About - Obama Presidency Oral History
Produced by Incite at Columbia University, this study is the official oral history of the Obama presidency.
Since 2019, we have conducted 470 interviews with officials, activists, artists, organizers, and extraordinary people from all walks of life. These in-depth interviews, often conducted over multiple sessions, represent roughly 1,100 hours of audio and video that together form a comprehensive record of the Obama years.
Presidential oral histories usually confine themselves to recording the memories of administration officials and those in their immediate orbits. By contrast, this study seeks to decenter the presidency and center the experiences and interactions of people both inside and outside of the administration. In doing so, the Obama Presidency Oral History captures a multitude of standpoints and reveals the relationships between those with power and those who experience and influence that power.
In May 2023, we concluded our fieldwork and began previewing the archive with a limited release of interviews related to climate change and the environment. As the Obama Presidency Oral History becomes publicly available, it will serve as a resource for policymakers, students, activists, artists, journalists, historians, and the general public.
Incite at Columbia University, home to the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR), led the project with support from the Obama Foundation.
Incite and CCOHR have pioneered several large, collaborative, population-based oral histories that inventively link social science research methods to historical inquiry. We have collected individual recollections on subjects ranging from the attacks and aftermath of September 11th, the military prisons at Guantanamo, the art world built by Robert Rauschenberg, and the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City. As home to the nation’s only Oral History Master of Arts program, Incite and CCOHR also have nearly 200 program alumni working at the intersections of the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
The primary caretaker of our interviews is the Oral History Archives at Columbia (OHAC), which is home to over 10,000 interviews—making it one of the largest oral history collections in the United States.
Columbia has also partnered with scholars from the University of Hawai’i and the University of Chicago, who conducted interviews focused on President Obama’s early life in Hawai’i and his and First Lady Michelle Obama’s years in Chicago, respectively.
Oral history is firsthand testimony of people’s experiences of history. The most common method of collecting this testimony is through oral history interviews, which are typically gathered and stored in an archive.
Oral history interviews invite narrators (interviewees) to talk about their own histories, giving unparalleled insights into life decisions, actions, and experiences that may not already be part of the public record.
Oral history interviews differ from journalistic interviews. Though interviewers may have an interview guide they’ve created, the conversation is open to directions chosen by narrators. Oral history interviews serve to create a public record of narrators’ thinking and experiences in their own words. Through the lens of these individual histories, readers can explore and shed light on companies or organizations for which narrators work, communities that they inhabit, institutions in which they are embedded, and moments in time through which they have lived.
For over fifty years, scholars have conducted oral history interviews to understand presidents and their time in office. These oral histories are filled with the recollections of former campaign staff, personal friends, and senior White House officials.
Approaches have varied in size and scope, but the goal, dating back to alumni of the Hoover White House, has been to capture the recollections of people who lived through a presidency while they are still relatively fresh. These interviews become resources for future historians, storytellers, and the general public looking to hear firsthand accounts of what it felt like to live through this period.
The Obama Presidency expands this genre’s typical scope by including interviews with people outside the administration.
Unlike past presidential oral histories—which have largely confined themselves to recording the memories of administration officials and those in their immediate orbits—the Obama Presidency Oral History has also gathered recollections from activists, artists, organizers, and extraordinary people from all walks of life. These recollections include those whose letters were given to the president every night, individuals who had their sentences commuted, critics who engaged with administration officials, or others who had an organic connection to the presidency.
This study is further distinguished by its attention to the First Lady and her policy agenda, as well as our focus on the President’s early life and work prior to entering the White House.
In addition, the Obama Presidency Oral History was conducted in relatively recent memory. Starting in 2019, this study began just under three years after President Obama’s final term.
Unlike other oral history archives, where the bulk of transcripts may remain sealed many years after the project’s completion or where the records are only made available at physical locations, we plan to make transcripts, video, and audio accessible online as soon as possible at the conclusion of the project. We finished our final interview in May 2023, and began releasing interviews in the same month.
Peter Bearman is the Principal Investigator; oral historians Mary Marshall Clark and Kimberly Springer are Co-Investigators. The project was supported by a full-time research team of historians, oral historians, sociologists, and political scientists, as well as an advisory board of leading scholars in history, political science, sociology, and public health.
We began rolling out interviews on May 31, 2023. The full archive will be made available to the public as early as 2024 and no later than December 31, 2026.
Transcripts will be housed online and at the Columbia University Libraries. The Obama Foundation will also hold the material.
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The Obama Presidency Oral History is composed of interviews with 470 officials, activists, organizers, and extraordinary people from all walks of life. Participants’ names will become public as their interviews are released.
The Obama Presidency Oral History was supported by a full-time research team of historians, oral historians, sociologists, and political scientists, as well as an advisory board of leading scholars in history, political science, sociology, and public health.
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