INFO 284-13
Seminar in Archives and Records Management - Oral History
Summer 2021 Syllabus

Dr. B. Alexander
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Office location: NA
Office Hours: By appointment

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Canvas Information: Courses will be available beginning June 1st at 6 am PT unless you are taking an intensive or a one-unit or two-unit class that starts on a different day. In that case, the class will open on the first day that the class meets.

This course runs from June 1st - July 27th. It will be available on Canvas on June 1st.

You will be enrolled in the Canvas site automatically.

Course Description

Our class combines historical and practical threads.  We will not, however, view these points of entry as oppositional.  We will come to understand that they need to be reconciled.  

Towards this end, we need to begin to consider some fundamentals.  What is oral history? Depending on time and place (geography and time-period) I think it well to consider that 99% of history is/was oral.  To tease this thinking further is to ask if it might be contradictory to assume that the study “oral history” begins with technologies of capture be they stylus, reed, pen, magnetic capture or digital code?  Such questions need to serve as precedent as we advance our discussion through the history of the field.

With the above questions in view, our discussion turns historiographic.  Where does "oral history" fit into to ever-changing (and hotly debated) hierarchies of historical documentation. For example, do Richard Nixon’s recordings of Oval Office discussions carry more historical weight than say the WPA project that documented the experiences of former slaves? Given that so much of our historical practice is rooted in German tradition (Empiricism) how do we argue for the parity of oral history / oral tradition/orality within established historical practices?  Put another way, when oral history contradicts existing documentation (photographs, manuscript, printed materials, etc.) what documentation assumes historical precedent.  Does oral history testimony accrue accuracy over time or does accuracy diminish with the passage of days or years?   

Our study then turns to professional practice.  We will review a range of strategies for conducting oral history interviews.  We consider best practices for preservation and access.  Key here are questions of transcription.  What is a transcript?  Is it inherently corruptive?  Who has suitable authority to engage in transcription etc.?  This portion of the course relies on our reading of Doing Oral History.

The final (or, perhaps, cumulative) assignment is a student-designed oral.  Perhaps more accurately, a well-thought-out prospectus for an effective project.  The proposed project must include the following. 

  • Scope of a prospective project.  This includes its importance to filling an absence or its role in securing an endangered history.    
  • Best practices and strategies for conducting interviews
  • Preservation strategies
  • Access plan  
  • And, a proposed funding plan (identification of relevant grants etc.


1)  Weekly responses (posts) to “prompts.”  Each student will post one observation and two comments on posts from fellow students.  The idea is to try and facilitate a seminar-like exchange of ideas and perspectives. CLOs 1-7 (will vary depending on the week and the student's response)

2) An oral/visual presentation of 15 minutes and which focuses on an assigned reading, a prompt, a discussion, or a professional/historical project.  Your presentation must be accompanied by at least 15 PowerPoint slides.  I will explain in my introductory video why this (and all assignments) are important - that is how my experience informs that these are not simply academic exercises to fulfill course credit but rather how each assignment is intended as specific preparation for success in various aspects of professional challenge.  For now, here is what is and is not expected. CLOs 1-7.

  • Do NOT (please and really) summarize a reading.  This does nothing for your professional growth nor does it help in the advancement of other students.  In professional practice, a bland summary is of no use in a job interview or professional conference.
  • Do NOT (again, please and really) read from prepared PowerPoint slides.  The reason for this is the same as above. 
  • This exercise is an opportunity to illustrate your professional perspective.  It doesn't matter if this is your first foray into oral history.  Have confidence.  Offer a persuasive discussion of your reflections on an article or your introduction of a relevant oral history project.  You are not being graded (I hate this phrase) by standards that exceed that of an introductory course.
  • Do use a reading, or your study of an oral history project etc, as a point of entry into an investigation of the field that will stay with you and which (we hope) will also pique the interests of other students.  This means you will want to inform your opinion with some research and offer some solid context to your discussion.
  • In total, however, the above guidelines are intended to be a basis for then articulate some of your (again, this is an introductory course and the point is to simply have confidence) perspective on a given topic.

3) Final Project Proposal.  Students will introduce a prospective oral history project.  This project will be informed by relevant professional practice, demonstrate an understanding of the history of the field, and reference current professional and academic literature. The proposal will list a calendar documenting the process and successful completion of the project as well as an itemized list (including expenses etc.) of all necessary equipment.  Students will also submit a plan for professional preservation and access of their project. CLOs 1-7.

Course Calendar
Due dates are tentative and may be changed by the instructor with adequate notice.
Answers to prompts are due on Monday of the relevant week.

Week 1

From Palimpsest to Tsespmilap

Introduction and Introductions

Week 2


  • From Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor.
  • Gates, H. L., Jr. (2008, December). Family matters: When science clashes with ancestral lore. The New Yorker
  • Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley
  • Form, Oral History Reader:
    • Part 1.1


  • Watch, They Shall Not Grow Old


Consider carefully the excerpt from London Labour and the London Poor.  What is Henry Mayhew doing?  And, why?  Is this oral history?  Can there be oral history without audio recording? Identify one other example of historical writing that you would offer as comparison to Mayhew.


Review the Library of Congress project, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1984.  Listen to at least one recording. What are your impressions of the narrative?  Does the narrative seem contrived? (that is, given that all of these narratives are part of a government-sanctioned project do you have the impression that the purpose of the interview is goal-oriented).   Could/should these narratives be transcribed?  Consider the breadth of scholarly and educational interests and uses for these recordings.  The latter is an essential practice.  In order to argue for financial and administrative support for oral history projects, we need to be persuasive in our discussion of how broad and deep the need is for any given project. 

Week 3


  • Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley
  • For Posterity: The Private Audio Recordings of Louis Armstrong
  • From, The Oral History Reader:
    • Part 3.20, 3.21, 3.22 & Part 5.37


Please read, For Posterity: The Private Audio Recordings of Louis Armstrong.  What are these recordings?  Oral history?  Oral tradition?  The article offers one set of considerations that suggest an explanation for Armstrong's recordings, what might be another? Can you think of or identify a comparative body of recordings?  How does Louis Armstrong’s practice fit with Alex Haley’s discussion of “Black History” and “Oral History.”


Watch interviews from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project ( How does (or, does) oral history offer paths towards overcoming trauma?  That is, might these interviews serve many purposes at once?  Offering opportunity to reconcile trauma as well as creating a body of memory (individual and collective) that serves to resist the repetition of history?  How do your observations coordinate with the readings from The Oral History Reader?  

Week 4


  • Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley
  • Doing Oral History, Sections 1 -2.
  • From, The Oral History Reader:
    •  1.4, 1.5 and 1.6 & 4.30, 4.31 & 5.40


Why is oral history well-suited to documenting proletarian cultures as well as more displaced cultures like the homeless?  What sensitivities should shape a project that intends documentation of working-class experiences?  Looking ahead a bit: should these interviews be transcribed?  Who should do the transcription?  

Week 6


  • Doing Oral History, Section 3
  • An Oral History Reader
    • Part 2.11, 2.12, 2.16 & 5.37, 5.38, 5.39


Listen to any one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous "Fireside Chats."  Building off of the previous assignment let's again consider carefully that one of the greatest challenges archivists face is recovering the context of creation of archival materials.  Let's remember, without few exceptions we must always consider that items in archives were NOT created for inclusion in an archive - this is part of what makes archives such wonderful places.  In the case of FDR's Fireside Chats, this is especially important and challenging.  How can we, today, offer a sensible explanation for the true power of FDR's speeches during an era when almost no American's owned (or even knew of) television.  It was a culture based on text and orality. Can this be communicated in any meaningful way?  If we extend our thinking we might ask how we explain the primary of "oral tradition" to many world cultures that are not text-based. 


Listen to any one of Edward R. Murrow's recordings from London during the London Blitz.  Again, are these oral history?  Consider their intention at the point of creation.  Is today's news tomorrow's oral history?  Because of the "atmosphere" of these recordings listeners were rapt and developed a deep emotional attachment to Murrow's reports.  Americans literally rushed home to listen to these broadcasts.  And, it is well argued that without these records President Roosevelt may not have been able to justify America's increasing involvement in a European war.  How do we as archivists recover such dramatic context of creation?  How might a similar "atmosphere" be created for a more contemporary project?  

Week 7


  • Doing Oral History, Sections 6 & 8
  • From The Oral History Reader:
    • 2.14, 2.15


Read provided excerpts from The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History.  What is this collection?  Memoir? Transcribed oral history?  What do make of its format – that is, its collage of episodic/excerpts from various interviews?  What does this collection achieve?  What comparative projects might be initiated today?     

Week 8


Listen to any excerpts from Richard Nixon's "White House" recordings.  First, why did Nixon go to such lengths to record the inner workings of his administration?  Why have so many presidents created oral records of oval office conversations (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon etc.)?  Can you imagine a project that would convey the impression and purpose of these recordings as they were originally conceived and produced?    

Students submit and share final projects. Due July 27th.



Transparency.  Here is how the grades will be calculated.  I have created a 100pt scale to keep everything simple and transparent.

1) Weekly posts/comments are worth 20%

2) Presentation 40%.

3) Final Project Proposal/Prospectus 40%.

Course Workload Expectations

Success in this course is based on the expectation that students will spend, for each unit of credit, a minimum of forty-five hours over the length of the course (normally 3 hours per unit per week with 1 of the hours used for lecture) for instruction or preparation/studying or course related activities including but not limited to internships, labs, clinical practica. Other course structures will have equivalent workload expectations as described in the syllabus.

Instructional time may include but is not limited to:
Working on posted modules or lessons prepared by the instructor; discussion forum interactions with the instructor and/or other students; making presentations and getting feedback from the instructor; attending office hours or other synchronous sessions with the instructor.

Student time outside of class:
In any seven-day period, a student is expected to be academically engaged through submitting an academic assignment; taking an exam or an interactive tutorial, or computer-assisted instruction; building websites, blogs, databases, social media presentations; attending a study group;contributing to an academic online discussion; writing papers; reading articles; conducting research; engaging in small group work.

Course Prerequisites

INFO 200, INFO 202, INFO 204, other prerequisites may be added depending on content. 

Course Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of the course, students will be able to:

  1. Plan and implement an oral history project.
  2. Apply history research methods to develop context for the topic at hand.
  3. Prepare, conduct, and record an oral history interview.
  4. Identify the legal and ethical issues involved in recording a person's memories and making them available to researchers and the general public.
  5. Implement current oral history processing and preservation practices and techniques.
  6. Evaluate methods of access to completed oral histories.
  7. Understand the uses of oral history as a primary source.

Core Competencies (Program Learning Outcomes)

INFO 284 supports the following core competencies:

  1. F Use the basic concepts and principles related to the selection, evaluation, organization, and preservation of physical and digital information items.
  2. H Demonstrate proficiency in identifying, using, and evaluating current and emerging information and communication technologies.


Required Textbooks:

  • MacKay, N. (2016). Curating oral histories: From interview to archive (2nd ed.). Left Coast Press/ Routledge. Available as free eBook through King Libraryarrow gif indicating link outside sjsu domain
  • Perks, R. &, Thomson, A. (Eds.). (2016). The oral history reader (3rd ed.). Rutledge. Available through Amazon: 0415707331arrow gif indicating link outside sjsu domain

Grading Scale

The standard SJSU School of Information Grading Scale is utilized for all iSchool courses:

97 to 100 A
94 to 96 A minus
91 to 93 B plus
88 to 90 B
85 to 87 B minus
82 to 84 C plus
79 to 81 C
76 to 78 C minus
73 to 75 D plus
70 to 72 D
67 to 69 D minus
Below 67 F


In order to provide consistent guidelines for assessment for graduate level work in the School, these terms are applied to letter grades:

  • C represents Adequate work; a grade of "C" counts for credit for the course;
  • B represents Good work; a grade of "B" clearly meets the standards for graduate level work or undergraduate (for BS-ISDA);
    For core courses in the MLIS program (not MARA, Informatics, BS-ISDA) — INFO 200, INFO 202, INFO 204 — the iSchool requires that students earn a B in the course. If the grade is less than B (B- or lower) after the first attempt you will be placed on administrative probation. You must repeat the class if you wish to stay in the program. If - on the second attempt - you do not pass the class with a grade of B or better (not B- but B) you will be disqualified.
  • A represents Exceptional work; a grade of "A" will be assigned for outstanding work only.

Graduate Students are advised that it is their responsibility to maintain a 3.0 Grade Point Average (GPA). Undergraduates must maintain a 2.0 Grade Point Average (GPA).

University Policies

Per University Policy S16-9, university-wide policy information relevant to all courses, such as academic integrity, accommodations, etc. will be available on Office of Graduate and Undergraduate Programs' Syllabus Information web page at: Make sure to visit this page, review and be familiar with these university policies and resources.

In order to request an accommodation in a class please contact the Accessible Education Center and register via the MyAEC portal.

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