Georgia State U. Scholar Leads Strengthened Oral-History Group

Oral History Association

Clifford M. Kuhn
March 04, 2013

Clifford M. Kuhn became the Oral History Association's first full-time executive director on January 1, at a time when the discipline of oral history is burgeoning because of digital advances, but also when it faces ethical and legal challenges.

Mr. Kuhn, who is 60, is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. He will continue to teach part time while leading the group, which since 1966 has supported the gathering and preservation of historical information via recorded interviews.

A longtime oral historian, Mr. Kuhn has relied extensively on interviews for books, articles, and radio series about Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr., and Southern history and life. Using interviews and archival materials, he is working on a history of the life of Arthur F. Raper, a sociologist who studied sharecropper exploitation in the South in the mid-20th century.

Mr. Kuhn joined the Oral History Association in 1979, also served on its council from 1994 to 1997 and as its president in 2000-1.

Until now, the association's leading official was the executive secretary, a part-time position. With Mr. Kuhn's appointment, the group has moved its headquarters to Georgia State from Dickinson College, its home for 13 years. "We were able to show that oral history fit in with the university's strategic plan," and that oral-history practice was strong not only in the history department but also in such disciplines as law, religion, music, education, and even public policy, says Mr. Kuhn.

Both within academe and in public life, oral history has advanced beyond being a doubted stepchild of history, says Mr. Kuhn. "We've had an explosion of improved technology, which allows for widespread, high-quality sound recordings," he says. A national project called StoryCorps has since 2003 collected more than 45,000 interviews with Americans describing their lives. The recordings are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Among Mr. Kuhn's priorities for the oral-history group are to encourage oral historians to seek collaborations with government agencies and public entities like libraries and museums. He also wants to push for continued improvement in oral-history research, and teaching, "so people are not nonchalant or cavalier about the practice."

That extends to ethical and legal dimensions of the subdiscipline, which were sorely tested in a 2011 case in which oral historians anxiously supported Boston College's resistance to a federal subpoena ordering it to release confidential interviews with participants in Northern Ireland's "troubles." Mr. Kuhn fears that, without safeguards, advances in technology may further undermine confidentiality by, for instance, allowing people to easily forward digital audio recordings to others.

The Oral History Association is among several groups and institutions that are developing guidelines related to digital recording, preservation, and intellectual property through a national project, Oral History in the Digital Age.

Mr. Kuhn would also like oral historians to record the experiences of refugees in war-torn areas of the world, and to try to improve the status of oral history in countries with repressive governments.

Then there's the thorny issue of the value assigned to oral-history projects in tenure-and-promotion deliberations. "That still needs some work," says Mr. Kuhn, "so that committees recognize that if you generate an interview, which is of course a historical document, that in itself is a contribution to the dissemination of knowledge"—certainly if, as in his case, the documents have been cited in theses, dissertations, articles, and books.

Mr. Kuhn's new position caps a career that began during his undergraduate days at Yale University, in the early 1970s. He recalls: "I was attracted to the democratic nature of oral history, putting into history the stories of people who often had been marginalized." He also valued the mutual respect of interviewer and interviewee that ideally anchors oral-history encounters.

"Over the years," he says, "nothing has dissuaded me from those initial attractions."