National Institutes of Health Records Management

Chronicling Health and History: HAI’s Decades-Long Collaboration with the NIH

By Scott Vierick, Historian

For the past few months, HAI has been working with historians at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on a panel presentation for the Society for History in the Federal Government’s (SHFG) annual conference. HAI has collaborated with NIH on oral history projects for decades—the joint presentation explored the development and evolution of this valuable work.  Due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, SHFG decided to cancel the conference, scheduled to take place the weekend of March 13-14. Still, the presentation development process yielded many insights about the past, present, and future, of oral histories at NIH that we think are relevant not just to government agencies, but to any organization interested in capturing history, memories, and institutional knowledge.

An aerial view of the NIH campus. NIH is made up of 27 Institutes and Centers.

Our relationship with the NIH began in the 1980s. HAI had only been in existence for a few years and we were working to identify potential revenue streams and partnerships. Ruth Harris, an HAI historian, conducted several oral histories for the National Cancer Institute. She later conducted additional oral histories for other institutes and used them to write several NIH-commissioned books. Harris’s work helped open the door for HAI to conduct future oral histories with NIH. The collaboration grew in the 1990s, as Dr. Vicky Harden further developed the Office of NIH History. Our team has since completed oral histories for the Office of Research Facilities, the Office of Behavioral Studies and Social Sciences Research, and the National Institute of Nursing Research, among others.

In the NIH, some agencies arrange the oral histories in-house, while others coordinate with the Office of NIH History to facilitate the process. Sometimes these efforts support the development of a book or other publication; others serve as a record of the interviewee’s career that can be used by future researchers and historians. In all cases, HAI coordinated closely with NIH historians to perform in-depth background research before conducting each interview.

“Collaborations with outside historians, like HAI, has helped us to capture insider’s views of how NIH science and policy developed, as well as presenting the human stories behind our 27 institutes and centers.”

Michele Lyons, Curator of the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum

The nature and uses of oral histories are changing, and both HAI and the Office of NIH History are working to meet that challenge. Oral history practitioners today are pushing for new uses for oral histories, arguing that they should not be treated solely as a resource for researchers who encounter a transcript or recording in an archive. Today, HAI is conducting oral histories for the Office of Behavioral Studies and Social Science Research to support a new web timeline and digital booklet that we are helping them develop. Our team is diligently researching new uses for oral histories and has attended several workshops and training on the subject. The Office of NIH History meanwhile, has digitized much of its oral history collection and made it available online. Coronavirus may have stopped this year’s SHFG conference, but HAI and NIH’s oral history work will continue to evolve and grow.