The Center for Oral History at the Chemical Heritage Foundation aims to create a collection of comprehensive, professionally conducted interviews with leading figures in the sciences to provide historical accounts that supplement written records. Our mission is to ensure that current and future generations of scholars, researchers, and interested individuals are able to understand the practices and theories inherent to science, medicine, and technology—the successes and disappointments, the triumphs and failures—from the perspective of the men and women intimately involved in new discoveries and innovations as recorded in their own words.
In recent years there has been a tremendous increase in the number of oral history programs and oral history researchers in the United States. Although topically diverse, these programs are all united in their pursuit of preserving history generated by the men and women who lived and experienced it. The Chemical Heritage Foundation is fortunate enough to have been in the oral history “business” for quite some time and serves as a significant force in contributing to the history of the sciences in the 20th and 21st centuries. With our 30 years of experience we have been able to conduct well over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information about our collection please visit the Projects page. For more information about the staff of the Center for Oral History, visit our staff page here.
About Oral History
What Is Oral History?
Oral history is a method of preserving the unwritten past through the narrated recollections of an individual. Oral histories are not merely conversations with people recorded on some medium for posterity; oral histories are structured interviews that are designed with specific goals in mind, whether to understand the role that an individual played in a historical event or a specific culture, or to document better the history of, for example, a scientific object or technique or a piece of legislation. Some of the oral histories we conduct focus on broad topics in an individual’s life—family life, childhood, education, and factors influencing career decisions—and some of our oral histories explore specific aspects of the development of organizations, of the moment of innovation, or of the ideas that came out of an influential scientific conference. We use our skills as oral historians to capture aspects of history not typically preserved in written form in order to develop a clearer picture of history as seen through the eyes of the women and men who experienced it.
Our interviews normally last from four to six hours and are conducted over a two- or three-day period (though some of our interviews are shorter and some are much longer). Upon completion of the interview we transcribe our recordings, minimally edit the document for clarification purposes, and then bind the document. All of our research materials, audio and/or video recordings, and transcripts are available for scholarly use in the Othmer Library of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Please visit our Resources page for more information about how we prepare for, conduct, and preserve oral histories.
Why Focus on Science?
The growth of scientific knowledge, especially as it relates to the application of methods, theories, and inventions, poses special challenges for historical analysis. As the generation and transmission of scientific knowledge have become broader, deeper, and more complex, the tools historians and social scientists employ to track and understand these changes have also evolved. Oral history is one of the most innovative tools for recording and promoting the understanding of contemporary science, providing invaluable access to the knowledge, experiences, and motivations of scientists, in their own words.
Scientific and technical careers are most often measured in terms of the published record and the “bottom line”—experimental results and technological innovations that are usually preserved for posterity in journals and books. But these documents record only the public face of science. The rich history of everyday life in the sciences—the social networks, the patterns of patronage, and the messy vitality of the laboratory, library, and production plant—often does not find its way into the documentary record. Even when such material is preserved, it is often fragmented.
Oral history interviews reveal the hidden side of research—misconceptions, redirections, inspirations—that may be invisible in the published record of scientific achievements. In some cases oral history offers the only way to capture the nuances and complexity of modern science. Once transcribed and edited, oral histories establish an enduring primary source that can constitute the core material for biographical study, the analysis of the nature of a scientific discipline, or studies of the motivations and inspirations that encourage individuals to pursue a career in the sciences.
Our Oral Histories
All materials used in researching an oral history, as well as the audio and video recordings and the bound transcript, are available for noncommercial, educational purposes only and can be used on site at the Othmer Library. Individuals interested in our oral histories who are not able to visit the Othmer Library can order a copy of our materials here.
Our methodology for editing transcripts has, like the field of oral history itself, changed over time. Currently we use a system of editing that notes all changes made to our transcripts except for items considered to be verbal ticks that disrupt the reading of a document. Some of the oral histories completed before 2008 were guided by a different style of editing and may not fully reflect the exact wording or structure of our audio recordings.
The Center for Oral History has been fortunate enough to receive funding from various organizations throughout the years. Without their support many of our projects would not have been possible. We would like to thank the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the American Chemical Society, the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, The Dow Chemical Company, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the numerous individuals who have contributed their time to our program.
Feel free to browse through our collections using the Projects page or our Search page. If you have any questions about our program or our collections, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact:
David J. Caruso
Director, Center for Oral History
Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106