Legal Oral History Project: About Us
The Legal Oral History Project is a collaborative effort by a team of faculty, librarians, and students to record and preserve first-person narratives of graduates and members of the Penn Law Community. The project begins with a seminar taught by Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon and Associate Director of the Biddle Law Library Edwin Greenlee which trains students in the theory and practice of oral history. Each student then selects a distinguished graduate or member of the Penn Law community and conducts a one- to two-hour videotaped interview. Following the interview, the student transcribes the videotape and prepares a biographical article for publication in the Penn Law Journal. The videotape, transcript, article, and other biographical information are then archived in Biddle Law Library. The archive, which is posted on the web as well as housed in the library, is a valuable resource for legal scholars around the country, and for members of the law school and university.
A meaningful experience for students
The project enables students to meet with accomplished alumni/ae and gain perspective on the study and practice of law. Students and alumni are challenged by the project to work together to preserve the past as partners in a joint enterprise. This partnership allows students to engage with and learn from alumni in a format that is unavailable in other contexts. Because the project focuses on the alumnus’s life and professional experience, students acquire a sense of the breadth of possibilities their training will give them, as well as a meaningful relationship with a senior lawyer. By studying the legal accomplishments of distinguished alumni in historical context, participants gain a vivid appreciation for how developments in the law have influenced historical events. More importantly, students gain a sense of how often lawyers have been in a position to actually shape these events.
The creation of a valuable historical archive
The project seeks to preserve in readily accessible form the events of the past as remembered by Penn alumni, professors, and community. The esteemed position Penn law affiliates hold in the legal community often means that they possess reflections on important historical events unavailable elsewhere. As an institution with a tradition of leadership and accomplishment, Penn has a duty to insure that the perspectives of its alumni are preserved.
The project has generated a dynamic and growing archive. Each student is required to produce a scholarly work focused on the life of the legal oral history subject. Although the life of the subject is the focus of the paper, students are encouraged to contextualize the events of the subject’s life by including background historical information. This work is placed in a file along with the videotape, videotape transcript, and the student’s notes and background research. The result is a well-rounded record that will be an invaluable new source for the historical community and the institutional memory of the school.
Penn joins a growing number of legal institutions with oral history programs. The American Bar Foundation has an established program; relatively new programs are underway at the law schools of Yale University and the University of North Carolina, among others.
An opportunity to strengthen the institution
What is perhaps most striking about talking to alumni is how closely their experiences match those of present day students. Frequently they recall the unique conviviality of Penn students, squirming under a well-delivered Socratic assault, and the off-beat antics of some of Penn’s more colorful professors. Preserving these reflections in the legal oral history format is a way for participants to celebrate and affirm the enduring character of the Penn Law experience. The publication of student papers in the Penn Law Journal insures that the entire Penn Law community also has a chance to participate.
In the end, the Legal Oral History Project does more than reward the individuals involved or create a valuable historical archive. The project fosters the intangible connection between people and tradition, generating the sense of continuity that is vital to any institution.