Oral History Program records University’s past

Feb. 20, 2013, 11:44 p.m.

As a co-chair of Stanford’s Oral History Program — and as a member of the Stanford community for over 50 years — Susan Schofield ’66 has lots of good stories to tell spanning a lengthy career. Her most memorable story, however, is a recent one.

As part of the Oral History Program, which has recorded over 160 interviews with faculty, staff and alumni since its founding in 1978, Schofield had sat down to talk with Albert Hastorf, former vice president and provost at Stanford, about his life and experiences at the University.

“He and I did four or so interviews over the course of the year, tracing his entire career,” Schofield said. “He had been chair of the psych department, Dean of the [School of] Humanities and Sciences and provost, and was just a thoroughly fabulous, delightful gentleman and a great raconteur with lots of good stories.”

Because of Hastorf’s importance to the Stanford community, the Stanford Historical Society had planned to bind and publish his interview. Unfortunately, soon after the interviews were completed, Schofield received some bad news: Hastorf had been diagnosed with cancer.

The Society hurried to publish the interviews, which they presented to Hastorf and his wife, Barbara, who brought the book with her on her evening visits to her husband’s hospice.

“The Society was able to get the bound copy finished and present it to him before he passed away — it was very special,” Schofield said. “His wife would read to him from it in the evening –it was very nice.”

Beyond the interviews’ personal significance, Schofield said the details of Hastorf’s interviews contributed to a richer understanding of a key period in Stanford’s history.

The Oral History Program is run by the Stanford Historical Society with the purpose of conducting such interviews with people significant to the University community. In recent years, additional donor support has allowed the Program to go from conducting four interviews in 2007 to an average of about 30 per year now.

The essence of the Oral History program is to explore and document how individuals in the University community interacted with and experienced transformative periods of history. Right now, the Program’s focus is mainly on “the incredible post-World War II period when Stanford began to go from good to great,” according to Schofield.

“There were people around — faculty, administrators — who had been part of that transformation and they would have fabulous stories to tell and perspectives to give that weren’t necessarily going to be reflected in the written record,” Schofield added.

Personal anecdotes, critiques, different perspectives and situational analyses form the centerpiece of the program.

“Think about a traditional archive,” said Daniel Hartwig, the University’s archivist. “For example, the University archives have professors’ papers which the professor has given over perhaps after retiring; that is one primary source that speaks to a person’s experience at Stanford but also Stanford itself<\p>…<\p>Oral History helps to add a personal perspective to historical documentation.”

While the broad focus remains Stanford’s “good-to-great” transformation post- World War II, the program’s increased support has permitted the pursuit of a number of smaller, more acutely themed projects.

“When we began, we were really eager [to interview] people who knew about Stanford and the time and the era that we were going to be talking to people about, but not necessarily [their] individual stories,” Schofield said.

“There’s a greater concern now to tackle some of the lesser known, or ground-up themes within the University’s history,” Hartwig said,

“Taking both a top down and bottom-up approach to documenting the University.”

These have ranged from a series called ‘Alumni Stories’ — looking at old Stanford traditions and different undergraduate perspectives — to one on diversity to a project on presidential families, looking at life in the Hoover House. Both Hartwig and Schofield also mentioned a growing interest in pursuing a smaller-themed project regarding pioneering women.

“It’s [about] turning our eyes internally towards Stanford’s own development,” Schofield said.

Allison Tracy, one of two professional oral historians working within the Stanford Historical Society and the Oral History program, has many different roles, one of which is to coordinate and train volunteers to effectively interview the subjects.

“I’m trying to take [volunteers] to the next level in terms of the amount of interviewing that they’re doing,” Tracy said. “The volunteers are a mix of people — definitely alumni, emeriti faculty and staff members, also a handful of people who are local to the Bay Area and who are interested in oral history.”

According to Tracy, there are currently no students involved in the interviewing process. Students are, however, involved in the indexing and post-interview process, which Schofield described as a demanding responsibility.

“Once the interview is completed, it is digitally recorded and transcribed by an outside service,” Schofield said. “Once the transcript is back we do ‘write-editing,’ which is a editorial clean up process for the purpose of clarity.”

While the final product is deposited in the University archives, accessing most interviews no longer requires a trip to Green Library.

“Now almost all of our oral histories are available online as either a transcript or an audio recording,” Hartwig said.

“We’re making all that as available as we can,” Schofield agreed.

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