Library Oral History Programme

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Library Oral History Programme

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The Library Oral History Programme was an effort to interview key administrators, faculty members, and students who were involved in university affairs at the University of Toronto. Over 100 interviews were conducted with a wide range of individuals. The interviews provide accounts, opinions, and impressions of individuals who have contributed in a variety of ways to the life and history of the University of Toronto. As such their recollections can complement and enhance other forms of evidence preserved and made available for use in the University of Toronto Archives.

PREFACE TO THE ORAL HISTORIES, by R.H. Blackburn, Librarian Emeritus

The University Library's oral history project had a long gestation. I had been interested in the idea for several years, and had gathered information about the technique and costs of such projects in some American universities. When as a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on University History I suggested, about 1970, that a start be made here, the Committee was interested but had no funds at its disposal for the purpose. The idea was raised again in the Advisory Committee on University Archives, in 1972, and I was urged to proceed on the grounds that we had been through a golden decade which had transformed the university in size and nature, and that we should not miss the chance to record the personal impressions of a number of people who had played important parts in the drama.

There was still no money for the purpose, except a few scrapings from the Library's budget for supplies and services. However, I assigned the task to the University Archives section of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, and in 1973 a brave beginning was made with advice and help from Professor Robin Harris who had been appointed University Historian. Twenty-four interviews were recorded during the first two years. At first we attempted to have all the tapes transcribed, to provide a version in type as well as in voice, but mainly because of the cost had to give up that attempt. By the late seventies, when shrinkage of the Library budget had obliged us to reduce staff in all sections including Archives, other work claimed priority and the oral history project came almost to a halt. By then nearly fifty interviews had been taped, with people from most parts of the University, but a list of others which we wanted to do remained, and was growing.

In 1981, after his retirement from the President's office, Dr. Jack Sword agreed to become director of the project on apart-time basis; his long acquaintance with the University and all its parts, through experience in a succession of senior administrative posts, made him uniquely qualified for the task. We also managed to obtain for the Library a modest grant from the "up-date" fund, which put the project on a firm footing for the first time. On this basis the project was rejuvenated, and the tally of interviews completed and ready for use has passed the hundred mark. I hope it will continue, at a deliberate but steady pace, from now on.

FOREWORD TO THE ORAL HISTORIES, by J.H. Sword, Director Library Oral History Project, 30 June 1988

I was a willing mid-stream entrant to responsibility for the Library Oral History Project. The already established policy of seeking institutional inclusiveness in compiling lists for interviews made good sense. However, such an ambitious goal required either a lengthy time frame or substantial financial resources. Since the latter option was not available, the project has evolved at a modest pace.

It was Dr. Blackburn's enthusiasm and the availability of unused fragments from Library budgets that made possible the now significant collection of interviews. To assure continuation of the interviews beyond the date of his retirement, he took the initiative in seeking from the University administration an allocation of non-specific bequest money to assure the continuation of the Project. Funds for this purpose were subsequently provided through a bequest carrying the benefactor's name....

Not only did this money permit continuation of the interview,s it also allowed purchase of essential equipment and, of greatest importance, the employment for one year of an archivist, Sandra Guillaume, to accession and describe the growing collection of oral history interviews. The prohibitive costs of providing written transcripts of the tapes resulted in the preparation of tape summaries a research aid for users. Such finding aids as have been made are available in the University Archives.

For the first ten years, interviews were conducted by half a dozen University people. Since 1980 Paul Bator, Ph.D. (History) and Mrs. Valerie Siren Schatzker, M.A. (English) have done all the interviewing. Mrs. Schatzker has also completed nearly fifty interviews with faculty and staff from the Faculty of Medicine for Associated Medical Services. Copies of these cassettes, along with complete transcripts, are available in the University Archives.

The topics covered in the interviews have been, in general, terms, related to the history of the University, through a form of oral autobiography, tracing personal experiences at the University by means of anecdotes and memories of specific University issues over their career. One experiment with a theme was tried: the evolution to unicameralism. A format experiment -- talking with four retired senior members of the Department of Philosophy at the same sessions -- was well worth doing, but s not often practical. Other ideas,such as bringing two or more people together to elicit, by interaction, memories of a particular time or personality, have been talked about, but not tried.

Examination of the list of interviews reveals a cross section of faculty members, academic administrators, students, Governors and Council Members, and non-academic administrators -- in all, a good beginning to a widely representative recording of University voices and experiences. The Project continues.


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