Oral History Center
The Oral History Center (COH) at the Institute of Contemporary History, Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic (AV ČR) was established at the beginning of 2000 as an institute that would systematically support the development of oral history methodology and its application in historical research in the Czech Republic. The goals that the COH set out to achieve in researching contemporary history were already being fulfilled by many other oral history centers around the world. The most important institutes from which we have learned are those which stress conducting research on contemporary history using oral history methods. Furthermore, all oral history centers emphasize educational activities (seminars, lectures, conferences), archiving and maintaining interview collections, and providing consultations to those interested in the method.
The main objective of the Center (as with oral history institutes in other countries) is to do historical research, i.e. the interpretation of a certain historical event or period using primary sources obtained through oral history methodology. The main point is not merely the collection of material but also its analysis and interpretation, and the Center has produced scholarly texts and other work based upon its projects that are comparable to the results produced by oral history institutes abroad. Its research activities have been funded mainly by the Grant Agency of the Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic (Grant Agency AV ČR) and the Czech Science Foundation (GA ČR). For instance, the project „Students in the Period of the Fall of Communism – Life Stories“, published as the book One Hundred Student Revolutions by M. Vaněk and M. Otáhal, was funded by the Grant Agency AV ČR. The project „Political Elites and Dissidents during the Period of So-called Normalization – Historical Interviews“ was funded by the GA ČR and resulted in two publications: Victors? Vanquished?, a two-volume collection of 50 exemplary interviews; and a compilation of original interpretive essays entitled The Powerful?! or Helpless?! These publications demonstrate that oral history can contribute greatly to our understanding of many interesting fields in human lives and history itself, such as the motives behind the dissidents‘ activities, the formation of opposition groups, communication between dissidents and state representatives and the emergence of ex-communist elites and their decision-making processes. At present, Center is about to finish another project dealing with the period of the 1970s and 1980s in Czechoslovakia, entitled „An Investigation into Czech Society during the „Normalization“ Era: Biographic Narratives of Workers and the Intelligentsia“ (funded by the Grant Agency AV ČR). The book of interpretations (called „Ordinary People…?!“) was published in the second half of 2009. COH was also working on two other projects called „Social and Political Aspects of Existence and Development of Independent Music Genres and Trends in the Czech Republic from the sixties until 1989“ and “Cottagers: Social Aspects of a Subculture in Everyday Life Studies during the So-called Normalization Era”.
In addition to the projects supported by national grant agencies, COH is also working on several other projects with other institutions (e. g. Colegium Hieronymi Pragesis, DAMU and Theathrological Institute, Archa Theathre, Czech Center – London, Institute of Ethnology – Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potzdam etc.) In addition to individual research topics, the Center also addresses oral history-related theoretical and methodological themes. (See the publication by Vaněk, M.: The Oral History Method in Contemporary History). Since 2001 COH has also organised an annual international and interdisciplinary conference of historians and supporters of oral history at Sovinec castle in the Olomouc region. Czech Oral History Association (COHA – www.oralhistory.cz) was established in January 2007 from iniciative of COH researchers.
The Center has developed contacts with various academic and university institutes devoted to oral history around the world. The best-established and longest collaboration has been with the Center for Slavic, Euroasian and East European Studies and the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) at the University of North Carolina, USA. Miroslav Vaněk has spent several semesters at this university as a visiting researcher and lecturer, attending an oral history seminar in 2000 and conducting his own course on oral history in 2004. The Center has also worked together with the Center of Contemporary History Research in Potsdam and participated in a joint project researching former and future political elites with the Institute for Historical Sciences at Humboldt University in Berlin. The Center also cooperates with the British National Library’s departments specializing in the use of oral history; the Milan Šimečka Foundation in Bratislava and Institute of Ethnology, Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, Slovakia; the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of Texas, USA; and Endicott College, USA. COH has been a member of the International Oral History Association (IOHA) since 2002. Under the auspices of COH and in collaboration with partners from abroad an EU project proposal (for the period of 2009–2013) called „We lived under the socialism“ was proposed in 2008. It should deal with oral history research of „ordinary people“ living in Eastern Bloc countries from WWII till the transformation period in 1990s.
Educational and consultation activities
One of the Center’s most important tasks is present to university students the oral history method and to choose potential co-workers for particular projects from among this young generation of researchers. Biannual oral history courses and lectures organized by the Center take place at several Czech universities, including Charles University (Univerzita Karlova, UK) in Prague, University Palacky in Olomouc, Západočeská University (University of West Bohemia) in Plzeň, and Collegium Hieronymi Pragensis in Prague. The Center has also participated considerably in the creation of a textbook to acquaint university students with the oral history method and its application in research on modern history (see M. Vaněk: Oral History. Methodological and Technical Procedures.) The Center was awarded a certificate of accreditation by the Ministry of Education of the Czech Republic for teaching oral history in history classes at secondary schools. At present COH staff is guaranteeing lectures on Faculty of Humanities (Charles University in Prague), where the M.A. program called Oral History – Contemporary History was acredited and started in winter semestre 2008/2009.
Processing and archiving oral history source material
In terms of technical equipment (for the recording, further processing and final archiving of the interviews), the Center’s resources are already on a level comparable to that of oral history centers abroad. One of the Center’s most important tasks is to maintain and archive the existing interview collections that have been accumulated from projects conducted by individual researchers since the Institute of Contemporary History was founded in 1990.