Frequently Asked Questions
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. These are different 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, oral historians 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.
Columbia University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE), home to the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR), leads the project, with support and collaboration from the Obama Foundation. Columbia will also partner with scholars from the University of Hawai’i and the University of Chicago, who will conduct interviews focused, respectively, on President Obama’s early life in Hawai’i and his and First Lady Michelle Obama’s years in Chicago.
Columbia’s oral history archive is the largest and oldest in the country. INCITE and CCOHR (which combined in 2013) 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, to the military prisons at Guantanamo, to the art world built by Robert Rauschenberg. As home to the nation’s only Oral History Master of Arts program, INCITE/CCOHR also has more than 175 program alums working at the intersections of the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
Peter Bearman is the Principal Investigator on the project; Oral Historians Mary Marshall Clark and Kimberly Springer are Co- Investigators. The project has a full-time research team of historians, sociologists, political scientists, and journalists, as well as an advisory board of leading scholars in history, journalism, political science, sociology, and public health. This experienced team has decades of relevant academic and project management expertise to successfully guide the project to its conclusion. To learn about all those involved, please visit our people page.
The project will interview hundreds of people. These include senior leaders and policymakers within the administration, elected officials, foreign leaders, campaign staff, journalists, and other key figures outside the administration, as well as individuals (artists, ordinary Americans, movement organizers, etc.) from diverse settings who had a connection to the Obama Presidency.
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 will also gather recollections from members of the American public, such as 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 project is further distinguished by our 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.
We also expect to produce an archive that is more accessible than that of previous presidential oral histories. 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 — including video and audio — accessible online as soon as possible at the conclusion of the project. Our goal is for this archive to serve as a valuable source of insight and interest for scholars and the public alike.
The project commenced in the Summer of 2019 and will be carried out over roughly five years. The 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.