Interview of Roy Rosenzweig
OHMAR Pogue Award Winner, 2004
Pamela M. Henson, Interviewer
Director, Institutional History Division
Smithsonian Institution Archives
At his office in Pohick Module
The George Mason University
22 January 2004
For the OHMAR Archives
The George Washington University
HENSON: I wanted to just start with the very simple question of how did you become interested in oral history as a research tool?
ROSENZWEIG: It’s hard to remember this now, but I started out in college mostly interested in twentieth century American history and particularly the 1930s, partly shaped by it was the 1960s and people were interested in social protest in earlier periods, and so, if you were working on the 1930s in the 1960s, there were still a lot of people around to talk to, and so I think that was part of it. And the other part was that I was at Columbia [University], and the Columbia Oral History Project was there, and I can remember wandering over to the [Butler] Library and finding this office there, and sort of starting to look through their transcripts and so on. So, it must be some time around 1969 or so when I was doing my first serious undergraduate research paper and going over and looking at some of the transcripts of interviews they had done, and also starting to talk to people who had been involved in things in the thirties. I’m not sure when I did some of that myself. Actually, I taped people in that period of time, but then pretty soon after that I started. . . . Well, my first dissertation topic was a topic about the unemployed in the 1930s in Britain and America. And I was going to school at Cambridge, England, by that point, and that was in 1971. And so then I started to interview people who had been involved in the unemployed movement in both Britain and the United States, and so that was about 1970 or 1971 or so. So I did a fair number of interviews with people from the unemployed movements in Britain and America. Those were the first more serious tapes that I have done, and I still have. They probably should have been deposited some place. Although I’ve actually given them to some other people who were doing research thirty years later. And I guess pretty much all of those people have died by now. I recently got a really nice letter from a guy who teaches at AU [American University] whose father I interviewed probably in ’72 or ’73, sort of talking about – his father had died a few years before and that his father always remembered this interview. He was giving me some memorabilia from his father, because he had died, that I would like. So that’s my first involvement, really comes out of doing that work on the 1930s.
HENSON: Somewhat different approach – interviewing the unemployed and the new social history in the seventies – than what the Columbia Project was doing.
ROSENZWEIG: Yes, although I think some of that was more similar, I mean, obviously, it was influenced by the history of the modern opposition and everything. On the other hand it was still actually more organizational history, and in that way, it was kind of political history. That phase of my work was not such a sharp break. And the Columbia Project did, I can’t remember why, but they did a number of interviews with radicals from the thirties, I remember a Max Schatman[?] interview that was really long, and I think they did Norman Thomas, I’m not sure. So actually it was a little further in the 1970s where I think I worked on two different projects, but I think I go more directly into the social history direction – one was, and I was just talking to someone about this, I worked in the seventies on a film that was about a neighborhood in Boston, called Mission Hill, and it was Irish working class neighborhood that had gone into decline and there was racial tension by the sixties, they built a housing project there. And we did a film about this community and what happened in its relationship to Mission Hill in Boston. And it was conceived as kind of an oral history film. In other words, it was a film that was trying to tell the story of a neighborhood from the perspective of the people in the community. And so that was more directly tied to the ordinary people, social history, it’s written from the bottom up, still although directed at this public audience. But we did a lot of interviews for that film over a pretty wide range of different people, from the long-time residents in the neighborhood, people who had left the neighborhood, more recent people in the neighborhood…. So I did a lot work in oral history on that project.
In my dissertation because the dissertation ended on working-class leisure in Worcester, Massachusetts, and it ended in 1920, there were fewer people around to interview, although I did in the kind of later stages of that project, I did a set of interviews and I must have been doing these in the late 70s, I did a bunch of interviews at nursing homes in Worcester. There were still, let’s see, in 1978, yes, people who were relatively young in the time of World War I were still around. One of the most memorable ones, I tracked down a guy, Fred Fedeli, who had started one of the first movie theaters in Worcester and was the proprietor of the movie theater in an immigrant working-class neighborhood and he was an Italian immigrant himself. And I remember I traced his name through the city directory, and I found a phone number for a guy, and I called up and I said, like, you know, there was more than one Fred Fedeli, and I said, “Are you the older Fred Fedeli?” and he said, “Yes, I’m the father of all of them.” And he was probably in his nineties at the time, and it was like totally. . . .great. And actually that interview we subsequently used in the CD-ROM we later made, and we have it up on the web now, an excerpt from that interview, it’s a great interview. So, you know, I probably did a couple of dozen interviews for the Worcester book, and that was more of a real social history project.
HENSON: In 1981, you come down here to George Mason [University], mid-Atlantic region, and seem to just continue those interests, especially the thirties, because you become involved in the Oral History of the New Deal project.
ROSENZWEIG: Well, I think somewhat luckily for me, I got hired as being in charge of oral history at George Mason when I was hired here in 1981. Really, I don’t think I thought of myself as formally in oral history at that point; that is, I had used oral history, you know, in those projects I mentioned, and actually in a bunch of other projects, mostly ones that had to do with the thirties that I was doing a lot of work on. So I’d done a lot of oral history, it was something I used, but I’d never taken a course, I’d never had any formal things. So then I got this job and my wife got a job here, and I really wanted to get a job at George Mason, and so, I don’t know if I should admit this, but basically the weekend before I was interviewed at George Mason, I read ten years of the Oral History Review, as a way to bring myself up to speed, and I had to give a talk about oral history methodology and everything like that.
So I came here in the fall of ’81, and I taught oral history for the first time in the fall of ’81 and then I was in charge of the program here, although there was a relatively vague sense at George Mason about what they wanted. ‘Cause I just showed up and it was like asking people what they had hired me to do, and people weren’t totally clear about this. The part that people were clearest about was the part that had to do with the Federal Theater Project. That project had done a series of oral history interviews but wanted to expand and build on that. But then beyond that, the mandate was sort of vague. There were two ideas that were floating around. One was local stuff; they liked doing local projects. And the other was projects on the history of the University which actually was just before the tenth anniversary as an independent university. George Mason became an independent university in ’72, and so this was ’81, and we were getting towards the tenth anniversary. I actually started to do research on the history of the university as a way of, like, learning about that. I spent sometime going through the archives and the files, found a whole lot of damaging material, and then basically I thought they don’t want me to write this, I’m the wrong person to be doing this. You know, the whole story of the guy who had been the head of the school, and was the president in the sixties, and got fired, and things like that. I thought this is problematic for me to be the person to be doing this. And, in fact, then the university sort of lost interest in that. They later got interested in it again and actually one of my students later did a lot of oral histories of people, early founders. And in a way, in was much more appropriate for her to do this than for me, as a faculty member, to do that. So that kind of got dropped.
I did then start doing a project, a serious project on northern Virginia oral history. And that involved my going around and trying to meet the people in northern Virginia who had done projects. Part of the focus there was actually in the short run was trying to recover a lot of stuff that was done that was kind of lying around in places. For example, a whole lot of interviews had been done in 1970, 1971, for the centennial of the Fairfax County Schools. They were lying in a box at the Fairfax Public Library, but there was no one who was really in charge of that. And so what we did, this is back in the early eighties, we sort of gathered up a number of interviews that had been done and accessioned them to George Mason and cleaned up the permission stuff on them. Part of the problem was it was an unfunded project, they had no money for this, and so it was all very low budget. I got a small amount of money from the Fairfax History Commission, and we didn’t do transcripts, we did kind-of indexes to the tapes, as a sort of low-budget thing. And that collection is now over there in Special Collections at George Mason; it’s been sort of taken over by them. As a matter of fact, just exactly two days ago, I got a call from a guy who’s the son of E. B. Henderson, who the head of the NAACP in northern Virginia. That was one of the interviews we had sort of rescued, and I cleared up – I think he was still alive then, or did I do it with his son? – but anyway we cleared up the permission and everything, and so his son is now fairly old and had lost – I had made him a copy of the tape, and he had lost the tape and wanted to get the tape, so I sent him over to the library to get a copy of the tape. So those are now used for research. And those tapes are – a lot are from like the late sixties and seventies.
We then started to do, I organized volunteers to do new interviews, and we did a number of new interviews. But it was a hard process. It’s hard to do stuff with volunteers. I trained the volunteers; I started at that point giving some kind of evening part-time course on doing oral history. That was about a four-week course or something like that, partly to train the volunteers and stuff like that. So we were doing that. And then on the Arts Project, we kind of in some ways wound up doing a similar thing in that we applied to NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] for money, and they were more interested in – they wanted to get control of what had been done, which was a good idea. So what we did there was finish up a survey of all the interviews that had been done on the Arts Projects from the thirties. Then we also accessioned a number of tapes that had been done by individuals on different projects that were also sitting around. We cleared up the permissions on those. I think those we transcribed when they hadn’t been transcribed. We added that to the collection at George Mason. And then out of that we did a book that was a guide to the oral histories on the Arts Projects, and it was kind of a rigorous book on the arts projects of the thirties. Now, it’s really too late to do any more interviews on that, but we really did more of an organizing job on that.
Actually, that’s sort of been a way, a starting point for me of the work I’m doing now in new media, because we got this grant to do this project, and we had to decide how to organize this, and I’m asking people about this, and they said, “Well, you need a database.” And I said, “Well, what a database?” Personal computers were just coming out at that point, and we got an IBM PC. And someone said you should use a database program, and so we bought d-Base II, and it was, at that point, incomprehensible directions on this. I read the book and tried to figure out how to do this, so I could do this, create these databases of these interview. I guess that must be around ’83 or ’84 or something like that, we did those projects. That was my introduction, I had no computer background at all. That was my first “self-taught” experience using computers.
HENSON: One of the other projects I see you working on is the History Matters, which was not just working with oral history, you’re working with primary sources in general on that site, and organizing and making things available. So that I see that, in some ways, as a continuation of that trend, is that?
ROSENZWEIG: I would say in two – or three – ways. The technology thing is what got me into doing this. Figuring out the technology to organize oral histories got me into this, and I started reading computer magazines. By the late eighties I was reading in computer magazines about CD-ROMs coming out, and I’m thinking, okay, I could use this for the project, so I started working in that. So that kind of got me in on the technology side.
On the conceptual side, though, the history from the bottom up, new social history thing, is what directly leads into that, and particularly the oral history part which we started to do with the CD-ROM projects, which was in 1989-90. We started working on this, pre-internet, but you could do audio on the computer. And we thought, “Gee, this is great. While everybody has been doing these tapes, this is the first time you could hear the voices and we could distribute that.” So I think immediately we were grabbed by the idea that one of the most exciting things we could do was to include the actual voices of people. And so we did the first of those CD-ROMs, “Who Built America,” which took about three years, and we finished that in 1993. We did, probably, I’m trying to think, thirty or forty, we included thirty or forty oral history interviews. So in a lot of cases, we went back to people who had done tapes in earlier times and we still had the tapes, and said, “Can we use the tapes?” As a matter of fact, the Fred Fedeli interview I was talking about, he had died. I thought, alright, here’s one that I have that’s a really good interview and illustrates the rise of the movie theater. We went to a bunch of other people who had done stuff, and they were willing to share this with us, and they were included. That was one of the most exciting things, that this notion of the new social history of giving voice to the voiceless. Well, we were giving a voice to these people in those by putting them on the CD-ROM.
That then led to “History Matters,” which probably then we’re getting then into the period where the web has emerged in the nineties. And so then we could include oral histories on the web as well. But also in this conceptual way, the notion there was the voices of ordinary people. So lots of them are just print documents, so oral history is just one important component of those things.
HENSON: Things like “Who Built America?” and “History Matters” run counter to the previous educational trends which were these very simplified textbooks. Education starts moving in a whole other direction, and we’re now at the point where some states, such as Maryland, in their Standards of Learning, require that students be competent in using primary sources. I see your work really dovetailing and perhaps pushing that movement, in some ways.
ROSENZWEIG: Yes, although, unfortunately I think some political movements, particularly in, like, Virginia but also other places, are going in the other direction. But, yes, I think that interest in learning from primary sources and learning skills of historical understanding – that’s been central to our role. I also think that – you pointed out that textbooks play an interesting role – I think that one of the things conceptually we were thinking about in doing the CD-ROM on “Who Built America?” was a notion of breaking apart the seams of a book. The book tries to make it seamless, and when you break apart those seams and engage students in the process by which historians craft these narratives. And so, my friend, ….?? Has this metaphor of the archive and the story. Historians craft one story out of the archive, then, in these digital forms you are exposing the archive out of which you can write many different stories from that. So that certainly has always been a goal. Certainly in terms of people who study historical learning, I would say that’s the approach that’s been favored and there’s a lot of research on it. On the other hand, there have been these political pressures towards testing and pushing the multiple choice test, and things like that, which then go in this totally other direction. It’s interesting that you – the first study that was done of what students know about history was done in 1917 in Texas, and it’s published in a psychology journal or educational journal. The people doing the study, they say, well, there are many different ways we could assess student knowledge of history, and they have a long list of like, interesting different things, like the ability to relate facts to the present, ability to analyze sources, and then factual knowledge of history. Well, that one we can measure easily, so let’s do that. And then they do that, and there was a long tradition. One of the things that’s fascinating if you read this 1917 study is that the conclusion is that students don’t know any history. Typically, it’s like they didn’t know that Jefferson Davis was the head of the Confederacy. That’s something from the canon of historical facts. But if you know anything about the history of education, the number of people in high school, the population of high school students in Texas in 1917 is a highly, small, self-selected, class-selected group. So it’s not . . . . Everything in education has changed in the past eighty-ninety years, except that students don’t know these facts that people are complaining about and the studies keep on showing the same thing.
HENSON: And they’ll never remember those detailed facts, no matter what the larger picture.
Has using oral history altered your research, would you say? How has it affected your approach to research?
ROSENZWEIG: I think for me it’s just part of the same. . . .
HENSON: It’s a tool?
ROSENZWEIG: It’s a tool, but it’s part of this larger effort to understand the voices of a varied people. I do think that the quote that I picked up from Mike Frisch or someone, that there are two different notions about oral history. One is a source like any other source. The other is history itself. Staughton Lynd, if you remember, back when he was doing the rank and file history stuff, I think sort of exemplified this history itself approach in which . . .I have some quotes somewhere from Staughton Lynd who was saying like, history is the conversation between the old people and the young people, and the historians should get out of the way. In that version, it’s the history itself versus the version in which it’s just one of many sources, and we’re sort of cross-checking. Maybe because I’m an ambivalent person, I go back and forth between these different things. In some ways I admire or I’m seduced by the history itself approach and the populism of that. On the other hand my professionalism and professional training also propel towards the “it’s just another source that we cross-check among these other sources.” And so I sort of go back and forth between those. But one of my favorite class teaching exercises, which in some ways exemplifies this tension, something I do, well, I haven’t done lately, but I teach Ted Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers and this sort of autobiography of Ned Cobb, which is I think a fabulous piece of work. I also have an exercise where the culminating moment of that book is the shoot-out that leads to Cobb going to prison for twelve years or something. At some point I dug up these other versions of the shoot-out; it was covered in a bunch of papers in Alabama but also The New York Times and also The Daily Worker. And there’s a poem by John Beecher, called “An Innocent Man,” which is about the shoot-out. And then there’s another oral history with . . . . Josiah Hudson, his autobiography, also talks, he was at Birmingham at the time of the shoot-out, he was involved in the protest about it, so I have about six, seven, eight, ten, I don’t know, accounts of this thing that I give out to students, and I ask them to write a narrative about what happened. And these accounts are all totally conflicting, and it’s sort of like, what happened at Lexington Green type of exercise. It’s also, particularly if you’ve read All God’s Dangers, it’s very hard not to sort of empathize with Ned Cobb’s version of the story, and then you are confronted with these other versions which are quite at variance with it. The professionalizing version of this, take all these, lay them out, think about, well, he says this, and this person says this, and this other person says that. And the other version is to say, okay, what’s the larger historical vision that Ned Cobb had, and actually if you read, in some ways it’s a brilliant piece of work. One of the questions for the students actually is about to what degree is this [Theodore] Ted Rosengarten, and to what degree is Ned Cobb? As you know, Rosengarten appears not at all in this book, it’s simply the voice of Ned Cobb and Cobb telling the story. Did Ted Rosengarten shape this account? The immediate student response is to say, well, you know, he cut a lot of things out and shaped – but in fact Rosengarten claims, says, that he used a very large percentage of the stuff from it. So then there’s this question about what’s the. . .how might he have shaped this account? Part of my argument is that Rosengarten shapes it as an audience, that Ned Cobb is speaking to Ted Rosengarten who he sees as an ally in some ways. In fact, Cobb actually had different versions himself of the shoot-out. He had versions for his family, he had versions for the traveling salesman, he had versions for someone he perceived as an ally. There’s an interview with Rosengarten where he talks about this in which at one point Cobb says to Rosengarten, describing someone, “He was your color.” And Rosengarten says, “You mean white?” And Cobb says, “No, mulatto.” And Rosengarten’s take on this was that there was nothing wrong with Cobb’s eyes; that he was making him into his ally. And also in that version, Cobb comes out as much more militant in that version than in the version for the traveling salesman or in the version for someone in his family. As you read that larger version, he integrates in the story of slavery into this story. And there’s actually a larger historical interpretation there. . . .
[BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE 2]
HENSON: The tool was the history itself. . . .
ROSENZWEIG: For me, as an ambivalent person, at moments, I think when I am doing my more academic work, it’s a tool, it’s a source, it’s one of the tools that I’m using, that I want to use. In some other modes, I’m interested in thinking about it as this conversation between older people and younger people.
HENSON: As a cultural action, yes. . . .what’s going on in a community.
You then move-stay with changes in technology to actually recording oral histories online with the ECHO Project.
ROSENZWEIG: This is sort of this. . . .wave, then the technology winds back around to oral history. My involvement with that started with Jim Sparrow who I had met earlier and then through me came to work at George Mason. Jim had this project on the New York City black-out that the Sloan Foundation funded, that was about collecting people’s accounts of the New York City black-out online. So we moved that project, Jim had been at Brown [University], and we moved that project to George Mason. And so out of that we started up this ECHO Project which is designed for exploring and collecting oral history online. We’re working particularly in the history of science and technology – I see this very much as an experimental effort that we hadn’t totally figured out yet, and particularly about how you can do this, collect histories online and what’s the value of what you’ve collected online? So we’ve been working on that, partly in running workshops for people on how to do that kind of work, and we’ve run a bunch of workshops, and we’ve worked with a lot historians of science and technology on doing these kinds of projects.
And then we’ve done some pilot projects of our own, probably maybe ten, twelve, different projects on a whole range of topics, ranging from more serious history of science and technology – these were on Claude Shannon who’s one of the pioneers of information theory, who had died, and we sent out a thing asking people to write on our website about how Shannon had influenced their work and any personal contacts with him. So it wasn’t meant to be a mass thing; we probably got thirty-plus responses from people, some quite detailed and some interesting also from around the world, people in a lab in Siberia who wrote in and talked about how Shannon influenced their work and what their connection was with Shannon.
And so we did some things like that, and we did some more popular topics like the D.C. Metro or the moon walk or the shuttle accident. Actually, one of the biggest ones was on women in science and technology, on the careers of women in science and technology. We probably have maybe 130, 150 responses to that. Some of the responses we did generally; then we ran some through, like the Smith [College] Alumni Association, and we solicited input into that.
So we’ve done a number of projects there, and that led in turn to this project on September 11th  where, after September 11th, Sloan Foundation wanted to do something related to that. They didn’t want to just have an open call; they went to people they had funded and asked them to make proposals, and we proposed to them to do this project on September 11th. We partnered with the American Social History Project, which a lot of our online work have been with – they also had the advantage that they were New York, and this was a New York, as well as a D.C., event. We set up that project with them, and that’s been the most successful project in online collecting in terms of – although we’ve collected a much broader range of things there, stories, emails, art, photographs, flash files, PDFs, and we collected about 130,000 objects including about 18,000 stories from people about September 11th. So that particularly took off – I’m trying to remember what the actually number is, but maybe half of those we collected on September 11th, 2002. In other words, it really tapped into something for people on that particular day. . . .
HENSON: Who were dealing with the day. . . .
ROSENZWEIG: With that day, and our server was totally overloaded and everything. I think again we really haven’t quite figured out, you know, the values of that, the uses of that, but partly, in that case, simply in the aggregation of material there are sets of interesting things you can find. In looking through them, you start to see patterns. You see, for example, if you search on, there’s something like thousands of these stories mention “Good Morning America” and the “Today” show, and it shows the way in which this was a mass mediated event. When we gave the collection to the Library of Congress, [Michael] Mike Kazin gave a talk about how historians might think about September 11th. But he did some searching on the thing and noted the way in which not that many of them talk about Osama Bin Ladin or George [W.] Bush, or things like that, or broad sort-of concepts, they’re much more personalized narratives that people write.
I think we’re still thinking about, trying to figure out the best way to do this online collecting, what’s the values of online collecting? We’re trying to do some other sorts of experiments in that, and we have a number of ongoing-we just actually launched one on the – well, we’re doing it in partnership with the NIH [National Institutes of Health] History Office on the home pregnancy test which was developed at NIH. We did a site with them on the home pregnancy test, and then we’re collecting stories about the home pregnancy test, there are probably a hundred of those now.
But we’re also looking at things like using instant messaging to do interviews, and we’re also looking at doing AV chat kinds of things. Those start to seem more “oral history-like,” as opposed to surveys where you are just getting what people told, and you’re not really interacting with them. The advantage of instant messaging is that it’s self-archiving, in other words, people are typing the answers in, and the same thing could be true with the AV chat, which is now easier to do. We’re hoping to do an experiment on, a project on the history of open-source software, free and open-source software, and we’re hoping to do a number of AV chat interviews or instant messaging interviews with people involved in that, as an experiment to see how that works. So then we are getting a little closer to what people have traditionally done in oral history, and obviously a huge savings in travel costs and things like that. We have no doubt that the old traditional oral history is better than the stuff that we’ve done. The question is, but this obviously has the potential for cost savings and enables you to reach sets of people you couldn’t reach otherwise. One of the people who’s in one of our workshops, was a graduate student at Cornell [University], was doing a project on video stores, and that sort of moment when there were all these independent video stores. His project got mentioned in a bunch of places, and he got like nine hundred responses on the website that he developed, from people who like owned video stores. There is just no way he could have gotten that just through interviews. . . .
HENSON: The real core difference is people get to self-select themselves as interviewees, as opposed to the historian.
ROSENZWEIG: Yes, that’s an interesting point. I think that’s right, that that’s another. . . . They’re also selecting more what they get to say, although the questions do sort of shape the interview also. But they are also self-selecting. Well, you can try to press people, sets of people you want, to do this and everything, and that’s the question of how. I think with really busy people, in some ways it may be harder to get them to come to a website at all. We’re just starting a project on – it has to do with the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure, and you know, it has to do with like threats today. It gives you an introduction to all of it, and there’s a big thing at George Mason on that. And we’re doing a history of this President’s Commission, and we’re going to do, I don’t know, forty, fifty traditional oral histories with the people who were on the commission and everything. But we’re looking at trying to get some of the people who were less centrally involved who we wouldn’t reach otherwise to try to get them to do something on the website, and we’ll see how that works. Actually next week is a dinner where we’re sort of launching that project on that. So there we’re going to try to use it as a way to supplement a project that is being done in the traditional way. We’re writing the history of that commission as well, so there are also the paper documents that we’re assembling, or they’re really all digital documents, and then we’ll have the oral histories and then we’ll have the supplemental material, and we’ll see. In a way the project on open-source is also an effort in that direction, to try to think about a bunch of different methods and what’s the utility of the additional methods and how they all sort of come together around one project.
From an archiving point of view, say, something like open-source, where there’s no clear organizational center, there’s no company or something like that, how do you create an archive about that? So we’re also looking at trying to create a digital archive on the topic and bring that stuff together in one place, or at least a set of links in one place or something, but have an archive on open-source.
HENSON: A really massive project. . . .
ROSENZWEIG: Yes, we’ll see if we can get enough money to do it.
HENSON: And you were also talking recently about doing something on AIDS.
ROSENZWEIG: Yes, that’s an even more massive project. Tom Scheinfeldt’s been talking with people, from the Smithsonian [Institution] and World Bank, on a program on collecting the world-wide experience of people with AIDS/HIV and that would be particularly outside the U.S. There are a lot of complicated technology transfer issues and stuff like that. But that would be a very expensive project to undertake, but that will be an exciting project, if we can get some funding to do that.
HENSON: Do you see other organizations, outside of George Mason, starting to do this?
ROSENZWEIG: It’s interesting, it’s partly, you know, you do this thing and you think, okay, is just a ridiculous idea. I think I just like to try new things, and so I had that this experience of when we were doing this CD-ROM, doing this first digital history project, and I kept thinking, maybe nothing’s ever going to come of this. But about two years into the project, and I thought, maybe this will never actually get done. So unlike collecting things, mostly we were the only people doing this, but now I see a lot more going on. Ford Motor Company just started a project on Rosie the Riveter, and they’ve been advertising on television about this. And I think they may be doing something also on the history of the Ford Motor Company. There are a lot of in a kind of popular way military ones, veterans. There’s World War II sites, Vietnam War vet sites, collecting histories from that, so that was another place where. . . . There are atomic veterans, there’s a thing on Nagasaki, a kind of children of the bomb sort of thing that the Exploratorium collected stuff on that, so that was another project.
NEH had a project, which unfortunately died out, but it’s called My History Is America’s History, where they were collecting stuff online, but I think in terms of the change in political administration, they lost interest in that. So I’m struck actually that there are a lot more, all of a sudden there seem to be a lot more people trying this. But, as I said, it’s still I think, actually I was saying this the other day, well, okay, Alan Nevins started in like 1948, they first started, so we’re in like 1953 in terms of doing this in online digital history. So I still think it’s a very nascent process, and there are a lot of things to figure out about it.
HENSON: And the technology will change.
ROSENZWEIG: Yes, I think that’s part of what you see with things like instant messaging, you know, like you and I are mostly too old for instant messaging, but it’s the natural way of communicating for a bunch of other people, and it’s an interesting idea for this. And like even chat, which in a way I think, back in ’64, and I was like fourteen years old and visited the New York World’s Fair, one of the big things was the picture phone. It was like in the fifties and sixties, there was a lot of talk about the picture phone and it never went anywhere, but now finally the picture phone actually exists with these, you know, you can buy these little cameras for. . . . I mean the i-sight??, which the Apple markets for about $150. You can buy $250. cameras and you can just plug it in and you can do video, chat with people in other parts of the world, and it’s incredibly cheap and easy to do. So I sort of think twenty years from now you’re going to see lots of people in oral history doing stuff like that. There it’s simply to some degree, you know, saving travel costs and everything. I think you lose something in the personal, but there are also trade-offs to doing this. Certainly I’ve done phone interviews in the past, and all. And then there were just interviews we didn’t get to because the travel seemed too difficult to arrange. And so, I think that definitely is going to be a draw to it. And I think my sense of the online collecting, it would be one of the things in the toolkit that people would think about as a way of doing their historical projects.
HENSON: Are there any particular types of themes, I know when we did the [Smithsonian Videohistory Project] video project we saw certain types of topics worked better for group interviews, and things like that. Have you come to any conclusions. . . ?
ROSENZWEIG: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think that open-ended questions work better. In this format, you need, you don’t want too many questions, because that intimidates people. Jim Sparrow’s Blackout Project had this whole initial iteration, this kind of detailed survey about, what do you think about this, what do you think about that, and everybody filled out the first thing and said, “Here’s what happened to me during the blackout.” So it’s good for getting someone’s particular story that they have, but in some ways you could say it’s a limited thing because you can’t probe beneath it. I suspect it’s better for getting at these kinds of general stories than, for example, if you’re doing an institutional history and you want to say, “Okay, well what really happened in that meeting?” or something like that, well, it’s not going to work well for that. It going to work better for “What did you feel like when [John F.] Kennedy was shot?” and things like that.
HENSON: Shared, communal experiences.
ROSENZWEIG: So I think the experiential stuff works better in those formats. Also you need, in some ways, it also works to tap into some community. . . . [Interruption. Tape recorder turned off.]
HENSON: To change topics a little bit, since you’ve been down here, what role have organizations like OHMAR or Oral History [Association] played in the work that you do?
ROSENZWEIG: Well, I think, in a general way, I think these organizations do things that are important for getting people involved. . . . I think one of the strengths of oral history has always been its openness to a diversity of practitioners, and oral history has been one of the places where you have the greatest diversity of people meeting together in terms of, you know, on the one hand, very populist people, people doing military stuff, on the other hand, people with advanced degrees to people who are newcomers. And one of the great strengths has always been that openness. And there’s also something . . . . in our own work. I was myself more directly involved in the eighties when I was doing more direct oral history work, and, of course, . . . .
My most important OHMAR story is with Martha Ross and meeting her. When I joined up with OHMAR just right after I moved here in ’81 and then I guess I was on the board maybe at some point in the early eighties. I was in a meeting with Martha, someone brought up the name Rosenzweig and said is that a relative of yours? I said no, people think the name is more unusual than it is. So then Martha said, “What about Max Rosenzweig?” And I was like totally startled! It turned out that Martha had corresponded with my father during World War II, and had actually met him. He was stationed at the air corps base near where she was going to college, and she was the editor of the school newspaper or something like that and called up. My father did kind of public relations work for the air corps, and then they corresponded and then lost touch. And then through me, they became back in touch, and they’re good friends with my parents now. This is now for years, fifteen years or more, they were at my nephew’s bar mitzvah last year and everything. So that’s been a great sort of personal thing to have made that reconnection through – – it really goes back to OHMAR.
It’s hard to think of another place in the history world where there has been this kind of openness and this meeting together. There’s always been a strong commitment in oral history organizations towards training new people in how to do things, and so I’ve been for years telling people, “You should go to some of these meetings and you should sign up for these workshops, and this is a really good way to get involved.”
HENSON: It’s creating a resource and community. . .but also it’s a way that I’ve learned about what you folks are doing out here, and those sorts of things, which are always fun.
Any closing thoughts for the oral history community?
ROSENZWEIG: I think that in terms of what I was saying before, I think for me oral history has particularly meant this commitment to a diversity of voices in the historical record and recovering this diversity of voices. And I think it’s also been a commitment to a diversity of practitioners of history. I would say those have been the two most important things to me in my career in general. And even though I kind of stray from traditional oral history myself, I feel like those are the things I’ve tried to bring to this other work, particularly the digital history work that we’ve been doing. So those core values of a kind of democratic historical record, open to a diversity of voices and open to a diversity of practitioners.
HENSON: Thank you.