History of Oral History in Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Steel Worker
Women work at the Westinghouse Company, Allegheny County.

People have always told stories about the past, and for centuries history-conscious individuals have recorded these stories for the record, albeit often in idiosyncratic and extemporaneous ways. Since the nineteenth century, interviews have also been a tool for reform; thus the Pittsburgh Survey, a Progressive Era investigation of social conditions in that city designed to educate the public and prod it towards civic reform, relied heavily on evidence obtained from oral sources. Perhaps the most notable early collection of interviews are the thousands of life histories of individuals from various regional, occupational, and ethnic groups recorded by Federal Writers Project workers during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Though of considerable value, these early efforts to record firsthand accounts of the past can be termed "oral history" by only the most generous of definitions. While methods of eliciting and recording them were more or less rigorous in any given case, the absence of mechanical – or digital – recording devices necessitated a reliance on human note-takers, raising questions about reliability and veracity. Thus, historians generally agree that oral history as a formal practice began with the work of historian Allan Nevins at Columbia University in the 1940s. It was Nevins who first initiated a systematic and disciplined approach to interviewing, recording interviews on tape, preserving them, and making them available for future research.

Other institutions soon followed Nevins's lead. Here in Pennsylvania, the earliest known recorded interview was conducted in 1953 with Francis Perrine of Mercer County, who was 104 years old at the time of the interview, making him a teenager at the time of the Civil War. The earliest project was likely the series of interviews conducted in the mid-1960s by Arthur N. Cook, professor of history at Temple University, for a history he was writing of that university. Other early projects included Bryn Mawr College's collection documenting the history of the college and the achievements of distinguished alumni; the United Steelworkers of America project at Penn State, and a series of interviews conducted by the Pittsburgh Section of the National Council of Jewish Women documenting the Jewish immigrant experience in that city. Projects proliferated in the following decades; there are literally thousands of oral history interviews and hundreds of oral history projects in historical societies, libraries, university archives, and other institutions throughout the state, many of them focusing on Pennsylvania's working class and ethnic history. In addition, numerous published works on Pennsylvania history have drawn extensively on oral history interviews. Please visit our bibliography for a listing.

At various times in its history, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has been involved more or less actively in oral history and related work. In the early 1940s, the State Archives became the repository of interviews conducted by the Federal Writers Project in Pennsylvania. In 1967, the Commission established the Ethnic Culture Survey, which collected various genres of folklore and folklife throughout the Commonwealth. In 1971, the Ethnic Culture Survey became the Ethnic Studies Section within the Bureau of Archives and History, and throughout that decade the agency amassed what has become the single largest collection of oral history interviews in the state, focusing on industrial workers, ethnic peoples, and local communities. A recent inventory of interviews at the Pennsylvania State Archives lists thirty-five collections with a total of 1,278 individual interviews. Most recently, active collecting has gone on primarily at PHMC historic sites and museums, notable the Drake Well Museum, Somerset Historical Center, and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

For further reading and an overview of oral history in Pennsylvania through the early 1990s, see Linda Shopes, "Oral History in Pennsylvania: A Historiographical Overview, Pennsylvania History 60:4 (October 1993): 430-454.