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Interview with Donald A. Ritchie, Oral Historian at the USA senate

August 9, 2010

Donald A. Ritchie

At the recent Oral History conference [Record] [Create]: Oral History in Art, Craft and Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I interviewed Donald A. Ritchie, Oral Historian of the United States Senate who wrote a number of books, such as the seminal book Doing Oral History; I asked him about the benefits of oral historians talking to each other from across the continents, about his book on how to do oral history and what drew him to oral history in the 70’s; he also talked about his new Oxford Handbook to Oral History coming out soon.

Listen to the interview here [00:29:44 minutes], the full transcript is available below:

Full transcript

My name is Verusca Calabria and I’m here today on the 3rd July 2010 in London at the V and A [Victoria and Albert Museum] for the Annual Oral History Conference on, art craft and design and I’m speaking to Donald Ritchie, Hi Donald.


Thank you for agreeing to being interviewed at the last minute here in this setting.

I’m happy to.

So how come you’re here Donald?

Well I’ve been doing oral history now since the 1970’s, I do oral history at the U.S. [United States] Senate and I do it for my own research as well and my wife is also an oral historian and while I do political interviewing at the U.S. Senate, she does more artistic, art, architecture interviewing at the National Gallery of Art so she is here speaking at this conference and I’m here listening and enjoying a very different approach to oral history than I, I’m used to doing myself.

And what do you think is the benefit of oral historians talking to each other from across the continent?

I find it fascinating in that we have so many different subjects that we’re studying, in so many different countries, with so many different people but we share a common methodology, so I learn from people who are doing interviews in a way that I would never do myself with people whom I would not be interviewing but they are using techniques that I could see how I could apply to the types of interviews that I’m doing and they’re asking questions about what they’re doing, they’re questioning they’re own techniques, they’re analysing the material and so I always find it challenging, in fact I think it’s more interesting to hear somebody in a completely different field talking about how they use the method, than hearing somebody who is doing the type of work that I am because people who are doing my political interviewing are asking the same types questions and aren’t expanding they’re horizon in that sense.

So now to bring you to the book the you published, the how to do Oral History, that I read myself a long time ago now, tell me how has it been received by the oral history community?

Well one of the nicest things that happened at this meeting was I was chatting with a young woman the other day and she read my name tag and she said “Oh, you were the very first book I ever read in oral history” and I thought, well, the fact that she’s still in oral history is a good sign that my book didn’t turn her off along the way but I wrote that book in, originally in 1993 and at that point I had been doing oral history for about 20 years and I had participated in a lot of workshops and I, people ask similar types of questions but they’re unexpected questions that come up and people had been encouraging me to write a manual to do oral history and I was thinking about, I’d looked at the other manuals and I just didn’t want to reproduce what they were doing and it struck me that oral history is about asking questions and workshops are about asking questions and answering them so I began to write this manuscript in question and answer form and I actually wrote out all the questions, as many as I could think of in advance and I answered all the easy ones first and then I went back to work on the hard ones and the book has evolved and actually this is a second edition that’s out now, the second edition came out in 2003 and the, what had changed was the technology between the two editions, the digital revolution not only changed the way we do the interviews it changed what we do with them after we do the interviews because now we can put them on the internet, I can read interviews all over the world, we can put sound up, there’s more people using video, more people are thinking of public presentations; in shopping malls or in community museums, all sorts of schools, there’s just so many different things that you can do with the, with the interviews, even without a big budget, I mean it’s great if you’re here at the V and A where you’re supported by a well established institution but most oral historians are in very small community based operations, university based operations and yet the new technology has made it so much less expensive to operate and everything is so much more portable than it used to be as well. The one thing that didn’t change between the two editions was the actual doing the interview; the personal relations, the way in which you establish rapport, the way in which you encourage a person to speak longer, all those things are universal and less changing than the technological aspects.

Thank you. So just to talk about what are you doing now with oral history?

Well I continue to do oral history for the U.S. Senate, my interviews there are with, sometimes with the U.S. Senators although more often than not I help those senators establish university based oral history projects. I worked with Senator Edward Kennedy for instance, when he set up a very large oral history project for the university library that will be getting his papers in Boston and he got very interested in doing oral history, he got interested in the video the audio aspects of it, he eventually set up a large project to interview not only himself but for his family members and also his staff, he’d worked for over 40 years as a U.S. Senator and so a lot of people had worked for him, he was always famous for having the best staff on Capitol Hill and so they were able to do, I think, several hundred interviews as part of that project though I couldn’t replicate that but I could help them in setting it up. More often than not I interview the professional staff at the senate, the people who are, who I call “professionally anonymous”, they were the ones that wrote the speeches and drafted the legislation and helped the senators, but they kept out of the lime light, they kept out of the news and yet they have wonderful memories and they can help us decipher what was really happening, in the sense that they can construct what we think is the history of that time, to compare the personalities and to give you those sort of rich anecdotes that future authors will be looking for to make the story come alive because it is a lot of blood and guts, even though it’s a political story it’s essentially major battles in the sense that are being fought to create legislation, the American legislative process is a very complicated and convoluted process and you need guides wherever possible and think these oral histories will do that and we don’t just interview the top staff we interview a cross section of the staff, so I’ve even interviewed the barber at the senate who literally had the senators by the ear and who picked up a lot of the gossip and conversation but also had interesting observations about the personalities of the people that he was working with and about the whole work environment, we’re talking about the work culture of a whole legislative body.

So how do you deal with he liabilities of these individuals, for example the barber, although I can’t imagine they would have got him to sign some sort of, you know sort of “keep your mouth shut” kind of a contract.

We don’t have any kind of a seal, that members of the senate cannot speak to members of the public, there is no restriction on what senate staff or members of the senate can say, we have no secrecy act in that sense. Now the people who work in intelligence gathering, they are much more restrained but I’m not in the intelligence area so I don’t have to worry about that, although in the United States all the intelligence agencies have internal oral history projects, because they can’t speak to anyone outside the agency but that can speak to historians inside the agency, but my people are quite free, they all sign a deed of gift, in which they give their interview to the public domain, they don’t copyright it but they determine when that interview will open up, so the barber…decided his interview will open up when he retires which will be in a few year but not, not right now. Many of the other people I interviewed they were already retired and the senators they worked for had deceased, so they, they don’t mind opening the interviews. A few of them are a little younger, they have other things to do, some of the senators are still serving and so they will close their interviews for a period, probably no more than 10 years and we now put a large number of our interviews on our website, the senate website, which is , G-O-V, and I’d say we have about 30 full length transcripts, with in some cases sound-bites so 10 minute clips from those interviews and they get and enormous amount of traffic on a monthly basis, we think the largest number are students who are working on projects but we also know that genealogists have used our interviews and major scholars, European Scholars-right now in Britain there is a big school of study in American political history and you have faculty and students here who are studying the political news and political history in the United States and they want to make use of as many of the sources as possible before they go to the States and so having the interviews online is a big boost and we often then will hear from them when they’re coming to help them look at other types of records that are only available when they come to Washington

Did you have any cases of these individuals of these people that you had interview who asked to be removed from the web?

No, it’s just the other way around actually, the first, the first few that we put up they were or oldest interviewees and they were in their eighties and we would call them up and say “We’d like to put your interview on the internet” and they would say “what’s the internet?” [Laughs] And we’d have to explain what it was and in some cases they’d get back in touch with us after we’d put the interview up an a grandchild had gone online with them to show them the interview, they were very proud of the fact to find grandpa on the internet. Now we’re interviewing younger people who are much more web savvy and they actually want their interviews to go up right away because they see that as a status, that their life is important enough to be on the senate website and so they’re encouraging us and we’re actually a little more reticent about doing it because again we don’t want to post anything that deals with current members, we’re not there to criticise the members but we’re there to collect a candid a history as possible about the members and once a person leaves office then they, they belong to history and then we feel that we can post anything about them, occasionally the Senate legal council will recommend that we keep something closed because of the question of liability or deformation, so we have advice in that respect but most of the interviews that I deal with have not been libellous, there have been a few that have been very critical, that verge on deformation but I don’t think they’re malicious in anyway, they’re really just a reflection of the intensity of the battle that were going on.

Now, just to move on about your perspective on oral history in America, North America versus oral history in Europe, how does it compare or contrast or hat are the similarities I your opinion?

Well the interesting thing is that oral history in the United States began top down approach, it began in the 1940’s, it began at the school of thinking that the most important historical players were politicians, military officers, business leaders and so they really only interviewed the rich and the famous. European oral history out of a sort of populist, socialist movement…giving voice and power to the people, talking to those who are fisherman and craftsman and sort of working up from that perspective. I think over the years the two approaches to history have sort of come together, with the top down approach has now reached down the middle and the bottom up approach has reached past the middle and I think that oral history works very well regardless of who you’re interviewing and in fact a really good oral history project ought to try and interview a whole cross section of people, you ought to interview some of the people at the top, some of the people at the middle and some of the people at the bottom of any social structure, there are different perspectives and it doesn’t meant that one point of view is correct or one point of view is, is the one that should be privileged but fact, to really understand any organisation you need to interview people at all different levels. I, when I was getting started back in the 1970’s there was a big project that was done with former members of congress, now I had not done those interviews but I read all of those interviews and I found them so fascinating, the more famous the individual being interviewed the less valuable was the interview because they were so egotistical that they didn’t know that anyone else had ever been involved it was only them, the less famous the person, the more they were off on the periphery, the more, the broader their view was, the more interesting their view, the more, I think, convincing their view was and of all the interviews the best interviews, bar none, were the interviews with congress women, because regardless of whether they had been conservative or liberals, republicans or democrats, veteran or newcomers they had been marginalised by the old boy network that ran the place and they were resentful of the fact that they were shunted aside, put on less powerful committees and they were fighting essentially to get a grip, hold, a foothold into this political process and those interviews were just fascinating I really, it said so much about how the institution really worked, of course that was in the 1970’s, today the most powerful member of congress is the speaker of the house and it’s a woman, so in the, those interview were so in the 1970’s none of those women could have conceived of a woman speaker of the house, an en extremely powerful woman the speaker of the house as well but you, can see the process of how she got to her position because of the battles that they fought when they first came into office.

Thank you, that’s fascinating. So I assume this is the same issue for the race problem, in America in terms of representation?

Yes…race is, in, in the senate where I work we have fewer ethnic minorities, we have one African-American senator, they’re occasional Latino, Latina Senators and a few Asian-Americans, the house representatives because it represents smaller districts is much more diverse in terms of it’s membership but it, when you run state wide it’s harder for minorities to win, we do have some who win and for a very brief time at least I had a chance to work with Barak Obama when he was a U.S. senator from Illinois a very impressive man, very charismatic man, a very articulate person but also very ambitious and he moved right through the senate and now he’s president and so I think in the future there will be more minority members serving in the senate, there are more candidates certainly now, the more candidates there are the more likely that some of them that will win and it doesn’t necessarily mean you need a state that has a very large population of that minority group because really the, the, the dynamics of the individual who, who captures public imagination and can win large, large votes, it’s always very surprising how that turns out.

Thank you Donald. Now just as closing question, what things draw you, drew you to oral history in the first place back in the 70’s?

It was totally by accident, I was writing a biography of a man who’d worked in the new deal in the 1930’s and had continued to work through to John Kennedy in the 1960’s and, he dies in 1964 and I was working on a biography in 1972 and I was reading his manuscripts at the library of congress, his letters and one day I pulled out a transcript of an interview that he had done just before he died and it was marked pages 650-700 and it was just fascinating because he was talking about himself and so I asked the librarians “where are the first 650 pages?” they said “we don’t know, he had this when he died, and it was just put into a box and sent to us” and I searched around and I found Columbia university had the full 700 page interview and I went up to Columbia and there was my man, talking to me unfortunately they hadn’t saved many of the tapes so I couldn’t hear him. I later heard a record of him speaking but I would have loved to have heard the recording, but in those days Columbia was not saving recording, they were reusing them for, for cost benefit and I here was this wonderful interview and while it told me so much, especially about his childhood and his education and about his career that I wouldn’t have know otherwise it left a lot out, he didn’t mention either of his wives who had a very messy divorce that caused him to resign as the dean of the Harvard Law School, he didn’t mention either of his children, he didn’t mention the income tax case that sent him to jail at the end of his life and so I felt that I didn’t know if he didn’t say those because he was embarrassed about them or they were important to him or the interviewer was too embarrassed to ask those questions but I then went out and began to interview, I interviewed his widow I interviewed his two daughters, I interviewed the lawyer that prosecuted him, I interviewed his law partners and I also interviewed his psychiatrist who had planned to testified at his defence but they chose not to call him at the trial and the psychiatrist felt was a miscarriage of justice and so he said if the family permitted he would be willing to talk and so he did and I as a young scholar I went and interviewed the psychiatrist and as a result I was able to do a biography that included some psychoanalysis essentially, the man, a very troubled man that I was writing about and the, the, the, the book blossomed, I think it got very good reviews and also just about that time when I was looking for a job the U.S. Senate created the Senate Historical Office and they were looking for someone to set up an oral history project for them, so because I had done those interviews for my dissertation I could present myself as an oral historian, although frankly I had never taken a course and I had never read any of the oral history literature or any of the manuals, it was a complete seat of the pants and I came in in 1976 and started the oral history project and then I immediately started going to oral history meetings like this to learn what oral history was; what are the best practices? What should I be doing? What should I worry about? What sort of equipment should I use? And so it’s really coming to meetings like this that’s trained me over the years.

That’s fantastic. Can you tell me the name of this biography that you wrote?

It was a man named James Landis, it was called James M. Landis: Dean of the Regulators, he was a Harvard professor so Harvard University Press published it and it, university press books usually don’t get a lot of, you know, commercial reviews so they get reviewed in other University, professional magazines, though one Saturday morning my phone rang and everyone said “do you read the New Yorker Magazine?” The New Yorker is a very popular magazine in the United States and I didn’t subscribe to it in those days, and they said “look, you’re book is reviewed in the New Yorker” and so of course I got in my car and drove all over town till I found a store that had it and it was a lovely, really lovely review of the book and that said, the concluding line was that the personal side of the story was as compelling as the political side and the personal side was completely from the interviews, I would not have had that if it hadn’t been for the oral history, so oral history lifted it from a conventional political biography into an interesting psychological study of a man who was totally successful in everything he did I his public life and completely unsuccessful in everything he did in his private life and eventually his private life destroyed his public career and it’s a tragic story but I think the interviews helped to make it understandable and that’s what bought about the review and that, that helped me , in fact up to then Harvard Press had been very formal in dealing with me, all the…, all my correspondence had been “Dear Dr. Ritchie” and after that review came out I got a letter saying “Dear. Don, Congratulations on the review. Are you interested in writing another book?” And they basically gave me a contract on the basis of that one review so that helped my career considerably and over the years now I’ve written about, probably about a dozen book, many of them for younger readers but also books for American political history, American journalism history and then oral history.

I was surprised when I did a little research on you last night on Wikipedia, when I finally found the right Donald Ritchie, that they didn’t mention your oral history book and wondered whether this was a reflection of how, you know, the American sort of ideology around what is history, oral history, that they don’t mention it.

Well, that’s interesting, I didn’t realise that, I’ll have to go back and check, but you never know who files the, those, those entries, for a long time I’d been confused with the Donald Ritchie who writes the movie books about Japanese film so I ‘spose they’re still sorting it outs as to who we are but I didn’t realise that they, they didn’t mention my, my doing oral history.

Maybe you should write to them and let them know.

Put that in….now I have a new book coming out called the Oxford Handbook to Oral History which I’ve edited, it has 40 authors from five continents, many of whom are here at this meeting and it’s a, it’s really bringing together a brand new articles about the state of the field, about how we’ve got to where we are, about where we are and about where we’re going and about the way in which it’s being used in the universities, teaching, it’s, in the ways it’s being, it’s being used for scholarship, by things like truth and reconciliation commissions, as a comparisons between the types of interviews they’re doing and the types of interviews oral historians are doing and reminiscence theory that’s going on, nursing homes , I mean it’s just remarkable how diverse the practice of oral history is and how many different fields are employing the techniques and learning from each other about how this works and we’re learning from it and so I think this handbook will be an important reference tool for people, people coming to oral history from outside the field but also people inside who want to see where are we now and measure themselves against the directions that the field is going in.

When is the book coming out?

It should be out at the end of 2010 so I, it’s the next step along the way.

Al right, so you know you just mentioned this new book, which sounds to me if I interpret it in my head, as a sort of bible of oral history, which I always used to think it was the Oral History Reader, in European context naturally and that’s how taught myself oral history, by reading that book. How does it compare the new publication with The Oral History Reader number two?

I, I don’t think it will be a competitor, I think it will be more of a supplement, in the sense that The Oral History Reader has done wonderful sampling of the best writing out there, it’s been published in journals and in a sense, each edition of The Oral History Reader has told us what is literature now, that is out, in the oral history handbook, we actually commissioned each of the authors to write something specifically for the volume and gave them some suggestions about the, the focus and so it’s, I think it’s going to be a very important reference book, but I don’t think it’s going to replace the Reader, I think the reader’s still going to be a very important tool, especially in the classroom, but I think when people go to a library to look for basic references in oral history, the handbook will hopefully become the first volume that they pull off the shelf, just like my book Doing Oral History doesn’t compete with either of those, mine is a manual on how to do the interviews and on what to think about in terms of how to present your material after you’ve done the interview.

And this new volume, does it actually cover the work of community groups that use oral history for a sort of more cultural or democratic perspective?

Yes, it, it includes a lot of case studies and so in addition to thoughtful pieces about issues, there are specific case studies of how oral history has been applied, for instance the House of Memories in Rome is one of the studies, the Memory Box project that goes on with AID’s families in South Africa is one of the case studies, specific oral history archives and how they’ve changed over time, that’s a case study or a, there’s a project interviewing illiterates which is a wonderful piece about, it deals with, it compare Barcelona and Baltimore, two different communities of illiterates in which the interviewer has, is talking about what people, how, the oral tradition’s among illiterate people and, and how they view themselves as a result, so I think those case studies will speak very directly to a lot of community projects because they’re going to be very concrete examples of how oral history is being done and then how, some sort of public presentation has bee created.

The reason why I ask you is, because as you probably don’t know, I don’t know if you remember that I worked in a community setting for mainly the last six/seven years and I’ve always been very aware that there isn’t anywhere where these community groups can discuss what they have learnt because they’re outside the “academic ivory tower” as we might say here in Europe [laughs] So what do you think of that?

In the United States we have a lot of regional oral history groups that, in a sense bring oral history workshops to the communities, they meet different places, they’re inexpensive to attend, they run workshops and they give an opportunity for non-academics often to come together to talk about their shared experiences and projects and problems and so that, that is, I’m not sure if there’s anything parallel to that here although the British Oral history Society does move around the country, in many, many different places so that in some case it could be affordable for community based people to come but I’m not sure how….you’re regional workshops have worked out in that respect but when I, when I wrote my book Doing Oral History I was really thinking about the non-affiliated oral historian, the person who in a church organisation or a community organisation or a labour organisation or some other group who just felt compelled to record the history of that community, or that institution or that issue whatever it was, could pick it up and learn how to do it, in a…and make, do something that was usable, now anybody can do an interview really but there are ways in which you can make that interviews usable for research and for reference, for everybody, for yourself, for the rest of the community and then for scholars coming in later on and so they’re sort of best practices that everyone should know and I tried to write in a way that it wouldn’t be of putting to people who didn’t feel themselves to be academics, I avoided theory as a result, now there’s one, there’s a terrific amount of work being done on theory and there’s a lot of it at this meeting but as soon as you start talking about theory, you really reduce the audience considerably and my feeling was that if they got interested enough in doing oral from reading my book there was a lot of other literature they could go to to learn the more sophisticated theories that were going into interpreting the oral history that was coming out, so mine is much more of a practical hands-on type of guide to oral history.

It’s been an absolute pleasure to interview you Donald and to meet you finally.

Well having done a lot of interviews myself it’s very interesting to be interviewed so thank you for this opportunity.

Oh thanks.

Transcription by Kate Aston.

Article by Verusca Calabria.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2010 7:57 pm

    Very interesting!
    You may want to correct one word: “deformation” should be “defamation.” It appears twice, I think.


  2. Shannon Jacobs permalink
    April 14, 2011 4:51 am

    I actually arrived here looking for a list of prominent oral historians, especially for everyday people. No mention of Studs Terkel? (Google Books says Terkel is mentioned 5 times in Ritchie’s book.) Any other worthy candidates?

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