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Oral Historians Seek to Preserve Link to Past : Southern California Group Reconvenes Thursday to Celebrate 20th Year

October 19, 1986|DIANE AINSWORTH | Ainsworth lives in Los Angeles. and

To preserve history's spoken links, those connecting generations in time and place, oral historians have embarked on a new program this year to record the voices of California's recent political heritage.

"More is happening now in five years than used to happen in 50 or 100 years," said historian Enid Douglass, who directs Claremont Graduate School's Oral History Program, the third oldest in the state.

"The discovery that people weren't keeping records anymore and that today, we are getting on airplanes or on the phone to conduct business means we have no feeling for what went into decision-making," she said. "The records just aren't there unless we do the interviews."

The California State Archives Government Oral History Program, launched through passage of Assembly Bill 2104, sets aside $170,000 annually for oral history documentation of key players in state government. It is administered through the office of Secretary of State March Fong Eu.

Passage of the legislation parallels heightened oral history activity throughout the state. In Southern California, renewed interest in the narrative tradition takes on a special significance as the birthplace of the national Oral History Assn.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary aboard the historic Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor, the organization of approximately 1,500 historians, librarians, folklorists, anthropologists, political scientists, writers and many others will return Thursday for three days of papers, panels, workshops and sessions at various sites in the Los Angeles area.

Oral History Assn. was inspired by the efforts of about 80 scholars, including many from Southern California, who met two decades ago for the first national oral history conference ever held. Among those at the Lake Arrowhead Colloquium was historian Allan Nevins, who founded Columbia's program in 1948 after realizing that the country was already into an era of vanishing documentation.

State Archivist John Burns, chief architect of the state documentation program, said implementation puts California in the running with a handful of states--including Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wisconsin and Texas--which have stepped up efforts to supplement state historical records.

"California's program is the largest in terms of funding of any state government documentation effort, and the most comprehensive in the amount of research that has been established and in the program's focus," Burns said in a telephone interview.

"Initially we will select legislative leaders and key people (in state government) who have dealt with fiscal matters and education," he said. "As the program is developed, we will then branch out to interview people at all levels of the executive and legislative arms of government who played pivotal roles in some aspect of events transcending different administrations."

At the hub of regional efforts are three university and college-based programs, including Claremont Graduate School, UCLA and California State University, Fullerton. The fourth at UC Berkeley is the patriarch of academically based state programs.

Claremont, Fullerton, UCLA

Existing state government collections include individuals in Claremont's archives such as former Republican Jerry Voorhis, the man whom Richard Nixon defeated in 1946; former Assemblyman Ernest R. Geddes, who had a keen interest in education and library legislation; and Upton Sinclair, who spearheaded the "End Poverty in California" movement of the '30s.

Fullerton's archives highlight the lives of Democratic Assemblyman Robert Moretti, Republican Sen. Gordon Cologne and Orange County lawyer Gordon Richmond. UCLA's collections include volumes on such individuals formerly in state government as Atty. Gen. Robert Kenny, Los Angeles County Assemblyman Jack B. Tenney, and former Assemblywoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

With longstanding reputations, the three participating Southern California university programs, along with UC Berkeley, have been earmarked to conduct between three to six oral documentation projects each year. Burns said criteria for assigning oral histories will reflect interviewees' geographic proximity to programs and staffing capabilities.

Unlike other disciplines, oral histories--sometimes referred to as "envelopes of sound"--can be invaluable devices for historical reconstruction, both as written records perish and the pace of life quickens.

"Probably the most important questions in an oral history are why and how," said Dale Treleven, director of UCLA's program. "We generally know what has happened in researching an event, based on primary and secondary sources. But why people got involved in something, whom they were associated with, and in what ways are details that are generally not clear."

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