OHS/IHR seminar review: Donald Ritchie on oral histories of the US Senate

Posted on 23/07/2013 by

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Donald Ritchie, historian of the US Senate, led the final Oral History Society/Institute of Historical Research seminar of this academic year on American Independence Day.

Ritchie talked about the oral histories of senate staff and politicians that he has been collecting since 1976 – a year after the creation of the Senate historical office, set up to celebrate the US’s bicentenary.

Ritchie began his seminar by highlighting the differences in the origins of oral history in the US and the UK. The UK model was originally more focused on stories from people at the bottom of society, whereas US oral historians tended to collect stories from elites. But, he said, there was beginning to be a “convergence of the top-down/bottom-up approach to oral history”.

“It makes a lot of sense to do this because both approaches work very well. Oral history is probably the most flexible methodology to use to interview any segment of society,” he added.

“Doing oral history works well if you’re not staying at one particular stratum of an institution. Those at the top involved in planning may not be aware of how those plans have been implemented. Those at the bottom or middle are much more aware of the ramifications of the actions of those at the top,” he said.

On arrival at the Senate historical office he soon realised that sitting senators were difficult to interview because they were too busy so Ritchie began to look at senior staff members, people who had been “professionally anonymous”.

“They were the people who wrote the speeches, who drafted the bills, who were in meetings but had never really recorded what they were doing,” he said.

“There is a truism in American politics that the more famous the individual the less useful the oral history. The people who I had never heard of before gave the richest interviews,” he said.

Ritchie also collects the stories of those nearer the bottom of this elite institution– the Senate’s first African-American employee has told her story as has the Senate policeman.

Ritchie said oral history was good at documenting changes that Senate staff and politicians had witnessed, with one of his earliest  interviewees joining the institution as a page boy in 1910. Women interviewees told Ritchie how they overturned the skirt/dress-only dresscode by coming in en masse one day wearing trousers. Many interviewees told how television and then the internet had changed the day-to-day life of the Senate.

Ritchie said he was astonished by his interviewees’ candour and finished the seminar by describing one of the joys of oral history as a research methodology.

“There is no other form of research where your source can look you in the eye and tell you that you are wrong,” he said.

  • The first OHS/IHR seminar of next academic year will take place on October 24th 2013 at the IHR. It will be led by Joel Morley of Queen Mary, University of London, and the title is: Unravelling Motivations: Second World War veterans’ enlistment, the Great War, and masculinity. Seminars begin at 6pm and are free. Please keep an eye on the OHS website for the full programme and room details.
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