Many of the transcriptionists were volunteer graduate students, but several volunteers were also professional members seeking ways to contribute to the 75th Anniversary.  Subsequent volunteers assisted with editing and reviewing the draft transcripts. All of the above-mentioned work took place from 2010-2015. In 2015, the SAA Oral History Section requested component-group funding from SAA to complete the processing of all interviews by a paid member.

During the grant-funded phase, 2015-2016, the collection of original DV tapes and all digital files was  transferred to the Special Collections Department at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, home of the SAA Archives.  There, an SAA OH Project intern was hired to complete processing and development of an online collection. At the time, the OHS intern was a graduate student and this project took place over the course of her spring and some of her summer terms. The intern collaborated with OHS Steering Committee leadership on administrative follow up, as well as some metadata clarifications throughout the processing project, but the final processing and creation of an online collection was conducted by her and UWM Libraries staff.  

Notably, the SAA Oral History Digital Collection was one of the pilot projects that UWM Libraries chose for integration of the “Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS)” software.  

Are the interviews available online?

Yes! Thanks to the funding from the SAA Component Groups Grant Program, and the partnership and resources of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, 19 of the 23 interviews conducted are available to watch and/or read online as part of the “SAA Oral History Project Digital Collection” at UWM Libraries.  The interviews were processed using OHMS, the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer.  With OHMS, viewers may read transcripts along with the video and/or keyword search within full interviews. 

What’s missing or could be added to the collection in the future?

Unprocessed interviews could be added to the online collection; and, new interviews with a more diverse selection of interviewees could be conducted.

19 of the 23 interviews were able to be processed as part of the grant that created the SAA Oral History Digital Collection at UWM Libraries.   Four interviews were not able to be integrated due to lack of time and resources, as well as administrative issues. Although all interviews are secured and being preserved as part of the SAA Archives, these four interviews remain unprocessed and outside of the online digital collection.  It is hoped that a future grant project may allow for these four interviews to join the others.

Additionally, OHS Steering Committee members have reflected many times on expanding the diversity and scope of the interviews.  The SAA Oral History Collection would greatly benefit from a direct effort to be more representative and more inclusive in membership documentation.  This means drafting new sets of questions and planning interviews with narrators at different stages of their careers; interviews with members who have participated in specific task forces and various SAA-wide efforts; and, significantly, interviews with non-white interviewees.  Although the call for nominations in 2009 was an effort to make the selection process a democratic one, OHS Steering Committees have lamented the fact that 100% of the narrators in the project are white leaders of SAA. All of the existing stories do provide insight into SAA history and the archival profession.  But there is more experience to be listened to, recorded, and included in SAA's history and the history of our profession. 

Just as the 75th Anniversary project “revived” an earlier iteration of OH Section interviewing, it is expected that future energetic groups will be inspired to organize new phases and carry the torch of previous SAA oral history interviewing projects.  

What’s valuable or important about this oral history collection?

What was most meaningful about the SAA Oral History Project itself was that it provided a different and fun opportunity to encourage activity among its members outside of elected leadership – a way to reinforce member buy-in to strengthen the organization. Inviting every group to have an opportunity to work with the Oral History Section to identify members within their sections/roundtables/working groups was meant to encourage interpersonal and generational links, reflecting what the originators saw as the fundamental spirit of SAA.  

The honor of listening was also a meaningful experience.  Often, interviewing and documentation projects, particularly for anniversaries, are focused on production: producing interviews that will honor the accomplishments and history of an organization.  But it is equally important to consider that oral history interviewing is a dynamic conversation; participants are involved in the act of listening in the present moment. These 1-2 hour interviews created rare opportunities for both the interviewees and interviewers.  SAA should of course celebrate the collection that was produced; but the experience of the project was also a success to be celebrated. The Oral History Section was proud to offer members a meaningful way to engage the anniversary.

Collectively, these interviews create a body of institutional knowledge that may be used not just in reflection of SAA but also in practice – a continuation of organizational memory.  The narratives could be utilized for future scholarship on the history of archives and archivists, but also, for reference and inspiration among leadership: junior and senior, veteran and new. There are also a variety of dissemination, exhibit and outreach opportunities.

What if I’d like to conduct an oral history interview with an SAA member? Are there resources/guidelines available, and, where/how should I send the interview?

Members who are interested in interviewing SAA members are welcome to utilize both the release form and general topics that were created for the 75th Anniversary Project.  We encourage anyone embarking on an interviewing project to also consult the Oral History Association’s Principles and Best Practices, as well as the rich and informative website Oral History in the Digital Age.  Oral History is understood in terms of a lifecycle: Creation, Curation, Dissemination.  We encourage all future practitioners to consider each life-cycle stage and plan accordingly.  One resource we particularly find useful for volunteer projects is the Community Oral History Toolkit.

Transfer and archiving procedures should be discussed directly with the staff of the Special Collections and Archives Department of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.