Documenting Cultural and Historical Memory: Oral History in the National Park Service
McDonnell, Janet A., The Oral History Review
Abstract "Documenting Cultural and Historical Memory: Oral History in the National Park Service" provides an overview and assessment of the current state of oral history projects and programs within the National Park Service. Oral history has long been a particularly valuable resource and tool for the Park Service in preserving cultural and historical memory. Its rangers, interpreters, historians, archaeologists, ethnographers, and cultural landscape specialists use oral history to document the history of individual parks, as well as the events and people the parks commemorate. They use oral history to create interpretive exhibits, movies, and videos and to record perspectives on major events, figures, and movements. The Service initiates and manages a large number of unique and significant oral history projects and programs. However, too often the value of its oral history projects and collections has been diminished because of funding shortages, poor equipment, insufficient training, inadequate preservation measures, or other problems.
The National Park Service has a unique and important role in documenting and preserving the nation's cultural and historical memory. Since the establishment of the Park Service in 1916, its primary mission has been to conserve park natural and cultural resources and to make those resources available to the public. Oral history is uniquely suited to that mission and is directly linked to the missions of many of the 388 parks in the National Park System. In its recent report on the role of national parks in the 21st Century, the National Park System Advisory Board observed that the parks were "places to stimulate an understanding of history in its larger context." (1) At a Park Service conference in 2000, renowned scholar and historian John Hope Franklin, chair of the Advisory Board, emphasized the important role that the national parks play as places where visitors can hear about important, complex subjects, such as the struggle for racial justice, women's rights, and the rights of workers. The Service, he said, had a unique opportunity to teach "in real places about real history and real nature with real things." (2) What better way to make history "real" than to allow people to recount their experiences in their own words.
Oral history has long been a particularly valuable resource and tool within the Service for preserving cultural and historical memory. Park Service rangers, interpreters, historians, archaeologists, ethnographers, and cultural landscape specialists use oral history to document the history of individual parks, as well as the events and people the parks commemorate. They use it to document the lives and cultures of the people associated with the parks and to provide important information about properties and structures within park boundaries.
The size and scope of the oral history collections and projects within the Service vary tremendously. There are large, well-established collections and projects such as the Ellis Island Oral History Project with nearly 2,000 interviews, as well as small collections with fewer than a dozen tapes. A few programs, such as the one at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, date back to the 1940s or 1950s and are among the longest-running oral history programs in the nation.
The Service's projects and collections are remarkable in their diversity and uniqueness. For example, War in the Pacific National Historical Park in Guam uses oral history to document the personal experiences of individuals involved in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Park volunteers and contractors interview Japanese veterans who served on Guam about their experiences and provide the park with a rare Japanese perspective of the war. The oral history collection at Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania includes interviews with individuals who were associated with steam era railroading in the Northeast and the railroad preservation movement. …