Mary Marshall Clark, Director, Columbia University Oral History Research Office: The Oral History of 9/11

September 11, 2003
Mary Marshall Clark, Director, Columbia University Oral History Research Office: The Oral History of 9/11

The terrorist attacks of September 11 sparked an immediate debate over the ultimate historical significance of the events. The media played a leading role in shaping that debate, imposing a narrative of the events that often was mistaken for evidence of a national consensus.

By contrast, the field of oral history seeks to broaden our understanding of history by gathering, preserving, and interpreting individual narratives. Interviews recorded by oral historians provide an opportunity for future generations to examine personal thoughts, relationships, and interactions in the context of daily life after a major event like 9/11.

As the oldest organized university-based oral history office in the country, the Oral History Research Office of Columbia University was uniquely positioned to undertake the oral history of 9/11. Under the leadership of its director, Mary Marshall Clark, the office mobilized within days of the attacks to create the September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project, the purpose of which is to discover to what extent the events of that day marked a turning point in the lives of people who, directly or indirectly, were affected by them.

To that end, the project's team interviewed about five hundred people in the first year; from that pool, sample groups are being interviewed in the project's second year and will be interviewed once more in its third and final year. The interviewers cast a broad net, taking the oral histories of people in a range of groups and communities throughout the New York City region. In addition to eyewitnesses, survivors, rescue workers, volunteers, and others living or working around ground zero, the project sought out Muslims, Sikhs, Latinos, Afghan Americans, artists, and members of other groups with widely disparate experiences.

In two conversations, one in May and one in June, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Mary Marshall Clark about the project. Clark, who joined the Oral History Research Office in 1990 and became its director in June 2001, co-founded the September 11 Oral History Project and founded the September 11 Telling Lives Project, which seeks to use oral history to strengthen families, communities, schools, and immigrant neighborhoods affected by 9/11.

Among her accomplishments, Clark is past president of the Oral History Association and a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. She also has worked as a filmmaker and as an oral historian at the New York Times.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about Columbia University's Oral History Research Office and the work it's done over the years.

Mary Marshall Clark: We were founded in 1948 by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Allan Nevins, who was fascinated by the potential of the interview as a way to understand history in a more in-depth, complex way. He quickly realized, however, that in order to sustain an oral history office he would have to seek enough funding to keep up with his ambitions. So he wrote a letter to the provost in the early 1950s requesting an operational budget, and he received a letter the next day saying, "You'll never receive any operational money from Columbia." While Columbia eventually funded the salaries of the staff, that was true of the operational budget, with some small exceptions, until a few weeks after September 11, when James Neal, our newly appointed librarian, walked across campus after meeting with me and came back with funding to stabilize our efforts to undertake our September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project. That funding came from the very same office of the provost, and so the story came full circle, but with a very good ending.

The focus of collection development under Nevins was always the political elite, because he was interested in those who made history as well as lived it. He was also interested in American business, politics, publishing, and philanthropy, and the breadth of his vision has been maintained over the years. For instance, we conducted a large project on the Carnegie Corporation in the 1960s that we updated in the 1990s — we have more than seven hundred hours of recorded conversations on that project alone. Our entire collection runs to about eight thousand interviews, many of them quite lengthy, and about fifteen thousand hours of recorded conversation.

Nevins was obsessed with creating source material for history. He was very worried about the impact of the telephone on written records, correspondence, and diaries. He was captivated by the belief that we learn about history through autobiography and biography — and he saw oral history as the creative collision of those two forms.

Interestingly, oral history in England has very much the opposite origin —— it's focused on the history of the masses. A pioneer in oral history in England, Paul Thompson, wrote the classic book on the subject, The Voice of the Past. In it, he argued for oral history and history itself as an activist force in the world. In other words, he believed that by giving the microphone to people who would never be heard ordinarily, we could learn about the thoughts, beliefs, and visions of those who were normally excluded from the record but had much to say about it. The history of oral history is also an international story, with vast archives in Brazil and now South Africa and deep theoretical roots in post-fascist societies such as Italy and Argentina where the individual voice, or the dissenting group, has been censored and exiled. There is now a very strong international oral history movement in almost all parts of the world, and we even have an international association, which meets every two years.

PND: Has the way you conduct interviews changed over the years?

MMC: Yes. Since Allan Nevins retired —— I'm only the fourth director of this office —— there has been a shift in thinking about the interview not only as a tool for conducting historical research but as an interactive forum for exploring the meaning of history, culture, and society through personal reflection and analysis. As a result, we've had to become more thoughtful about the ways in which we ask questions according to subjective as well as objective historical realities. A good example is a project on the history of physicians and AIDS conducted by Ronald Bayer and Gerald Oppenheimer during the 1990s, which resulted in the book AIDS Doctors: Voices from the Epidemic. While research, demography, and epidemiology were all subjects of discussion, the human demands of facing the epidemic became the focus of that very successful book.

"...To paraphrase Sartre, we're interested in knowing not only what happened to people, but what people did with what happened to them...."

We've also learned that even when we're doing shorter, more focused histories, it's productive to start with the person's own construction and interpretation of the events and epochs they've lived through. In other words, to paraphrase Sartre, we're interested in knowing not only what happened to people, but what people did with what happened to them. In the end, we have come around to appreciating the value of the search for meaning itself, which has certainly informed the way in which we have interviewed people about September 11.

PND: What's your background?

MMC: I come from a mixture of backgrounds, which is true of most oral historians. I bought my own tape recorder when I was twelve years old, growing up in the South, in North Carolina, where culture was passed down through conversation and the success of the tall tale was equivalent to the art of the spoken word. I was always obsessed with finding out the facts. But the other reason I think I became an oral historian was that I was using my tape recorder to try and understand the schizophrenia of enduring racism. I watched people being consistently silenced and suffer needless violence, and I was deeply confused and confounded by that. My parents were civil rights activists in a town where there was no such thing as a liberal left. One summer, when the tension between my family and my community became unbearable, I made the rounds to the church ladies who lived on the white side of town and asked them to explain to me how they could be Christians and not want black people to come to their churches.

PND: What did they say in response?

MMC: Many of them were stunned and asked me to leave. But one of them —— the only one who was kind to me — said, "You remind me just exactly of your grandmother." I later found out my grandmother, Margaret Cromartie Clark, was a social reformer who set up schools and orphanages for children and would take her Bible around to people's houses and explain why racism was evil. I think for many of us who are passionate about oral history, the desire to document the world around you comes out of your childhood; it comes out of a desire to explore the contradictions that lie beneath the surface, and it comes out of a conviction that you can learn about history through talking to people.

I didn't know there was a discipline called oral history when I was in college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I applied my fieldwork interests to a double major in religious studies and psychology. Later I took two degrees at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where I studied liberation theology.

I really happened on oral history by accident here in New York. While I was still in graduate school I took a job with the New York Times one summer, and they had an opening on their oral history project, which involved building an archive of interviews with their journalists and editorial writers. It was a fascinating experience, not least because journalists are tough to interview — they enjoy being on the other side of the microphone and are always hoping to answer a question with a one-liner.

But it was the best professional training I could have had. And while I was at the Times, I took a course in oral history at Columbia and then never thought about the Oral History Research Office again until I got a call from Ron Grele, the previous director, in the summer of 1989. Ron asked me if I would like to apply for the job of assistant director. Eventually, I became associate director, and after Ron retired in 2000 I was named director in June 2001.

PND: Which brings us to September 11. How did the September 11th Oral History Project come about?

MMC: I think many different people had the idea for the project. I was scheduled to teach class on the morning of September 11 and already knew what had happened at the World Trade Center before the class started. We all have our September 11 stories, but mine isn't very dramatic. I simply felt a sense of real purpose going into that class, a feeling of trying to engage with what was happening in the world. Only two people came to the class, and shortly after it was scheduled to begin, we received word that classes had been officially canceled. I waited around for about forty-five minutes and then put a note on the door and went back to my office. Later, I got a call from one of my students, a fabulously gifted writer named Daniel Wolfe, a Revson fellow at Columbia, who asked, "Where were you? I walked all the way from Greenwich Village to class because I felt that oral history was the most important thing we could do at a time like this." I felt terrible, despite the fact that he was very understanding. I think it was at that moment that I decided to create an oral history project documenting the catastrophe.

"...The next day, I remember noticing what a deep silence had fallen over New York — this city that was always filled with voices, that was never quiet...."

The next day, I remember noticing what a deep silence had fallen over New York — this city that was always filled with voices, that was never quiet. It was so unnerving, I immediately wanted to fill it back up with voices. I also began to worry that the media would distort the meaning of 9/11 — that the government, through the mass media, would impress the collective memory of 9/11 on people in a way that might not be true to individual memory or even to the diverse and collective memory that would grow from the ground up.

That day or the next, I was sitting here at my desk, and Ken Jackson, who is a professor of American history at Columbia, called me and said, "Why don't we start an oral history project on September 11?" He asked me to come to his class on the history of New York City two hours later with five hundred handouts on how to do oral history, to ask for volunteers, and I did. It was the fastest class I have ever taught on oral history.

But the Oral History Research Office didn't have the money to start such a project. We had four working tape recorders, only a few contract interviewers, and two full-time staff members — one of whom was about to take a job elsewhere. So somebody sent me an e-mail saying that the National Science Foundation had issued a request for proposals. I called Jonathan Cole, the university's provost, to ask what he thought about using graduate student volunteers and mentioned that I had seen the NSF request. He said, "It's perfectly fine for you to use student volunteers; I think it would be a great project." Then he said, "Why don't you work with a sociologist on the application?" He recommended Peter Bearman, the head of ISERP — the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia — who was also the chair of the sociology department.

Peter was a terrific choice. Our visions were quite similar, actually. We were both thinking a lot about the power of the mass media to shape the story of 9/11. And we were eager to get into the field quickly and interview people while they were still feeling and reacting and hadn't constructed a view of the events yet — something that the Oral History Research Office had never done before. We never go into the street and ask people about what happened yesterday. We usually ask about what happened thirty years ago. So that was the other reason I needed a colleague in another discipline, because although oral historians have become much more interested in documenting contemporary events, we really don't have the tools to analyze the present.

Peter was wonderful. He sat down and wrote up a template for a proposal to the National Science Foundation in less than two hours, identifying many of the major components of our research —— the impact of the media in shaping the story, the impact of 9/11 on various social networks, the impact of 9/11 on the diverse communities within the city. We were also really concerned with the impact of 9/11 on the rest of the country, but we never found the funding to do a study.

Well, our proposal was accepted, and a few weeks later I happened to be at the Rockefeller Foundation, and Lynn Szwaja there, a deeply thoughtful person, invited me to apply for additional funding to support our work in certain communities we were very interested in —— the Latino community, the Afghan American community, the arts community, and Muslims in immigrant and refugee communities. That gave us the money to hire interviewers who had the language skills we needed, and those grants were supplemented by the funding that Columbia gave us to underwrite the first two years of the project. Later, in the summer of 2002, the New York Times Foundation's 9/11 Neediest Fund awarded us two important grants to document professional responses to the crises generated by 9/11, the first being our September 11, 2001, Response and Recovery Project, in which we interviewed people in the fields of philanthropy, law, job rescue, education, and trauma. They also gave us the funds to develop our Telling Lives oral history programs, in which we use oral history to strengthen communities already facing obstacles that were exaggerated by 9/11.

"...In any one interview you might find two or three different points of view living in one person. There was just tremendous ambiguity in people's minds about what 9/11 meant...."

All along, our goal was to understand how people were constructing meaning out of what had happened in their lives. At the same time, we knew it would be impossible for people to understand it right then and there, so the project would have to be longitudinal. Still, it was amazing how even in the first year of the project — and maybe especially in the first year of the project — people were so actively using the oral history interview, in which we interviewed people about their lives as well as the events of 9/11, as a way of constructing meaning. I mean, in any one interview you might find two or three different points of view living in one person. There was just tremendous ambiguity in people's minds about what 9/11 meant, and a creative reluctance to draw immediate conclusions. A person might describe the horror of their experience and then go on to describe some aspect of the day of 9/11 that was very ordinary. People had trouble integrating the experience, which tells us something about the impact of the trauma. And that's still true. Despite, or perhaps because of, their struggles to define the lasting meaning of 9/11, the stories were incredibly powerful and literate — it often felt as if we were reading from great novels.

PND: How did you select the people you interviewed?

MMC: We tried to make it as diverse and far-reaching as possible. We collected about two hundred interviews in the first eight weeks, and nearly three hundred more over the next eight months. Many of those in the first category were collected within a week or two of September 11. We went down to Union Square, we interviewed doormen on the Upper West Side, we went out to the boroughs, we went to temples, we went to mosques. We didn't go to the piers, though, because we felt that would be an invasion of deeply private mourning.

But we always knew that we wanted to collect a wide range of voices across classes, national origins, ethnicities, genders, generations — for all kinds of reasons, sociological as well as historical. At first, the interviewers would just go up to people and ask if they would like to talk about their experiences for deposit in an oral history archive. We gave the interviewees the option of remaining anonymous, though only one individual we interviewed selected that option. They didn't have to make a decision immediately about how the interview would be used; we don't ask for a final agreement of deposit until after the interviewee has had a chance to read and correct the transcript. But as we got deeper into the field, it became clearer where the stories were, and it also became clearer that we had managed to achieve diversity of experience just by fanning out the way we did — no surprise in a city like this.

But it was hard to keep the big picture in focus at the time, because despite the daily news reports there was very little information about who had actually been impacted and how they had been impacted. Remember how long it took to find out how many people had actually been killed? Or from what communities? Months and months. It was not like you could flip through a file and say, "Let's go there, and then there, and then there."

Finally one night I had one of those "Aha!" experiences as I was sitting here with my head in my hands trying to figure out what the big picture was. It occurred to me that maybe I could sneak into one of the bullpen meetings at the New York Times and get them to tell me what the big picture was. And then it hit me that they probably didn't know either! In fact, I recently read an interview with one of the Times reporters who more or less said exactly that. But we ended up interviewing a number of journalists and others who were trying to understand the contours of the story as it was unfolding, and those interviews helped us understand what the stories were. We also hired a few really outstanding journalists as interviewers, and they were very helpful to the group of about thirty interviewers we eventually deployed.

For example, I'd say we have about a hundred and fifty interviews with people who were within a five-block radius of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11 and maybe fifty or sixty interviews with people who were in one of the towers. We also have a lot of interviews with people who were not in the immediate vicinity of the Trade Center but nevertheless suffered terribly in the aftermath of September 11. We interviewed a Pakistani father and his son who worked in the towers —— one in the north tower and one in the south tower — — and, because they were Muslims and immigrants, were terrified for weeks after 9/11. The son, who believed as he was trying to escape that his father —— who was disabled and had to walk down seventy flights —— had died in the collapse, claims that he was more traumatized in the aftermath of 9/11 than he was by the events of that day. His father survived, but he suffers over the emotional impact of 9/11 on his son, whom he had brought to this country to experience freedom.

We interviewed a lot of people who were visited by the FBI — or knew people who were visited by the FBI — in the middle of the night because they lived in certain sections of New York. We felt some of the civil liberties issues would be an important historical story —— maybe the most important story. We weren't able to interview the people who were detained, of course, so we interviewed lawyers instead. We have a large cluster of interviews with civil liberties lawyers and judges, as well as concerned citizens who articulated their fears that immigrants from the Middle East —— or anyone who looked Muslim —— would be targeted in the ways that Japanese Americans were during and following World War II.

"...I certainly found in the interviews I did that I needed to ask very few questions. In the language of psychology, we would be called witnesses...."

The other big story of the project was the interviewers. They were amazing and resourceful. I'm a researcher; I research everything before I go out and do an interview or direct an interview. This time I couldn't do that. But it didn't matter, because I had gifted, gifted interviewers who realized that the best thing they could do was to find people to talk to and then sit back and let them talk. I certainly found in the interviews I did that I needed to ask very few questions. In the language of psychology, we would be called witnesses.

PND: What sort of training did they receive?

MMC: Many of them had already been trained. We offer a course on oral history at Columbia, as well as advanced training in our annual summer institute. So I had a huge Rolodex of people who've always wanted to work with us. And we had able volunteers from [Ken] Jackson's class, several of whom were journalists.

So what I tried to do for the first three months, before the transcripts started to come in, was to listen to at least one hour of an interview from each interviewer each week. Peter Bearman was working with me to direct the project, and between us we would listen to a good portion of each person's work. We also set up a weekly meeting for the interviewers, and although we thought nobody would want to come, they came every Friday and would stay for three or four hours. Peter and I would mostly listen, and the interviewers would tell us what was happening and come up with good ideas for additional questions. We all learned together, and through doing the fieldwork, which is the best way for teaching to occur.

And the interviewers — students, professional oral historians, journalists, and others — behaved so professionally. I never heard a complaint from any of the five hundred people who were interviewed. Never, not once. The interviewers were disciplined, loyal, and also very open about what they did and didn't agree with. Watching the group today, I can see that we've developed an amazing competency in collective problem-solving. In fact, one of the things we want to do, if we are ever able to find the time and money, is to write up what we've learned about the process of undertaking a project of this scope.

PND: What was it like for the interviewers to interview people who had been so deeply traumatized?

MMC: There were several levels to it. I've learned a lot about how people respond after a tragedy. You feel at a loss, like you're out of control. One strategy to combat that feeling is to try to master the situation in a creative way. I think the interviewers on the project all devoted themselves to the process of documenting trauma, in all of its manifestations, partly to recapture something that had been lost and to recover what was left as well as to honor the experiences of those who died. Nonetheless, they were deeply impacted. There was one interviewer who interviewed a woman, an older woman, who fled the towers physically unharmed but who later collapsed from the stress. She just didn't get up or move for weeks. And after interviewing this woman, our interviewer found that she couldn't get up or move for a few days, until she recognized that she was identifying with the victim. Recognizing that our interviewers faced hazards from hearing the stories led us to seek support for our interviewers as well as our interviewees, and we're fortunate to be working with Dr. Marylene Cloitre of New York University to provide that support.

Because of stories like that, and our recognition that our experience may be useful to others, we've come to realize that we're creating source material not just for historians and sociologists but for psychologists and trauma specialists as well. As it turns out, our 9/11 archive is one of the largest qualitative interviewing projects on massive trauma in the country. In fact, we've invited consultants in different fields to work with us to analyze the interviews, and they've encouraged us to look at the many different kinds of fields and scholars that can benefit from the stories we are collecting, not the least of which is the field of catastrophe studies, which bridges many disciplines. 

PND: Why did you decide to interview subjects over three years?

MMC: Three years is arbitrary. The point is that we wanted the project to be longitudinal. The reason we went out right away for the first round of interviews is that we felt we had a unique opportunity to study the formation of memory itself, which is something oral history is very interested in. The media, and in particular the mass media, is very much a part of that process. In fact, there's a definitive relationship between the mass media, government, and public opinion. Brigitte Nacos has written about that triangular relationship in a book called Mass-Mediated Terrorism. I hadn't read it before we launched the project, but essentially we're interested in the same things: How did the media influence the immediate and subsequent interpretations of 9/11 and its aftermath?

So we were very interested in getting people while the media was still actively doing its part to form this collective memory and allowing them to speak to their own personal experiences or cultural experiences or ethnic experiences so that we would have more than one text to read from as we all tried to determine the meaning of the event. We didn't assume it would mean the same thing for everyone. We didn't assume that the broad national and patriotic narrative would resonate with all the communities affected by 9/11, here or outside of New York. We just wanted to follow these people over a period of time and try to show, based on their unique experiences, how they were specifically affected by both 9/11 and its aftermath.

PND: When will the second round of interviews be conducted?

MMC: We started in late October 2002 but took off in earnest in January of 2003. This year we are moving more slowly, working with individual interviewers one-on-one. So the second round is really still a work in progress. It took much longer to listen to the interviews, transcribe them, and review the transcripts than we had anticipated. Because we have such a small office, it also took us longer to develop a direction for the project and do our other work. But I think it's good we waited as long as we did, because in a way the second round is about people beginning to see 9/11 as history. We want to capture that. It's not like writing a nonfiction book, where you have to maintain a single point of view. In the case of 9/11, there are many different points of view, and we think our archive, with all the different perspectives it represents, will be a really rich source for historians and other scholars writing about 9/11 fifty years from now.

PND: Did the questions change between the first and second round of interviews?

MMC: Not so much specific questions as the themes that drive the interviews. We asked some people more specific questions in the first year than in the second. In the first year, for example, we asked them, "Did you watch it on television? Did you listen to it on the radio? Who called you? Who did you call?" It was interesting because some people who could see what was happening from a sidewalk or a rooftop went inside and watched the events on television. Why did they do that? We tried to elicit unexpected details about how the catastrophe was experienced, and managed, by asking how they processed the event. During the first year, we also asked people about the impact of 9/11 on their work habits, their families and their personal relationships, their sense of the politics, and so on —— usually by probing for stories rather than asking concrete questions directly.

Certain details we just didn't know at first. For example, most of the American public didn't know until April of 2002, when the Times covered it in a front-page story, how many people had actually jumped from the towers. Peter and I knew about that by December 2001 — one day he said, "Are you getting all these stories about people jumping from the towers?" I was relieved to have him to talk to about it, as I was finding myself overwhelmed by the number I was hearing. It was largely kept out of the papers and the mainstream media. But the Spanish-language media reported on it, which is one theory as to why the Latino communities in New York were so deeply traumatized by 9/11. So did the European media. After we began to realize the scope of the trauma we weren't reading about, we asked people to describe what hadn't been reported in the media. So it's been a learning process in terms of what questions to ask.

During the second year of the project, we have been exploring many of the same themes, and also the ways in which September 11 has been linked to the justification for the military acts of the U.S. government.

PND: Do you think a collective-memory version of the events has set in? And do you see it developing between the first and second round of interviews?

"...It was almost as if [the interviewees] wanted to hold on to that ambiguity in the face of a media that was trying to stamp the event with its own narrative...."

MMC: Well, those are two very different questions. Do I see a collective-memory version of 9/11 in our transcribed interviews? No. And that's a strikingly, resoundingly strong "no" for the first round of interviews. If anything, those interviews were marked by extreme ambiguity. People were still very open and used the interviews to explore the many contradictory experiences, impressions, and interpretations they were processing. It was almost as if they wanted to hold on to that ambiguity in the face of a media that was trying to stamp the event with its own narrative. There was no consensus that the war against Afghanistan was a necessity, for example. In fact, most of those who were close to the site or to someone who was harmed were terribly anxious that retaliation would only lead to more retaliation — and were overcome by a horror that civilians might be killed or harmed.

In terms of the second round, although we've transcribed only fifty of the three hundred or so interviews that will be done, I would say that while they're not characterized by the same degree of ambiguity, 9/11 still means very different things to different communities. At the same time, there's a greater sense that 9/11 does mean something — certainly on a national level, whether you agree or not with the way in which the 9/11 memory has been used. So I would say there is less tension in the narratives, even though we haven't really read enough of them to offer a definitive answer to that question. Still, there is not a monolithic narrative, and the collective memory of 9/11 and its aftermath is still very much in formation.

PND: Can you give us an example of how specific communities have interpreted 9/11 differently?

MMC: Ultimately, you have to look at it from the perspective of the individual, because you may have ten different interpretations of the event in any given community. Still, there are lines of demarcation in a very general sense, and one of those is between first- and even second-generation immigrants and people whose families have lived in the U.S. for a longer period of time. You hear it in the accounts of individuals from Latino communities, whose ability to move back and forth between this country and their country of origin has been dramatically affected by 9/11.

But what is more interesting is not so much the literal interpretation of that particular day; it's the dialogue about the political meaning of 9/11. For example, in communities where there's some point of national origin other than the United States, there's much greater sensitivity to the implications of 9/11 as it relates to the perception of the U.S. in the rest of the world. That doesn't mean that in some of what you might call mainstream communities there isn't a discussion of political issues related to 9/11. But I would say that concern about the legacy of 9/11 in a global sense is much more pronounced in immigrant communities, and it is also much more prevalent throughout the population than has been reported by the media, which is a source of frustration and demoralization among almost all those we have interviewed.

PND: You mentioned earlier that a goal of the project is to create materials for historians, sociologists, trauma specialists, and others. Who else will have access to the interviews, and how do you see them being used, say, fifty years down the road?

MMC: That's a great question. And I'm glad you asked it, because through this project I hope we will create greater public awareness of and access to our archives. The archive has always been open to the public —— anyone can come here and consult our interviews. Because Columbia is a private university, a lot of people don't realize that. But given the national and international significance of 9/11 and the unique body of interviews we have compiled, what we want to do now is to take more assertive steps to make it available to the public.

To that end, we received a small grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring in nine consultants from different fields —— history, sociology, literature, education, museums —— to spend two days with us and talk about all the different possible venues for this work. And we plan to seek more grants to enable us to complete the digitization of the materials in the archive and to conduct a certain number of interviews on video, because we know that those are likely to be of great interest to future generations.

We're also working with a number of different museums. For example, the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas has an exhibition featuring work by students at Middle School 131 for their Oral History Club, which we created as part of our Telling Lives project. And we're working with the New-York Historical Society on a forthcoming exhibit that will be based on our 9/11 interviews with ironworkers, who will be celebrating their union's hundredth anniversary next year. Through the Telling Lives project, we'll be teaching them how to do oral history for that celebration. If we're successful in seeking additional funding for the project, we will also work with advocates for immigrants and refugees. Creating these public dialogues is a way for us to give something back to the communities that gave us their stories.

We're also working — thanks to a multi-partner grant from the Rockefeller Foundation — to create the Chinatown Documentation Project with New York University, the American Social History Project at CUNY, and the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas to undertake thirty in-depth interviews with people in Chinatown who were affected by 9/11. There's been very poor coverage of the real impact of 9/11 on the Chinatown community. We're just beginning that project, and the materials will reside at the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas, where we hope they will be used to create public dialogues about the future of Chinatown, which is facing a tremendous crisis.

PND: Can you tell us more about how the Telling Lives project is working with kids?

MMC: The New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund funded the Telling Lives project last summer [the summer of 2002] to help us begin to explore the impact of 9/11 on schools, teachers, and communities where there was a need to create dialogues about 9/11 in order to absorb its meaning. We organized our first after-school project at the International School in Brooklyn, where the principal and teachers wanted to explore the relationship between the school and the vast number of ethnic and immigrant communities in the neighborhood. The next project was undertaken in Chinatown, in collaboration with MS 131 and the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas. Each of these projects, which were directed by two of our most talented interviewers and educators, Gerald Albarelli and Amy Starecheski, focused on something concrete that the youths themselves made. In Brooklyn, the youths created a literary journal of the stories they collected, and in Chinatown, an amazing exhibit was created with the help of curators at the museum. While 9/11 was the background for the project, the youths were invited to think about 9/11 in terms of creating resources for the future —— as well as to understand the complex legacy of 9/11 in different communities. The school in Brooklyn and the museum in Chinatown were instrumental in working with our interviewers and the youths involved to find individual stories that linked to social and historical stories.

For example, the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas located an elderly woman labor activist who helped found UNITE, a local union that's been a very powerful force in Chinatown. We had many conversations with people, in interviews conducted by the youths themselves, talking about their experiences with war and with exile. The museum also helped produce a timeline of the history of the Chinese immigration, and the kids have begun to place themselves in that timeline through the stories they've collected and the stories they've witnessed. The powerful part of this program, of course, is that they themselves have created and exhibited these important dialogues. From these projects, students and educators have used oral history to begin to make 9/11 part of a larger history. 

PND: You mentioned at the beginning of the interview that Allan Nevins thought the discipline of oral history was threatened by the widespread adoption of the telephone. Do you think new technologies such as e-mail pose an even greater threat to oral history?

MMC: Not at all. There is no other forum historically, culturally, and maybe even politically that's ever been as satisfying as a good face-to-face conversation or public dialogue. I have a lot of faith in oral history. And it's experiencing a renaissance right now —— in part, I think, because of its profound ability to elicit conversations that happen across generations, across cultures, across political divisions, but also because of technology. Just as the portable tape recorder was a friend to Allan Nevins, the invention of the minidisk and the DAT recorder is a friend to today's oral historian. And advances in computer technology allow us not only to create our stories but to interpret them and disseminate them as well. So I'm not afraid of technology at all.

Beyond that, I think the field has developed both an academic rigor and a sort of social consciousness that is contributing to its growing popularity around the world. There is no doubt that this renaissance is linked to technology. Just as the group WITNESS puts cameras in the hands of Africans and encourages them to document their own experiences and the lives of their communities, we're beginning to teach oral history and share technology in a way that allows people to use tape recorders for their own purposes. That's really our ultimate goal: to share the excitement and importance of oral history in order to help create democratic dialogues and subvert the silences that threaten to erase a diversity of voices in a society that was founded to embrace them.

PND: Well, Mary, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

MMC: Thank you.

PND editors Natalie Coe and Jennifer Furl interviewed Mary Marshall Clark in May and again in June. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at