Testimony to the National Commission on Library and Information Science

Michaelyn P. Chou


Knowledge is power. Information is Power." Publicly-funded libraries in the United States are responsible for meeting information needs of their total communities. Yet segments of the population are not library users and lack empowerment. Reasons include the inability to read English, low self-esteem, and insufficient or lack of relevant library holdings on ethnic, cultural and other minorities who often feel libraries contain little outside of "white, establishment" histories. This serious imbalance of records constitutes unequal access to information for constituents most in need of knowing their own history and positive role models.By linking the past with the present, oral histories of diverse heritages are successfully bridging the gap, but many more must be produced, acquired, and made available to all.

Key information in oral histories is often overlooked or lost because of inadequate access points. Library collections can be and are enriched by donors who add to oral history materials. Sadly, few librarians are trained in the value and usage of oral histories. Librarians must be encouraged to develop systematic, comprehensive oral history collections which adequately reflect the communities they are obligated to serve. Adequate funding for libraries and trained librarians must be achieved. Given adequate access to information, alienated populations can be empowered to make special contributions to the development of our nation.


My testimony before the National Commission on Library and Information Services is aimed at expanding on the Resolution submitted by the Oral History Association to the White House Conference on Library and Information Services. There are serious

gaps, that must and can be remedied, in library resources, public services, librarianship training, electronic and otherdata entries, and outreach programs.

These gaps adversely impact equal access to information, particularly for the nation's diverse populations. I wish to share examples of how librarians, through oral history activities, can help activate the Conference theme: ENHANCE LITERACY, INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY, and STRENGTHEN DEMOCRACY.


That Federal, State, and local legislation be enacted to adequately produce, acquire, preserve, and make fully accessible through appropriate indexes, entries and services, comprehensive oral history collections; that these collections be listed in national networks of electronic and other data bases; that similar legislation be enacted to adequately fund oral history training of librarians and information specialists so that they may assume leadership roles in meeting the needs of all, including under-represented and poorly served constituents; that the private sector be encouraged to assist such funding; that the current OHA Principles and Standards be adopted.


My name is Michaelyn Chou, Member of Council of the Oral History Association and Librarian V (Professor) at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. For 16 of my 32 years as librarian in academic, public and school libraries, I have also been an oral historian. As the first American of Asian ancestry to be elected to the OHA Council, I am deeply aware of gaps in library resources, equal access to information, appropriate and sufficient indexes and other access points, and outreach programs required to service the information needs of our nation's diverse ethnic and cultural populations. Oral history is a proven remedy.

The Oral History Association is a national and international professional organization whose 1,500 members are affiliated with state and local organizations, colleges and universities, or schools of all levels and types, or are independent oral historians. For over 25 years, OHA has promoted the documentation of human experience by means of audio and video recordings of literates and non-literates, of mainstream members and minorities, of professionals and laboring forces, -- of those whose histories are integral parts of United States and world history but which may have never been set down in permanent formats. Our democratic society is composed of different groups with different experiences, all of which must be preserved and made accessible as part of our nation's rich and varied history.

The OHA has stimulated and published research, promulgated principles and standards, cooperated with librarians and information specialists to foster a better understanding of the nature and value of oral history, and worked toward the preservation and utilization of our recorded heritage in libraries and elsewhere. Of particular significance is the contribution oral history has made and continues to make toward preserving the knowledge and experiences of non-literate societies and individuals who have been under-represented or never represented in library collections. But there remain serious gaps in our nation's intellectural, social, and cultural records.

One element is critical: oral histories must be made in a timely fashion, before memories fail and time takes its toll. Every community loses part of its history when an old-time resident dies without setting down his or her impressions or recollections for future reference.

Not surprisingly, many of the issues raised by librarians and information counselors at this White House Conference are also of concern to oral historians. We are pleased to see work toward a national information preservation program, broad and almost-instant retrieval of information through networks and electronic means, outreach programs such as literacy to meet the needs of unserved constituents, and emphasis toward special requirements of those with language, national or ethnic origin, and physical differences.

Today I wish to focus on the Conference's interlocking theme of Democracy, Literacy, and Productivity and the positive role oral history has and can play in implementing it.

Definition and Use

Oral history, the systematic documentation of human experience through modern audio and video recordings, links the past with the present and provides a voice for groups and individuals who are under-represented in or totally missing from the usual written records collected by libraries and information centers. In many instances, oral histories are the only sources of information about a person, topic, or event. Ideally, they are deposited and preserved in libraries and institutions, edited, transcribed, and made accessible through name and subject entries in electronic or other data bases. Insufficient staffing, funding, and access points, however, conspire to deny users equal access to these vital resources. Yet by their very nature, oral histories are being utilized more and more by students, researchers, and community members who required a more balanced, more accurate picture of our nation's development.

Libraries are Responsible for Serving Diverse Populations

Publicly-funded libraries have a responsibility to serve not only literate constituents, but also non-literates and non-library users. These may include ethnic and cultural minorities. Too often, these groups feel alienated, or at best, uncomfortable in systems where primarily "white history," or "establishment history" is represented. Many who cannot read have low self-esteem and hesitate to enter literacy programs. A proven method to draw them into libraries is through oral histories what feature members of their own groups. Listening to or watching videos of interviews conducted with their leaders, successful business persons, notable artisans, laborers, and the like fosters a sense of pride in their own community's history and accomplishments. Armed with positive role models, mentors, if you will, they gain insights which lead to increased feelings of self-worth. They feel confident enough to enroll in library literacy programs. Empowered with access to information and knowledge, they become more productive and participate more completely in the democratic process. The entire nation benefits when this occurs.

Collection Development, Access Points, and Public Services

There are hundreds of thousands of oral histories in libraries and institutions. Some are fully cataloged and therefore retrievable by electronic or other means. Others are only partially or inadequately processed so that unique information is essentially lost to users. Other oral histories languish in backlogs -- another loss. Furthermore, there are hundreds of thousands of oral histories in private collections that are simply unavailable.

Libraries must be staffed and funded to identify, acquire, preserve, and make available both private and publicly-held oral history resources. Librarians must be knowledgeable about oral histories in order to share their contents and usage with information seekers. Libraries must provide adequate public services so that these unique resources are available to all.

Library Outreach

Libraries are the nation's centers of learning. Librarians are true educators, information specialists in the best sense of the word. Librarians know their communities well, but must be able to reach out to those segments of the population who are not library users. In addition to utilizing oral histories, either as part of library programs, or by working closely with diverse community groups and agencies that will produce or acquire oral history materials for libraries.

Outreach programs can reap rich dividends for libraries. Book collections are augmented in special ways by oral history deposits. Interviewees, family members, and others who see "their histories" become valued library resources feel welcome to donate other, often unique, materials to accompany their stories, or become catalysts for other oral histories being made.

Issues and Recommendations

(1) How can librarians become proactive in oral history in order to better fulfill leadership roles toward educating and servicing the needs of their diverse and changing communities, including unserved groups and individuals?


That Federal, State, and local legislation be enacted to adequately fund oral history training of librarians and information specialists so that they can fulfill leadership roles toward educating and servicing the needs of their diverse and changing communities, including unserved groups and individuals; that the private sector be encouraged to participate in such funding; that current Oral History Association Principles and Standards be adopted for all oral history activities.

(2) How can libraries identify, acquire, produce, list on electronic and other data bases, preserve, and make accessible oral histories of groups and individuals, including ethnic and cultural minorities, whose histories are integral parts of United States history but which have never been recorded in permanent formats?


That Federal, State, and local legislation be enacted to adequately fund oral histories of groups and individuals, including ethnic and cultural minorities, whose histories are integral parts of United States history but which have never been recorded in permanent formats; that such funding include adequate monetary and staffing provisions for libraries to identify, acquire, produce, list on electronic and other data bases, preserve, and make accessible, such oral histories; that the private sector be encouraged to participate in such funding; that current Oral History Association Principles and Standards be adopted for all oral history activities.


The United States of America has a great and glorious history of free library service to its people. Education through library use is a proud tradition of our democratic society. Every community has leaders -- movers and shakers -- whose accomplishments in all walks of life could not have been possible without libraries and committed librarians who were available to meet their needs at crucial times.

Let us continue to serve the nation's greatest attribute -- its people -- the diverse and changing populations who are the present and future of the United States -- with adequate libraries and services. Oral history activities centered around libraries have proved to be empowering agents for many seeking help. More oral histories and trained librarians are needed to take full advantage of these unique resources.



The Oral History Association promotes oral history as a method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews with participants in past events and ways of life. It encourages those who produce and use oral history to recognize certain principles, rights, and obligations for the creation of source material that is authentic, useful, and reliable. These include obligations to the public, as well as mutual obligations between sponsoring organizations and interviewers.

Oral history interviews are conducted by people with a range of affiliations and sponsorship for a variety of purposes: to create archival records, for individual research, for community and institutional projects, and for publications and media productions. While these principles and standards provide a general framework for guiding professional conduct, their application may vary according to the nature of specific oral history projects. Regardless of the purpose of the interviews, oral history should be conducted in the spirit of critical inquiry and social responsibility, and with a recognition of the subjective nature of the enterprise.

Responsibility to Interviewees:

1. Interviewees should be informed of the purposes and procedures of oral history in general and of the aims and anticipated uses of the particular projects to which they are making their contribution.

2. Interviewees should be informed of the mutual rights in the oral history process, such as editing, access restrictions, copyrights, prior use, royalties, and the expected disposition and dissemination of all forms of the record.

3. Once fully informed of their legal rights, interviewees should be asked to sign a legal release. Interviews should remain confidential until interviewees have given permission for their use.

4. Interviewers should guard against making promises to interviewees that they may not be able to fulfill, such as guarantees of publication and control over future uses of interviews after they have been made public.

5. Interviews should be conducted in accord with any prior agreements made with the interviewee, and such preferences and agreements should be documented for the record.

6. Interviewers should work to achieve a balance between the objectives of the project and perspectives of the interviewees. They should be sensitive to various social and cultural experiences, and to the implications of race, gender,and ethnic differences. They should encourage interviewees to respond in their own style and language, and to address issues that reflect their concerns. Interviewers should fully explore all appropriate areas of inquiry with the interviewee and not be satisfied with superficial responses.

7. Interviewers should guard against possible exploitation of interviewees and be sensitive to the ways in which their interviews might be used. Interviewers must respect the right of the interviewee to refuse to discuss certain subjects, to restrict access to the interview, or under extreme circumstances even to choose anonymity. Interviewers should clearly explain these options to all interviewees.

Responsibility to the Public and to the Profession:

1. Oral historians have a responsibility to maintain the highest professional standards in the conduct of their work and to adopt the standards of the various disciplines and professions with which they are affiliated.

2. In recognition of the importance of oral history to an understanding of the past and of the cost and effort involved, interviewers and interviewees should mutually strive to record candid information of lasting value.

3. Interviewees should be selected on the basis of the relevance of their experiences to the subject at hand.

4. Interviewers should possess interviewing skills and professional competence or experiences with the subject at hand.

5. Regardless of the specific interests of the project, interviewers should attempt to extend the inquiry beyond the specific focus of the project to create as complete a record as possible for the benefit of others.

6. Interviewers should strive to prompt informative dialogue through challenging and perceptive inquiry. They should be grounded in the background of the person being interviewed and, when possible, should carefully research appropriate documents and secondary sources related to subjects about which the interviewee can speak.

7. Interviewers should make every effort to record their interviews. They should provide complete documentation of their preparation and methods, including the circumstances of the interview. Interviewers, and when possible interviewees, should review and evaluate their interviews and any transcripts made from them.

8. With the permission of the interviewees, interviewers should arrange to deposit their interviews in an archival repository that is capable of both preserving the interviews and of eventually making them available for general use. Interviewers should provide basic information about the interviews, including project goals, sponsorship, and funding. Preferably, interviewers should work with repositories prior to the project to determine necessary legal arrangements. If interviewers arrange to retain first use of the interviews, it should be only for a reasonable time prior to public use.

9. Interviewers should be sensitive to the communities from which they have collected their oral histories, taking care not to reinforce thoughtless stereotypes or to bring undue notoriety to the community. They should take every effort to make the interviews accessible to the community.

10.Oral history interviews should be used and cited with the same care and standards applied to other historical sources. Users have a responsibility to retain the integrity of the interviewee's voice, neither misrepresenting the interviewee's words nor taking them out of context.

11.Sources of funding or sponsorship of oral history projects should be made public in all exhibits, media presentations, or publications that the projects produce.

12.Interviewers and oral history programs should conscientiously consider how they might share with interviewees and their communities the rewards and recognition that might result from their work.

Responsibility for Sponsoring and Archival Institutions:

1. Institutions sponsoring and maintaining oral history archives have a responsibility to interviewees, interviewers, the profession, and the public to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards in the creation and archival preservation of oral history interviews.

2. Subject to conditions that interviewees set, sponsoring institutions (or individual collectors) have an obligation to prepare and preserve easily usable records, to keep accurate records of the creation and processing of each interview, to identify, index, and catalog interviews, and to make known the existence of the interviews when they are open for research.

3. Within the parameters of their missions and resources, archival institutions should collect interviews generated by independent researchers and assist interviewers with the necessary legal agreements.

4. Sponsoring institutions should train interviewers, explaining the objectives of the program to them, informing them of all ethical and legal considerations governing an interview, and making clear to interviewers what their obligations are to the program and to the interviewees.

5. Interviewers should receive appropriate acknowledgement for their work in all forms of citation or usage.




WHEREAS, democratic societies flourish when the historical record of those nations' peoples are represented equitably; and

WHEREAS, oral history is a demonstrated method for ensuring that people have access to recorded and preserved knowledge; and

WHEREAS, libraries in the United States should endeavor to gather, process, preserve, and provide public service for sources of information that reflect their communities' diverse heritage; and

WHEREAS, oral histories, systematically gathered and preserved, are needed among library holdings to document significant historical development in our communities; and

WHEREAS, libraries should strive to serve the needs to poorly documented, inadequately served peoples by initiating oral history research projects to help remedy imbalances of community history information in their holdings; and

WHEREAS, libraries in the United States should be proactive in employing oral history methodology in the democratic study and public service of their diverse and changing constituencies; therefore be it

RESOLVED, that federal legislation be enacted that will encourage all libraries in the United States to develop systematic and comprehensive oral history collections which reflect accurately their communities; and be it further

RESOLVED, that the nation's libraries adopt as minimum oral history standards the principles and guidelines established by the Oral History Association and promulgated by that association as well as its affiliate regional and state oral history organizations.

Michaelyn Chou, is Member of Council of the Oral History Association and Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu where she is a Librarian and an active oral historian. Source for Principles and Standards of the Oral History Association is OHA Newsletter Volume XXIV, Number 2 Summer 1990 Email: mchou@uhunix.bitnet