CSU student intern at the Fullerton Center for Oral and Public History
Story Community

Six Thousand Personal Histories — and Counting

Angie Marcos

How CSU Fullerton’s Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History is assembling a rich archive of the voices of the campus, the region and beyond

CSU student intern at the Fullerton Center for Oral and Public History

The CSU Fullerton Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History has collected more than 6,000 interviews over the past five decades. Pictured is a CSU student intern interviewing California State Senate candidate Maria Elena Durazo. Photo courtesy of CSU Fullerton 


Have you ever told your life story to someone? If so, is it recorded and preserved in a way that will be easily accessible to future generations? For most of us, the answer is no.

But by talking about our lives in an interview and having it recorded, we can each share our experiences and perspective — unfiltered and unique to us — with loved ones as well as those who will succeed us.

California State University, Fullerton so values the gifts of oral histories that the campus committed to gathering as many personal stories as possible for future generations, as well as educating the public about the importance of documenting and preserving individual histories.

The campus is home to the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, opened in 1968 and now one of the largest oral history archives in California, housing more than 6,000 interviews. The center has become a rich resource for academics and the public alike, allowing access to audio interviews spanning nearly a century, many of which have been transcribed, edited, archived and published.

"The biggest thing these interviews offer us is a sense of what the atmosphere was like during [a given] period in time," says Lawrence de Graaf, Ph.D., a founding faculty member of CSU Fullerton and one of the center's founders.

Dr. de Graaf started the center to preserve the oral histories of campus administration and faculty, later expanding it to include former chancellors and other leaders across the CSU. Eventually, the center began growing its archive with personal histories drawn from across Southern California.

"Oral history can bring out things that most written records just don't," de Graaf explains. "It can open up aspects of history that we've never been aware of before." For example, he says, hearing the thoughts and reflections of political leaders can help us understand why they introduced a certain policy or law.

In March 2017, following a $1 million donation to the Center for Oral and Public History by de Graaf, the CSU Board of Trustees approved the center's renaming in honor of the professor emeritus of history. 

"In the Business of History Preservation"

"Recording and archiving someone's history provides a completely different perspective from, say, a historical document," explains center director Natalie Fousekis, Ph.D., associate professor of history at CSU Fullerton. "That oral history tells us more about the person, why and how they came to be.

"It provides us with voices that maybe otherwise would not be preserved in public records," she continues. "If you take a good look at all of these individuals' stories, you may be able to get a completely different take on a moment in history."

Over the years, the center has collected interviews from public figures and everyday members of the community alike. Current oral history projects available to review at the center include:

  • Women, Politics, and Activism Since Suffrage
  • El Toro Marine Corps Air Station
  • Orange County Politics
  • California League of United Latin American Citizens
  •  From Hitler's Europe to the Golden State
  • Southern California Food Culture and Visionaries

While only select interviews are currently uploaded to the center's website, a fully indexed and searchable online database will soon be accessible to the public.  

"We are in the business of history preservation," Dr. Fousekis says. "We train our students in the methods of collecting oral histories. We also explore the diverse ways in which one can take these stories that are in our archives and take them out into the community."

The Center for Oral and Public History regularly holds workshops that are open to anyone on how to record and report their own history or someone else's stories. On September 23, it will host a free workshop on the preparation, recording, transcription and archival organization of oral histories.

"There is incredible value in having the stories of your family members recorded," Fousekis says. "Because when someone dies, their memories die with them and no longer do you have that individual's perspective." 

Listen to a sample of audio clips from the archives of the CSU Fullerton Lawrence de Graaf Center for Public and Oral History

“Black History”: Gilbert Lindsay (1967)

“Japanese American”: Craig Kei Ihara (1973)

“From Hitler’s Europe to the Golden State”: Rose DeLiema (2011)

“Mexican American”: Carmen Valenica (2013)