A chronological timeline of events might form the backbone of a company history, but the details within the events are what makes for a good story. Oral histories provide the personal recollections that can make the account of an event much more memorable and meaningful.
For example, History Associates began when two of our founders were hired by the U.S. Department of Energy to document the Three Mile Island nuclear accident shortly after it occurred. While writing that history, the founders realized that other organizations might need historical services, so they created a new company. History Associates was officially incorporated on January 2, 1981.
This summary of the facts lacks a human dimension – the details that demonstrate that the past is contingent—things did not have to work out the way they did. Oral history interviews help us understand the thought processes behind critical decisions and appreciate the role of chance.
One key event in our history could have been lost to time. Co-founder Phil Cantelon was doing research for the Three Mile Island history at the National Archives when he overheard an argument between the archivist on duty and a visitor with a strong Texas accent. He wanted someone to conduct research for him, but the Archives is not like a library – it’s usually self-service only.
As Phil tells the story, the Texan was looking for historical maps and documents related to a coastal land dispute. Phil offered to help, explaining that historians know how to navigate the archives. The man asked to meet him the next day with a contract. Phil realized that “History was appreciated and valued in a different way by people I would never have approached before.” This brief encounter with a potential client provided insight into what a history company might provide – resulting in a line of historical research services that we still conduct today.
The facts behind this event could be captured in a memo or formal report, but the color could not have been and it was the personal interaction that captured the imagination of one of our founders.
To recover your company story, develop a list of people who can provide first-hand perspectives on major events or unique insights into important decisions. Then, prepare for the interviews by compiling a list of company milestones – these events become the focal points in the story and you’ll want to capture first-hand the context and the conflicts that touched them off.
A good interview strikes a balance between guiding the conversation chronologically and letting the interviewee explore tangents. Some of those stories that were assumed to be peripheral may be in the middle of the chain of events that made your company what it is today. And they can be colorful too, almost as much as a chance encounter with a disgruntled Texan!
Our historians have conducted hundreds of oral history interviews and can help you capture those important eyewitness accounts before they are lost, just complete the form to the right and we’ll be in touch!
For our 35th anniversary, we shared insights and ideas on how to use history to reinvigorate the present, ideas for your archives, and creating history timelines. Read more posts from the series or subscribe above to receive automatic updates!