An Oral Historian Speaks

Editor’s note: Highlighting yet another facet of our diverse discipline, David Caruso of the Science History Institute in Philadelphia answers questions about, and shares some of his experiences doing, oral history.

Beginning with the obvious, what is oral history?

Oral history, at its most basic level, is a methodology used to explore personal experiences of past events in an interview setting. The interviews take place face-to-face—or, at least for now, video camera to video camera—and are recorded for research and preservation purposes.

How does oral history mesh with other ways of doing history? What special advantages does it offer to the history of science?

Many questions go unanswered in the published literature and archival materials many of us use for our research. Take, as but one example, the style of many journal publications: written in the passive voice, these sources detail the work products of the actors we study but often obscure their work processes. Many historians are not interested simply in what happened, but how it happened and why. Oral history allows for a deeper understanding of the scientific life and the life of a scientist through an active engagement between interviewer and interviewee to develop a more detailed and nuanced history of science and engineering. In an oral history interview we discuss not only the scientific practices themselves but also, to name but a few, the politics of the individual and of the institution in which she or he works, the role of religion, faith, and belief, collaborators, colleagues, and competitors, experiments that worked and those that failed, and lab life and culture.

A quick description, if you would, about your job as an oral historian at the Science History Institute. What would a typical working day look like?

Our days at the Science History Institute take us through all aspects of oral history work: planning for and then executing projects like those we have on Science and Disability, Science, War, and Exile, and LGBTQ+ Scientists and Engineers; doing research about our interviewees in advance of a scheduled interview; conducting and then transcribing and annotating interviews to add to our collections; providing training in the oral history methodology; researching and writing our own work for publication; and, quite importantly, making sure that all of our interviews are available to other researchers through our library catalog and our digital collections.

Oral history can function both as an end in itself or as one of a diverse kit of historiographic tools. How would the design of an interview be different in the two cases?

Some use oral history as a way to understand the personal history of a scientist, a biography of sorts that complements materials gathered in archival research. But oral history, or, rather, multiple oral history interviews, allows for a more prosopographic understanding of the history of science, medicine, and technology, looking at the common characteristics and experiences among interviewees, as well as aspects of history remembered differently or even disputed. Two core goals of the Science History Institute are to make our work available to other scholars for their own research purposes and to ensure that our collection can serve the history of science, medicine, and technology communities broadly. While we have our own research agenda, when we interview someone we do so under the assumption that our interview may be the only one conducted with that scientist or engineer; as such, we always capture full life history interviews instead of more narrowly focused ones on certain people or certain aspects of their lives and careers. The major difference, then, between oral history used in the service of biography and what we do at the Science History Institute quite simply is time. The methodology itself is the same, but it requires a greater investment to cover the histories of women and men whose lives and careers can differ in substantial and significant ways.

Would you mind sharing one of your favorite experiences in this craft or practice of doing history? What made it special?

I’d like to share two. Early on in my work, I interviewed a Nobel laureate who had emigrated from a European country to the United States in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to discussing his perspectives on race and gender in science in America, we also spent time discussing his early scientific career before leaving his home country. It had been so long since he had undertaken that research that he had but little to share about it, that is until I presented him with a copy of his first publication. Within moments of glancing at those printed pages, a flood of memories returned not just about the science itself, but also about his colleagues, his friends, and his struggle with religious and personal beliefs at that time in his life. When starting work as an oral historian, I had assumed it was a purely verbal/auditory medium—I ask a question, my interviewee answers it, and I follow up with another question. After that moment I realized the role of sensory experiences in remembrances and their utility in reconstituting long-lost memories; it changed my understanding of oral history and my practices thereafter.

More recently our work on science and disability has helped me reconceptualize my understanding of scientific and engineering practices through the stories of those who navigate spaces—physical, social, cultural, and psychosocial, for example—in ways different from my own. Interviewing individuals who have moved through worlds not designed with them in mind has been powerful and insightful in so many ways. One interviewee, as a young girl with low vision on a trip with the Girl Scouts, brought birdseed with her on a camping trip, as she knew in advance that she would be relegated to a craft table while the others in her troop hiked through the woods to work on their birdwatching badge. After everyone else left, my interviewee recounted how she walked to an open clearing, emptied the bag of birdseed, and brought the birds to her. Her fellow troop members returned from their hike dejected, as they couldn’t fill out much on their birdwatching list. They were then astonished to find most of the birds for which they were searching happily feasting on the birdseed in the field. Needless to say, my interviewee earned her birdwatching badge that day despite having originally been denied the opportunity to participate because of how those around her envisioned what it meant to do birdwatching. The lessons she learned that day about navigating spaces not designed for her and assumptions others made about her capabilities were ones she applied to her scientific work later in life.

What advice (some important do’s and don’ts) do you have for a graduate student who is thinking about designing a project around oral history.

I think the best thing to do is to take an introductory course or workshop in oral history as a methodology. There are many offered around the United States, and internationally, and they can provide invaluable insights into how to, and not to, conduct interviews, the legal and ethical aspects of the work, and best practices for archiving materials so that they are not lost should a recorder or computer fail. If someone does not have time to take a course, at a minimum I recommend reaching out to someone at a center for or program in oral history to discuss project design and other practices.

More from the October 2021 Newsletter