Here at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Institutional History Program, one of our jobs is to answer reference questions. One query we get all time is “can I hear or see the transcript for this oral history interview?” The Smithsonian Oral History Program started its collection of interviews with Smithsonian employees, volunteers, and community members in 1973. The collection is vast and varied and full of very dedicated and often times quirky folks who contributed to the Institution. Through their voices, the collection helps us better understand the history of the Smithsonian. The patrons who write in to use this collection are just as varied. We get requests from scholars seeking to use the interviews in their academic research, journalists writing a piece on forensic ornithology, or a podcast host looking to use parts of an interview for a true crime story. Then there are some special requests we get: people who hear the voices of their loved ones in our institutional oral history collection.
In 2019, we received a barebones request from someone looking to hear one piece of audio from Record Unit 9594—recordings from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1996. The patron requested to listen to audio captured in the Smithsonian Memories Tent on the National Mall, where oral historians with recorders sat down with Smithsonian employees to record their stories and experiences. The request didn’t indicate anything special, just another patron asking for an .mp3 copy of one of the many audio files in this collection. When we sent over the clip, we got a response we weren’t expecting: the patron was the son of a Smithsonian security officer. The patron’s father had passed away, and he didn’t have any recording of his voice. Fortunately, he found his father’s name in our online finding aid and we were lucky to have it digitized and available to send. In return, the patron shared memories of coming to work with his dad as a kid and other information that his father did not include in the roughly twenty-minute interview.
As the Institutional History Program, we are the stewards of Smithsonian history. But with Father’s Day approaching, reflecting on requests like this reminds us that this Institution is most importantly a place made up of people; people with lives and loved ones outside the Smithsonian who don’t see our oral history collection as a repository for institutional memory but as a place to learn more about—or maybe hear for the for the first time in a long time—the stories and voices of their loved ones.
- Smithsonian Memories Project, Festival of American Folklife Oral History Interviews, 1996, Record Unit 9594, Smithsonian Institution Archives