Chinese Oral History Collections at Columbia: Toward Better Access

Wang, Chengzhi

Source materials keep their scholarly value unabated with the passage of time. This is true of the Chinese Oral History collections at Columbia. Most of the collections were created, acquired in association with the Chinese Oral History Project undertaken about three decades ago, but they are still frequently inquired about and consulted by students and scholars researching modern China. All the original Chinese oral history collections are kept at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) at Columbia. Some difficulties in accessing the collections from afar and at Columbia have been reported by new users. Among other problems, new users assume that records for these Chinese-language oral histories have been completely entered into CLIO (Columbia Libraries Information Online), Columbia’s online catalog, and converted to LC pinyin system, and so are searchable in CLIO, but in fact this is not true. Many authors and titles of the oral histories, if known, are not directly searchable. Some general titles of oral history projects are searchable, and the search results offer substantial useful information in great detail. Yet, few users would search CLIO using the correct general titles, and some specific personal papers and archives cannot be located this way. Moreover, it seems the Journal of East Asian Libraries and other library professional periodicals have not carried any articles focusing on this important oral history collection. The Chinese Oral History project at Columbia officially started in 1958 and ended in 1980. Prof. C. Martin Wilbur, the project co-director, prepared an updated, but unfinished inventory for RBML in 1984. A number of other Chinese-related oral history projects of significant importance were conducted at or collected by Columbia. The available guides, printed in 1972, 1979, and 1984, were collected by some institutions, but they have been found not to be perfect in meeting the research needs of the new generation of users who are used to renewed, updated search tools. The general guide at RBML, which has been very useful, seems to be the aggregate of documents such as guides, inventories, and relevant journal articles from various sources at different time. Many of the documents in the guide are informal documents, with undated handwritten notes and corrections. It is necessary to offer an updated, comprehensive, consistent overview of Chinese oral history collections at Columbia for better access by users and librarians alike. Chinese oral history collections at Columbia mainly consist of the Chinese Oral History Project collection, the China Missionaries Project collection, the Academica Sinica Institute of Modern History oral history collection, and the Zhang Xueliang oral history collection. It is impossible for me to cover all the collections in detail in this article. This article intends to provide essential information on what is available, how to navigate through the multitudes of the collections, and how to communicate requests for access to RBML staff. In particular, it includes the lists of person names in LC pinyin, Chinese and original Romanization, and record titles of the transcribed memoirs, personal papers, and archives that users and librarians may find immediately useful.


Also Published In

Journal of East Asian Libraries

More About This Work

Academic Units
Libraries and Information Services
Published Here
August 28, 2012