Bridging Oral History and Public History: The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Oral History Project

Author: Samuel J. Redman, Associate Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“For me, as an engineer, when I look at a bridge, I look at how it conducts forces down to the ground. That’s the first thing I look [at.] Oh, wow, [someone else might say,] that’s a beautiful bridge . . . Yes, [I’d reply] . . . it’s got a logical stress flow.” Bridge engineer Chuck Seim is retired now, but as we sat recording an interview in his cozy northern California home, he thought back to the many bridges he worked on during his career. He offered the observation that two people can look at the same structure and see very different things. Their unique lenses, he argued, have each been informed by their own individual backgrounds and experiences. “If you look at a bridge and you say, ‘That’s a beautiful bridge,’ it doesn’t make any difference . . . What’s important . . . is [that the bridge is] serving society and people can admire it.”

Oral history can serve as a dynamic tool for public history. While all oral histories involve recorded interviews, other project outcomes can be much more diverse in nature. In addition to creating 13 freely available, fully transcribed, oral history interviews, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Oral History Project also informed research contributing to a museum exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, served as a legally required historical mitigation project while the bridge’s historically significant eastern span was dismantled, and provided raw materials for a new series of YouTube videos. Interview clips were broadcast on KALW, a public radio station in San Francisco. An interpretive essay using the new oral history collection as its main set of primary sources was also recently published in the academic journal Oral History. In addition to having the information at our disposal now, future generations will no doubt revisit the Bay Bridge oral history project, working to draw their own conclusions from the open-ended interviews. An oral history collection such as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Oral History Project might also provide raw material for a future documentary film.

While some oral histories are more technical and dense than others, interviews tend to be colloquial as sources and, by their nature, involve the spoken word. This can be invaluable for public historians hoping to shed light on lived experiences as they relate to past events. A well-executed oral history with a dynamic narrator can serve an effective tool in classroom teaching, but also in engaging audiences in spaces ranging from historic sites to museum exhibitions.

Beyond the more obvious connections between oral history and public history, another significant point to consider is that institutional histories recorded since the 1960s are now providing invaluable institutional memory resources for new and existing staff. Oral history projects created in collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Asian Art Museum, for example, now serve as valuable touchstones for future endeavors, detailing how difficult choices were made in connection to collections acquisitions, museum expansion, and economic challenges.

The connections between oral history and public history are numerous. Indeed, the linkages are so numerous that this has recently become a fast-growing intersection for many scholars and public history practitioners. In 2015, when organizing a panel on oral history and public history for the National Council on Public History meeting in the United States, we received so many high quality proposals the conference organizers were nearly compelled to split our large panel into two groups in an effort to meet growing interest in bringing the subjects into conversation.

Certainly not all oral history is public history. Some interviews are sealed for decades before being made available to researchers. Other interviews may only be read by a small handful of highly motivated scholars. These interviews have their place. Many more oral histories, however, hold great (if often untapped) potential as tools for public historians. They grant us unique access to individual voices and work to humanize the past. Just as with Seim’s view of the bridge, however, the individual components in any project do not necessarily need to be flashy to make a logical and important contribution to popular knowledge about the past. Oral histories often suggest something significant about memory, language, and the social significance surrounding the events being discussed. When done well, the original audio, video, and transcripts from oral history interviews can create unique and irreplaceable resources for public historians.

Samuel J. Redman is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he teaches courses on public history, oral history, and modern U.S. history. He is the author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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