Willa K. Baum

By Dunaway, David | The Oral History Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Willa K. Baum


Dunaway, David, The Oral History Review


When I first met Willa K. Baum, in the dusty, wainscoted seminar room in Berkeley's History Department (at the oral history seminar they occasionally allowed her) I felt like I'd walked into a play by Moliere. A character walks on stage and tells the assembled company that he's just discovered, "I've been speaking Prose all my life!"

For a few years, I had been doing oral history interviews for a biography of Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing; but I'd never heard of oral history. Out of that seminar came a life-long commitment and Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Oral History Association (OHA)/American Association for State and Local History, 1984), edited with Willa Klug Baum. For years the association had tried to assemble such an anthology, by committee. Betty Key and Martha Ross had assembled a team of senior figures in the OHA, including Thomas Charlton, Sam Hand, William Moss, and Enid Douglass. But the work had foundered, and as I studied for my doctoral orals, I repeatedly asked Willa where I could find the key readings in the field. Her answer was to point a finger at the tattered set of clippings kept in a folder in ROHO's Library, never far from Willa's reach at the small desk in an office she shared equally with her colleagues.

I pointed out that these clippings were from obscure publications and no one--and probably no single library--had a set. Why not prepare an anthology, and in doing so shape the field by bringing together key works, I asked.

"Fine. You do that," she replied on a day when I had drifted up to the obscure, fourth-floor of the Bancroft Library where the Regional Oral History Office was housed in a series of small and rickety rooms.

Not knowing how seriously to take her suggestions, I hurriedly wrote up a proposal listing the articles she had given me so far. She went over the list, added a few, subtracted a few and handed it back.

"If you can do this, you may be doing oral history a favor." That was Willa's way, to speak straight but not long. For the next three years I worked with her to gather the permissions to reproduce these works--and many loyal OHA members gave their permission for the OHA-sponsored first edition of Oral History. We arranged the volume by sections: "The Gateway to Oral History," "Interpreting and Designing Oral History," "Oral History Applied," "Oral History and Related Disciplines," "Oral History and Schools," "Oral History and Libraries." At Willa's request, we dedicated the volume "To Two Path Breakers in Oral History, Allan Nevins, and Louis Starr" (the latter had died just before our work on the anthology began).

Throughout these years, and my finishing my dissertation, Willa was by turn maternal, constructively critical, and funny. At one point as we were rereading the essays, she said, "You know David, it seems to be our fate as oral historians to be told by everyone (outside of our circle) that just because somebody says something, that doesn't necessarily make it true. I probably have sat through twelve OHA luncheon speakers making this very point."

Willa and I often argued over whether oral history was a "field," "discipline," or "method." Willa took it to be the latter, and I the former. I pointed out that the existence of a body of literature on oral history constituted not just a method of gathering raw data for subsequent historical analysis, but a distinctive field of inquiry, which was history as constructed during interviews. (This was in the period when oral history was considered a process of gathering raw material for later scholars.)

In pursuit of my point into this first anthology, I inserted essays on the interactive, performance, and on the socio-linguistic nature of oral history interviewing. I wanted to challenge the notion of oral historians as miners and our interviewees as raw ore, waiting to be picked out and pulverized before their accounts would yield history. …

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