Don Ritchie on the History of the Oral History Association

It is a rare opportunity in life when you get the chance to interview someone who has profoundly changed and shaped your professional practice.  Last month, I interviewed Donald A. Ritchie, Senate Historian Emeritus, about his involvement in the field of oral history, as well as his participation in the Oral History Association. If you have taken an oral history course, at any level, you have probably read his work. In this oral history interview, Ritchie talks about discovering “oral history” during his research for his dissertation on James Landis, and how he became involved in the wider field of oral history. He talks about being hired by the Senate Historical Office, and beginning to participate in the Oral History Association. He describes the administrative structure of the organization, as well as the creation of the International Oral History Association. He talks about becoming program chairman, some of the early issues within the organization, and the beginning of long-range planning within the OHA which led to various changes.

Click image to watch full interview

Ritchie discusses some of the early issues within the field of oral history, including Columbia University’s practice of recording over its tapes once an interview had been transcribed, which was part of the larger debate on the importance of the aural aspects of oral history. Another debate concerned the subjects of interviews and whether they should be prominent people or ordinary citizens. He talks about the impact of technology on the field of oral history, and some of the technical problems that can occur during interviews.

Ritchie discusses his involvement in the creation and revision of guidelines for oral history, as well as the conflict that occurred when the IRB began imposing restrictions on the use of oral history in research. He discusses his process for writing the book “Doing Oral History,” as well as the revisions he made in later editions.

Finally, Ritchie talks about his thoughts on the future of oral history, as well as his reflections on the field’s past. Throughout the interview Ritchie tells personal anecdotes about people within the field of oral history, as well as many specific meetings of the Oral History Association.  As we begin to think about the 50th anniversary of the Oral History Association in 2016, it is important to think about interviewing the interviewers.  In fact, the Nunn Center has launched a new project we are calling “Interviewing the Interviewers.” As a member of the OHA’s executive council, I was inspired by his leadership and dedication to the profession.  Watch this interview.  If you are a professional historian, you will be inspired as well.  There are many great stories in this interview, enjoy.

Doug Boyd,

Director, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

University of Kentucky Libraries