AIP’s Oral Histories on the International Stage

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20 July 2016

The last week in June I had the opportunity to speak about AIP’s 54-year-old oral history program in Bangalore, India. The occasion was the 19th conference of the International Oral History Association, attended by over 150 speakers from around the world. The diversity of the attendees was expected from one point of view: many cultures, many religions, many ethnicities. From another point of view, the diversity of uses and purposes for oral history was a bit of a surprise.

An image of the shadow puppetry of the Shinde Anjaneyulu family

Every day sessions were held at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, an institution of higher education. In the evenings, we moved by bus through the crowded streets of Bangalore to other venues, where we attended public programs with partner institutions. We attended an opening plenary lecture on memory, oral history, and radical action in Bangladesh, followed by a traditional shadow-puppet presentation. At the Indian Institute of Science -- known for its founder, industrialist J. N. Tata, and for C.V. Raman, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930 -- a panel of speakers addressed the question “What happens when oral history goes public? Oral History Online.” The answer to this question depends on the nature of the interviews and, to one degree or another, raises both technical and ethical considerations. It matters, for example, whether the interviewee is discussing a scientific discovery or a sensitive political or social issue. 

Although our oral histories at AIP are often with famous people, many oral histories are with ordinary and even with illiterate subjects. We use oral histories with scientists to delve into the stories behind the discoveries and to explore the human face of science. Others use oral histories to tell the stories of people whose lives leave little or no written record. Sessions at the conference were devoted to “Indigenous Peoples and Colonization,” “Oral History and the Politics of Identity,” and “Tracing Dissent and the Politics of Marginalization through Oral History.” It was instructive to hear of the considerations that oral historians in other areas have to take into account, and to help them understand our experience at the Center for History of Physics. 

Given that so many oral historians work with very different populations and problems than those we face, it was a delight to find out that many of them know our resources well. Robert Perks, who directs the rich and productive British Library oral history project, praised our web site, as did Michael Frisch, professor emeritus at SUNY Buffalo and a leading figure in oral history.

I was part of a session titled “What’s Next? Achievements and Opportunities in Oral History of Recent Science.” Joining me on this panel was Prof. Indira Chowdhury (Srishti Institute and President of the International Oral History Association). Prof. Chowdhury established the archive for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research a decade ago and continues to anchor efforts in India to conduct more oral histories with India’s scientists. Joining us on the panel were two scholars with AIP connections. Prof. Ron Doel is a member of the History Center’s Task Force on Professional Standards and Operations and spoke about one particular project, to document through interviews the history of geophysics at Columbia University. The other speaker was Prof. Jahnavi Phalkey of King’s College, London, who received a Grant-in-Aid from AIP to support her oral history interviews with Indian scientists. Attendees at our session included Robert Perks, Michael Frisch and others interested in what AIP’s future plans are regarding oral histories.

The future of AIP’s oral history program is as bright as its achievements. We look forward to forming critical collaborations in India, China and other countries. AIP is seen by other oral historians as having a model program and they are eager to work with us to accomplish more through cooperation. The steps we have taken in the last decade to place our transcriptions online -- now over 1,100 transcripts are on our website -- provide opportunities for using new analytical techniques to gain novel insights from our interviews. We also look forward to re-invigorating the interview process so that we can document new areas: the lives and careers of women and under-represented minorities in the physical sciences, the work of the last half-century in photonics, new materials, etc., and the roles of physical scientists in environmental research. Oral history cannot rest if we are to preserve and make known the history of the physical sciences!

Greg Good, Jahnavi Phalkey, and Ron Doel speak about oral histories with scientists.