Oral history interviews reveal the hidden side of modern science, technology, and medicine.
What Is Oral History?
Oral history is a method of preserving the unwritten past through the narrated recollections of individuals. Structured interviews designed with specific goals in mind can help historians understand the role that an individual played in an event or a culture, or can help document the history of a scientific object or technique. Some oral histories focus on broad topics in an individual’s life—family life, childhood, education, factors influencing career decisions—and some explore more specific issues, like the development of an organization, the moment of innovation, or the social and environmental effects of a scientific practice or manufacturing process.
We use our skills as oral historians to capture aspects of history not otherwise preserved in written form in order to develop a clearer picture of the past. Our interviews typically last from four to six hours and are conducted over a two- or three-day period, though some of our interviews are shorter and some much longer. In addition to the transcripts, we preserve all recordings and research materials generated in association with the interview.
Why Focus on Science?
The growth of scientific knowledge poses special challenges for historical analysis. As the generation, transmission, and influence of scientific knowledge have expanded, the tools we use to make sense of them have evolved. While the traditional published record of experimental results and technological innovation is preserved for posterity in journals and books, these documents record only the public face of science. The rich history of everyday life in the sciences—the messy vitality of laboratory, library, production plant, and wider community—does not find its way into the documentary record. Oral history interviews reveal the hidden side of modern science, technology, and medicine. In some cases they offer the only way to capture the nuances and complexity of the scientific enterprise.
Principles and Practices
The Center for Oral History is committed to ensuring that the history of modern science is preserved in the words, beliefs, thoughts, and actions of its practitioners. Our purpose is to develop and maintain—in accordance with the Oral History Association’s guidelines—collections of oral history interviews with people who have contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge in the 20th and 21st centuries. The center facilitates all facets of the conduct of our oral histories, from choosing interviewees and creating interview protocols to processing oral history transcripts and establishing relevant, standardized research materials for scholarly use.
The Science History Institute has produced a variety of online exhibits that draw on our extensive oral history collections. View them below, or see projects developed across the Institute for Research by visiting Research Activities.
How do Philadelphians imagine a sustainable future for their city? This project examined energy, climate change, and the future of Philadelphia.
Explore the history, community, and environment of Ambler, Pennsylvania, a town long affected by asbestos manufacturing.
Artists and scientists examine and respond to the daily shifts in our environment and the effects of long-term climate change.
Explore the history of mass spectrometry, an unsung hero of instrumental analysis, through oral histories, images, and archival documents from our collection.
The story of the U.S. Synthetic Rubber Program of World War II from the perspective of our oral history interviewees.