Documenting the Obama Presidency through Oral History
May 16, 2019 10:18 AM
For decades, historians, journalists, filmmakers, and scholars have produced oral history archives to document our shared past. Major archives have invested in collecting the testimonies of holocaust survivors, the stories of American veterans, and memories of the Civil Rights movements, so future generations can learn what it felt like to live through a historic moment.
These firsthand accounts of history can create powerful, human-centered connections between past, present, and future. Rooted in oral traditions that predate recording technology and endure today in communities across the world, oral history has become an important way to preserve and share the individual stories that tie us together.
There is a long tradition of presidential foundations partnering with other organizations to produce oral histories that document presidents and their time in office. In thinking about how oral history could help document the Obama Administration, we consulted a range of presidential historians, scholars, documentarians, and journalists with experience bringing the past to life. In keeping with the spirit of President and Mrs. Obama’s White House, we wanted to ensure that any oral history project include government officials who worked directly with the president as well as those from all walks of life who were affected by the Obama presidency.
That diversity of voices—many of which are often lost to history—is crucial for understanding campaigns that brought new voters and organizers into the political process, a president who read ten constituent letters every night, and a White House that found new ways to engage directly with the American people at the dawn of the digital era.
That’s why we’re so excited Columbia University, in partnership with the University of Chicago and University of Hawaiʻi, will produce the official oral history of the Obama presidency. Columbia has one of the largest and oldest oral history programs, and archives, in the world and is home to the nation’s only graduate level training program in the field of oral history. Founded by Allan Nevins in 1948, Columbia’s Center for Oral History Research has consistently focused on the history of our democracy by conducting biographies of policy leaders, and projects on the law, civil society and political administrations at all levels. In addition to hosting the Eisenhower Administration oral history, Columbia’s recent major works include a project documenting how New Yorkers experienced September 11, an examination of Guantanamo and civil rights law in the 21st Century, and a history of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Over the next five years they’ll conduct interviews with roughly 400 people, including Cabinet secretaries, Assistants to the President, mid- and lower-level administration staff, journalists, and outside figures—Republican and Democrat—both in Washington and beyond, who can speak to this president’s eight years in office. This project will also examine Mrs. Obama’s work, initiatives, and legacy as First Lady.
It’s especially exciting that Columbia’s project will include interviews with individuals from around the country who were affected by this administration, such as those whose letters President Obama read and responded to each night, enrollees in the Affordable Care Act, or campaign volunteers. Capturing their perspectives will enable the oral history archive to weave recollections of administration officials with the stories and experiences of people impacted by their decisions. We are also so grateful that the University of Chicago and University of Hawai’i will be part of this work and explore how Hawai’i and the south side of Chicago shaped the President and Mrs. Obama’s pre-presidential lives.
Columbia and its academic partners will have full control over all editorial aspects of the project, and they expect to make the oral histories publicly available online by 2026. Every interviewee will have the option of appearing on video as well as audio, making the archive a resource of rich material for scholars, filmmakers, podcasters, and digital storytellers in the decades to come.
History is not an exclusive endeavor, and as the project unfolds, Columbia will look for opportunities to connect their work with other academic researchers or organizations examining issues related to President Obama’s years in office. Following the project’s completion, the Foundation will look for opportunities to connect the oral history archive with related collections and content, including the National Archives-administered digital records of the Obama presidency.
Meanwhile, here at the Obama Foundation, we’ll continue to explore innovative ways to capture your stories as we work to build the Obama Presidential Center. Last summer we collected hundreds of photos, videos, and audio recordings from people around the world who lived through the 2008 election, but we will continue to ask for your help documenting the Obamas’ legacy for current and future generations. If you have any artifacts you’d like to share with us from the Obamas’ lives and careers, political campaigns, White House years, or the post-presidency, you can tell us more about them here.
Chris Liddell-Westefeld is the Oral History Project Manager at the Obama Foundation.