Columbia to Produce Obama Presidential Oral History

The Obama Foundation selected the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, at New York’s Columbia University, to produce the official oral history of Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency. Working in collaboration with the University of Hawai’i’s Center for Oral History and the University of Chicago, the Columbia Center for Oral History will conduct the Obama Presidency Oral History Project over the next five years

announcement with Obama on phone at deskThe Obama Foundation selected the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR), at New York’s Columbia University, to produce the official oral history of Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency. Working in collaboration with the University of Hawai’i’s Center for Oral History, which will contribute material from Obama’s early life, and the University of Chicago, which will focus on Barack and Michelle Obama’s lives in Chicago, the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH)—which brings together CCOHR and the Oral History Archives at Columbia, part of Columbia University Libraries—will conduct the Obama Presidency Oral History Project over the next five years.

The project, launched on July 1, is expected to include interviews with some 400 people and generate 1,200 hours of audio and video recordings. Interviewees will include members of the Obama administration, as well as other key public figures, plus more than 100 “ordinary citizens”—people whose letters were read by Obama, who met him as he traveled the country, and whose prison sentences he commuted. Michelle Obama’s work and legacy as First Lady will also be incorporated. The resulting archive will offer a comprehensive record of “the decisions, actions, and effects” of Obama’s two terms in office.

CCOH director Mary Marshall Clark will be a coinvestigator for the project, working with Peter Bearman, Jonathan R. Cole Professor of the Social Sciences and director of Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics, and Kimberly Springer, curator of Columbia’s Oral History Archives. The lead interviewer will be Terrell Frazier, a PhD student in sociology, Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow, and 2016 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholar. The project’s Advisory Board includes presidential historians and authors Robert Dallek and Douglas Brinkley, journalists Michele Norris and Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism Jelani Cobb, and other scholars of history, political science, sociology, and public health.

While the Obama Foundation will provide any needed information on the inner workings of the White House and the Obamas’ background histories, Columbia will have full editorial control over the project’s execution and has committed to dedicating all resources necessary for the project. At its completion, Columbia and the Obama Foundation will hold joint ownership of the materials, which will be publicly accessible online at Columbia and the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago no later than 2026. The Obama Foundation will also explore opportunities to connect the archive with related collections and content, including digital records of the presidency administered by the National Archives.

COLUMBIA’S TRACK RECORD

The Obama Foundation first contacted The Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH) in August 2018 to ask that Columbia consider submitting a proposal for the project. “They were interested in us partly because we had done such a wide array of different kinds of interviewing,” Clark told LJ. “The history and memory that we already have in our collection was, I think, a very big draw."

Founded in 1948, CCOH is the country’s largest and oldest oral history archive, holding more than 11,000 recorded interviews and 25,000 hours of transcripts. Among many other historically significant projects, CCOH conducted the Dwight D. Eisenhower History Project; Eisenhower was president of the university from 1948 to 1952 (Obama is a 1983 Columbia graduate).

“When we thought about how oral history might help document the Obama presidency, there were a couple of different things that we wanted to get out of it that drew us to Columbia," said Chris Liddell-Westefeld, Oral History Project Manager at the Obama Foundation. "There's a longstanding tradition of Columbia's archives being a rich resource for historians."

CCOH’s strengths go beyond its early focus on leaders in politics and government, however; its work now incorporates interviews with people from all walks of life, such as its September 11, 2001 Oral History Projects—and this attracted the Obama Foundation’s interest as well.

"If you look at the story of the Obama presidency, what you see again and again is the importance that ordinary people play in both the workings of the White House and the workings of the president's campaigns,” Liddell-Westefeld told LJ. “If you go back to [Obama’s] announcement speech in Springfield in 2007, he talks about how a big piece of the campaign is the role ordinary people can play in changing their world…. We wanted to make sure, in thinking about this project, that those voices could also be included, as well as people who had conversations every day with the president and Mrs. Obama in the White House. That diversity of perspective was really important to us, and that was another thing that drew us to Columbia."

Columbia’s track record in digital preservation mattered as well, Liddell-Westefeld added. “If we're going to ask [administration] alumni to take the time to sit down for all these interviews…then we want to make sure that it's being done in a way where that material's going to be useful not just five years from now but also ten, 20, 50 years from now."

THE HOW AND THE WHY

The project’s work will begin not with interviews, however, but with the development of a project blueprint and extensive research into Obama’s life and presidency, and subject areas such as domestic policy.

“All of our work interviewing is based on the research that we do prior to the interview,” explained Clark. It includes pulling information from books, newspapers, journal articles, and other publicly available documents to construct an extensive bibliography and timeline of critical events. While talking to people about the roles they played is important for the project, she said, “We also want to interview them about why they did what they did. So that involves understanding the mind and consciousness of the person we're interviewing."

While there is an abundance of information on key policy makers and colleagues, researchers will have to dig deeper for background on other constituents. “Taking the 9/11 Project as an example,” said Clark, “We would understand the communities that we were working in by doing research on those communities, by understanding how they were affected by a public policy. One example of what we'll do on the Obama project is for people who were affected by the passage of the [Affordable] Care Act—what their lives were before and what their lives were after. So we still do research, but we just do less an individual approach and more a social approach."

Once the interviews begin, subjects will be given the choice to be recorded on video or audio only. Interviews typically last from one to one and a half hours, and are usually conducted over multiple sessions. "It really can capture the intersection of someone's personal and professional career when you do it that way," said Frazier, who has worked with CCOH for nearly six years.

Interviewers will be drawn from several sources nationwide, including Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts—the nation’s only graduate-level program in the field of oral history—and the university’s Oral History Summer Institute. "Our techniques of interviewing, honed over the years through many of the interviews we've done with politicians, leaders in the law, public policy [officials], Social Security administration, on down, have prepared us to be able to ask the kinds of questions that interest other people and make them want to talk to us," said Clark.

CCOH’s protocol has been refined over time. Interviewers write up an analytical summary of each interview within 48 hours of its completion before sending the recording out for transcription. This reflection before the follow-up interview is a critical part of the process.

"If there's something that perhaps was important and wasn't touched on, or was engaged with but warrants a deeper conversation, there's the opportunity to do that,” Frazier told LJ. “You can have the reflective moment, and then go back to a narrator [CCOH’s term for interview subjects] and be able to engage with the benefit of having already not only interviewed them and thought about additional questions…but there's also the benefit—which is for me equally important—that you've built up something between you as an interviewer and the narrator in terms of a relationship, or a rapport. That's always important to a successful interview. Sometimes it can happen very quickly, and sometimes it takes a little bit of time to develop. But at whatever stage it flourishes, the interview becomes stronger because people are willing to go deeper, and delve into themselves and who they are.”

Once the transcription is complete, project team members listen to the interview and compare it with the written transcript to catch any errors—either factual or contextual—and to gauge how the interview process is going. Names and events are corroborated with the team’s research for accuracy of transcription. The fact that narrators’ memories of events may vary, however, does not necessarily make them incorrect for CCOH’s purposes; oral history embraces subjectivity.

“The things that people get wrong, or that may not be exactly correct—because memory can be fallible—the beauty of it is that we can interrogate the actual working of memory: Why do people remember what they remember?” said Frazier. “It's just as important to understand how that came about in that person's narrative, for them to remember a specific incident or experience in the way that they did."

Each transcript is then sent back to the interviewee for their approval before it becomes part of the digital archives. “This practice that we have maintained over the years, and developed even further around ethical considerations, means that anyone we interview, in any project that we do, will have the right to read and review and change and edit their transcript,” said Clark. “Rarely do they do that, but they have the opportunity."

Clark looks forward to putting the project in motion—particularly since it is happening relatively close to the time that Obama left office, so people’s memories are fresh. Also, she told LJ, “It was an open administration, meaning people felt free during the presidency to speak openly and candidly, so I think we're going to have far fewer problems than we might have on other kinds of political projects. People have written books and have spoken w great candor about the things that Obama faced during his presidency.”

Frazier sees the oral history form, with its ability to interweave the voices of those who made policy and those who were affected by it, not only as a method of historical documentation but as a tool for social change. "I'm incredibly excited about the unique nature of the archive that will be developed in terms of situating [the narratives of people] who were impacted by the decisions of leadership and policymakers at the highest level of the administration, looking at those connections. I would hope that researchers, students, and the public in general will engage with it."

Although scope and scale may present some challenges, Clark feels that CCOH has the needed expertise, drawing on the work flow of projects such as its three-phase history of the Carnegie Corporation, or the history of Atlantic Philanthropies, which captured some 800 hours of interviews in two phases. Experience aside, said Clark, "I think this is the most exciting project we may have ever taken on in terms of bringing to light, in an accessible way, a public memory that belongs to the American people.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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