Heroes, Historical Consulting, and Marquis James

The roots of historical consulting lie in the early to mid-20th century when corporations began to see their stories as an asset even as professional historians grew more specialized and less interested in institutions. Two biographers led the field. Alan Nevins attempted to craft compelling and contemporary history that met academic standards. Marquis James, on the other hand, favored more historically remote subjects and a more sensational approach.

Marquis James grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the “Cherokee Strip,” the newly opened Oklahoma Indian lands where rapacity (toward both native Americans and less fortunate settlers) was part of daily life. In the 1910s James became a journalist, reaching the height of the profession in reporting on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” that pitted legends William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow.

Then James began the work that had an immediate impact on American popular history, writing biographies of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, and John Nance Garner (Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president). In these works, James demonstrated both an enduring strength: the ability to tell a good story; and fatal weakness: the tendency to see the heroic individual as the locomotive of history.

In 1941, in telling the life story of Alfred I. DuPont, James turned from political biography to business history. Two insurance company histories and books on Texaco and The Bank of America followed. James did meticulous research, but he invariably interpreted his sources to the credit of larger-than-life characters above all else.

This preference for the heroic made James a celebrated author in his day (he won two Pulitzer Prizes in the 1930s) and a forgotten one in ours. For in building up his heroes, James stripped away historical complexities, including the possibility that the bald-faced exploitation which American culture countenanced, and in which many of its legends participated, was anything but heroic.

It seems that at least one of Marquis James’s clients figured this out. In the late 1940s, J. Peter Grace, CEO of the chemical company that his grandfather had built by stripping Latin American countries of guano, commissioned a business biography of the founder.  But when James completed the manuscript, Grace buried it, apparently realizing that documenting in admiring prose the exploitative underpinnings of the W. R. Grace & Company would undermine already fragile relations in Latin America. Merchant Adventurer: The Story of W. R. Grace did not see the light of day until 1993, a year after J. Peter Grace stepped down as CEO.

Today, historical consulting involves much more than the writing of books as it did in the days of Marquis James. And it also must involve much more than reflexively repackaging the one-dimensional legends and self-promotional stories that may have passed as history in an earlier day.

Historical Consulting and Partnership

The prospect of putting your organization’s story down on paper can be daunting. The most perplexing questions have to do with content: what if we do not get the story right? What if people feel left out? What if we learn things that do not conform to our current aspirations? A second tier of concerns are less existential but are in some ways more worrying: how will we provide all the research? Where will we get the time to review? How will we handle design and printing? I have already got a job to do, how can I take on a project as big as this? As an expert at historical consulting, I can answer these questions and lift most of the burdens of the project from your shoulders, yet help you maintain the control over the project that you need to have.

The Proposal

Partnering should begin during the proposal stage. Opening discussions are wide-ranging. Potential clients usually share what they know about their story and what they hope to gain from the historical consulting relationship. I often take the opportunity to assess the availability of documentary sources and discuss a preliminary list of oral history interviewees.

The next step is to narrow things down and scope out the project.  The best place to start is the product—is it a simple as a historical timeline for the website or a more complex on-line history? If it is a print product that you are looking for, is it a brief illustrated pamphlet, a full-scale coffee table book, or something in between? A historical consultant can help you decide by comparing costs and timetables. The type of product helps determine how many interviews are appropriate and how much time and effort will be required for documentary and photo research.

At the close of these discussions I usually draft a proposal that describes the product we are going to end up with and lays out concrete steps for getting there. Although I usually get it right the first time, the proposal itself can be revised after the potential client’s review.

As the project gets underway, clients often begin assembling a history advisory committee. This can be an important component of the partnership since those administering the history project day to day are not always able to make firm decisions regarding content. A history advisory committee can represent stakeholders throughout the organization who are willing to provide feedback on the book’s approach and content. In my experience the most effective history advisory committees are relatively small, with three to five people. Most importantly, the members must be empowered to make decisions.

Research and Interviewing

 The prospect of research is usually daunting for clients. Typical questions are “what if we don’t have enough material?” or “what if we don’t have time to organize our records?”  The good news is that doing research is the job of your historical consultant and need not consume a great deal of your time. Most organizations do not have formal archives, and that is alright with me. My chief requirements are simple: access to your historical records, a table to work on, and an outlet to plug in a computer and scanner. Sometimes documentary sources like old newsletters, reports, and minutes are well organized if not archived, other times they are thrown haphazardly in boxes, closets, or banks of filing cabinets. It should not matter to an experienced historical consultant. I review them systematically, scanning or photographing what I deem to be important and putting everything back the way I found it.

I will need to partner more closely when it comes to arranging the interviews. After we have come up with an interview list, I rely on the client to make the initial contact—to let interviewees know that it is a project sanctioned by the organization and that their cooperation with its historical consultant is appreciated. I follow up to schedule the interviews. While sessions can be by phone or at a retired interviewee’s home, for those currently employed, an office or a conference room is suitable. If clients expect to leverage these interviews in the future, I usually leave it to them to follow up and have the interviewee sign a release form, which I can provide.

While the oral history stage with its administrative tasks can be one of the most demanding for a client, it is also a great opportunity for an organization to ensure constructive input on content. Just by meeting a number of people from your organization, a historical consultant can get a strong sense of corporate culture and values. That goes a long way to ensure that the project meets your expectations.

Developing the Story

Depending on your availability during the research stage, we may have spoken at length about the developing story, but the outline stage is where that communication is formalized.

With documentary research and interviewing largely complete, your historical consultant should produce an outline that, in just a few pages, shows how the book will be structured, lays out the central themes of each chapter, identifies the key events and initiatives that will be covered in each of them, and describes how chapters are structured so as to build upon one another in pursuit of an overall theme for the book.

After a client reviews my outline, we usually take the opportunity to discuss the emerging themes and consider how they fit with your current organizational priorities well in advance of writing. We adjust the outline and I submit revisions as necessary until the client is satisfied that we are embarking on writing their book.

The next step is one that most clients have been anticipating all along: review of drafts. If the book project is a sizeable one, your historical consultant will generally submit one or two preliminary chapters for early review so that both parties can discuss the style, tone, and overall approach to the writing before moving on to next chapters. For smaller books, however, it is far more efficient just to draft the entire text and submit it for review in entirety.

This is the point where the history advisory committee usually comes into full play. While it is invaluable to have multiple perspectives on revisions, the review process also exposes some of the challenges of the committee system—namely that those members who actively participate (and some will not) often have differing views about big things such as whether or how a certain subject should be covered, and small things like appropriate subtitles—even punctuation.

I would like to be able to coordinate and incorporate all of the input myself. Unfortunately, this is usually not possible, since very often suggested edits are mutually conflicting. Therefore I usually relay on my main point of contact to pull together all edits. If I work from one master document, I can be sure that I am making the right changes, doing additional research and reconceptualizing in a way that fits organizational, rather than individual expectations.

One last note about this step of the partnership. My direct clients usually take the manuscript review process seriously and work hard at it. Very often, however, senior management fails to invest much time at this point reviewing what is, to them, just a preliminary version of the book. If anything holds a project up, it is usually failure to fully review in manuscript and the resulting need to review in layout, late in the process.

Last Chapter Issues

The last chapter of a commissioned history can be sensitive, controversial, and difficult. But there is no way of avoiding the challenge. Well, there is. I once had a client that, after grappling with the prospect of putting its recent history down on paper, opted to cut the narrative short by twenty years in the name of “objectivity.” But for most institutional clients it is precisely the opportunity to root the present in the past that makes a corporate history book desirable.

So that leaves us with the last chapter challenge. Sometimes there are real problems to be sorted out—how much to document dead-ends like completely failed initiatives? Which people to feature and which to sketch in briefer profile? In the end, grappling with these questions and making a decision is precisely what the client has hired the historical consultant to do in the first place. Having studied the entire history of an organization closely and faced with bringing the story to an authentic close, I have never had any trouble doing it. The people who have lived the history however, members of the advisory committee or senior management, often have a tougher time.

The reason is entirely understandable. Everyone’s lived experience is unique. The historical consultant draws all of those experiences together, corroborates them with the written record, and creates an overarching narrative. This best effort to draw all of those views of the past together into a synthesis inevitably fails to square with any one individual’s version of what really happened and why.

In rare cases, senior management will pull rank and decides that his or her version of certain events should be written into the narrative, which is not a problem if this is simply a matter of emphasis or interpretation. Far more often, however, people just need time to get used to the story. This is almost certainly the first time they have seen the efforts of a lifetime written down. Sometimes this period of adaptation takes a while—weeks or even months—but I am happy to work with clients while they make it and hope that it does not bust a deadline.

Partnering in Production

By the time we are both growing comfortable with your fresh new history, we are also looking towards production. This is the point where the partnership can change. Some clients opt to do design and printing themselves.  In that case, the historical consultant’s role may be to provide a kit containing all of the components of the book (if it is an illustrated history that includes text, photographs, sidebars, and front and back matter). Even if the client chooses to proceed on its own, I am always happy to conduct a last proof or two. If senior managers have not paid sufficient attention during the draft stage, I am also happy to work on comprehensive revisions in the layout stage as well.

In most cases, clients rely on me to coordinate design and printing. I generally provide them with samples from two or three book designers that I know well so that they can make a selection that fits.  I coordinate the process of design, from comps through layout, translating designers’ concerns into plain English for the client and vice versa.

The same goes with printing. From the proof stage through delivery I work with clients so they understand the importance of paper types, cloth samples, foil, and bands and make the choice that fits their requirements for quality, budget, or a compromise of both.

This process can often be an uncomfortable one, particularly if the project, as it often does, has stalled in the layout stage and is approaching a deadline with only days to spare. A good historical consultant should be used to it. But I still breathe a big sigh of relief when I hear that the truck from the bindery has been to the client’s facility and left the loading dock.

If you are considering undertaking a corporate history or anniversary book project, an expert in historical consulting can take the load off your shoulders yet ensure that you have the input required to make it your book.

Give me a call to talk about partnering on your history project.

Voices and Viewpoints Part II: Conducting an Oral History (and After)

The fact that it took an entire blog just to get to the point where we can talk about conducting the actual oral history interview shows how important preparation is. By the time the actual session starts, therefore, many of the toughest tasks are complete. Now the oral history consultant can enjoy talking to the interviewee—although there is still much to be done.

The Interview

There will always be pleasantries before the recording starts. Many interviewees express concern about how much they are likely to remember. I always take the opportunity to minimize expectations and assure them that this is “their interview” so they should feel free to talk about things that stand out most clearly in their memories. I assure them that those are likely to be the most important topics for discussion.

The first few minutes of every oral history interview session are important—you are getting to know the interviewee and he or she is getting to know you. Many interviewees are guarded at first. Some insist that they are future-oriented and do not live in the past. Some are worried that they will not know the answer to a question. Mostly they just wonder what exactly this person with the recorder wants.

That is why I usually begin the session with topics that are neither challenging nor threatening nor crucial to the interview. Starting from the beginning works perfectly—everyone has the elevator speech about when they grew up, where they went to school, and how they got started.

By the time I am heading into the most essential part of the interview I have usually established good rapport with the interviewee. But some important prerequisites have to be met. First, you must actively listen. Second, you must demonstrate familiarity with the interviewee’s life and work.  The third prerequisite is one that amateurs often fail to fulfill: let the interviewee be the interviewee. Some people are great storytellers, but others are not. Get the stories when you can, but when you cannot, figure out what else is there. Some interviewees are highly analytical. Some are great with detail. Some are good amateur historians, able to put their life experiences into broader context. In any case, do not try to force an analyst to tell stories and do not try to make a tale spinner into an academic. Figure out how to play to your interviewee’s strengths as you lead them through their past.

That last point is important. People live their lives, and generally remember them, in sequence. That fact is the oral historian’s most valuable tool. Do not jump from time to time and subject to subject. When you help the interviewee work systematically through his or her life, the process brings depth to potentially pat answers and jars loose memories that people had not recalled in years. If interviewees want to jump around a bit, let them, but they usually appreciate sticking to the narrative and will return to it if gently reminded.

There are some tricks of the trade that I employ consistently during an interview—none are difficult to perform, but all pay big dividends. First, be quiet. Most people are uncomfortable facing another person in silence. But very often interviewees will stop in the middle of a story or recollection to think over what they want to say next. Amateur interviewers almost always cut them off. I give the interviewee time to remember.

Second, if one of the goals of oral history is to get recollections in context, how do you do that?  I often employ the two-sentence format. The first sentence is a context-setting statement such as “This was a difficult period; the company was going through bankruptcy at the time.” Then comes the question: “So how were you able to keep the project going despite that?” In responding to this two-sentence format the interviewee will be encouraged to think about things in multiple dimensions and give a better response than he or she would in an answer to a simpler question.

It is easy for an oral historian to be preoccupied with what to ask next, but it always pays to pay close attention. Sometimes in a discussion the interviewee will let slip intriguing clues that there is something else back there, saying something in the middle of a story like “Bob, he was an unusual guy” and then continuing. If I have any suspicion that Bob might be important to my story, I come back soon for a simple clarification—”in what way was Bob unusual?” Even interviewers who do notice the aside may either forget to revisit the subject or opt not to get the clarification for fear of looking uninformed.

That gets to a last simple, but not always obvious, stratagem: ask obvious questions. Perhaps every magazine article you have read tells the same particular story in great detail and “everybody knows” a certain thing happened. If there is any chance the interviewee knows about it, ask anyway. There may have been something going on that was kept from the reporters or perhaps no one ever asked your source for the story before. By asking obvious questions you get two things: one, the certainty that you will have an original quote for your book, and two, the possibility that you’ll learn something new that you did not even know to ask about.

Keeping the Story Going (And on Track)

Most oral history interview sessions last 90 to 120 minutes. Busy people will have no more time to give you, and many retirees will visibly tire if they go on much longer. That means you have to have discipline. Many interviewees will go into the session expecting to talk about their lives in great detail, launching into childhood tales that stretch out and if that precedent is followed would put the approximate length of the interview somewhere around the 8 to 12-hour mark. The oral historian cannot let that happen. I am always ready to move things forward gently but firmly, even with an abrupt change of the subject if necessary. Less often an interviewee will want to jump straight into mid-career claiming that the rest “is not history.” I explain that it is and make sure to double back and get the required context.

Most of the interview, though, will be a matter of more careful calibration. The oral historian must be doing three things at once: talking notes (to show that he or she is interested and to jot down reminders), listening to the story being given, and figuring out approximately how much more time you can give to the current and future lines of inquiry.  Some interviewees you will need to slow down, encouraging them to develop things in greater detail. Most you will need to speed up, getting them to work through things at a pace that ensures that you will finish under the two-hour mark.

There are times when you will want an exhaustive, if not encyclopedic, interview. In that case schedule several sessions, but even so the rules for each individual session will be the same.

In any event, always leave time for that last question: “is there anything else that we should talk about?”  About a third of the time the answer is “that covers it.”  Another third of the time the interviewee notes that he or she could go on for hours. But the rest of the time, the interviewee will indeed bring up a subject or line of questioning that we missed. Sometimes it is important, sometimes not, but providing that option is the last way to deliver on the promise that it was indeed “their” interview.

After the Interview

The next step is getting a transcript made. Your oral history consultant should be able to take care of this for you. There is one important qualification, however. Do not expect a verbatim record like the kind a court stenographer provides. This is a distinction that often surprises clients: an oral history transcript is not meant to capture the exact words spoken during the interview. Instead it is intended to provide the best historical record possible. Therefore, two things become possible. First, the transcript can be cleaned up so that it reads well. “Uhs,” “Ohs,” and other verbal tics can be removed. You can even sort out the syntax to some extent in order to make the interview transcript easier to read.

A corollary to this is that both interviewer and interviewee should be allowed to make corrections and even to add a minimal amount of new material in order to clarify or improve the record provided in the interview. This does introduce complications, however, that can add greatly to the duration and expense of the project. Some interviewees will be fine with the transcript the way it is. Some will make a handful of corrections. A few may try to rewrite the transcript entirely, sometimes just to make themselves sound more eloquent (it is surprising to see a transcript of your own speech) and sometimes to add additional paragraphs and pages on new subjects. I do my best to discourage this and enlist the client’s help in persuading interviewees to keep edits minimal whenever possible.

Finally there is the matter of the release form. Officially speaking, both the interviewer and the interviewee “own” the contents of an oral history interview. Both parties can usually assume that the interview may be used to write a book currently under way. But if there is any chance that the client may want to use the material later, I provide them with a release form that I will sign and that they can have the interviewees sign.

When best to pull out the release form is a matter for debate. There are some clients who will not arrange for an interview unless the form is signed in advance. Others prefer getting the form signed immediately after the session. Early in my career, when sessions were almost always audio and the final product was a transcript, interviewees often wished to be allowed to make and approve edits before signing. This being a reasonable request, it became my standard procedure for many years. In some cases this was particularly appropriate because of a curious phenomenon: as interviews go on, even people who are reticent at first tend to open up, and a few will begin dishing out specifics about people and personalities that they later regret but are easily removed from the transcript. As it is increasingly assumed that video will be the final product, however, interviewees now tend to go into sessions with a bit more circumspection.

How to Use Oral History

With the project complete, the question becomes, how to use it? There has been a great deal of discussion, mostly in academic circles, about how oral histories should be used. Some of it has to do with the privileging of certain voices over others, some stems from the perceived trustworthiness of a particular type of interviewee.  In doing research in oral history collections kept in university archives I have even found notes attached to transcripts that said, in effect, “don’t trust this person—I don’t like what he said.” Those oral historians or archivists may have good intentions, but I believe that decisions about the validity of an interview should always be left to the historian using it. Documentary sources can have equally significant, if different, problems of accuracy and bias.

Finally there is the question of accessibility. The majority of my interviews have been conducted as part of a corporate history book project, with the client opting not to make them publicly available. They go onto a disk or into a box for future historians to use. Other interviews, including my ongoing work for the SEC Historical Society, go online shortly after conduct. In a few cases I have conducted interviews for clients who wanted to preserve the record for posterity but for the time being chose to keep them under lock and key. A current client intends to put a 20-year lock down on the interviews.

That is unfortunate for contemporary scholars and writers, but in the span of history that is covered in the average interview, twenty years is not that long a time. It is much better to do the interviews than not. And it is gratifying to know that when both I and the interviewee are gone, some future historian will delight to find an oral history interview that provides at least a few of the pieces of the historical puzzle that he or she will be working on.

If preserving your organization’s past for the future is a piece in your puzzle, give me a call to discuss an oral history project.

Allan Nevins and the Roots of Historical Consulting

Allan Nevins was a journalist, biographer, oral historian, and chronicler of corporations. He was never officially a historical consultant. His life’s work, however, set standards that every historian worth his or her hire should follow, namely: that history should be well-written, that it should be informed by lived experience through oral history, and that it should deal empathetically yet honestly with institutions—even if they are footing the bill.

Once the great American histories were written by literary gentlemen. As historians professionalized in the late 19th century, however, they traded broad subjects and popular audiences for specialized monographs and audiences of fellow academics. Early on Nevins wanted no part of that—he made his living as a journalist. But Nevins could not stay away from history. In his spare time he began writing biographies for a lay audience, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1931 Columbia University made Nevins a full professor, even though he had never earned a PhD.

His first books were relatively uncontroversial biographies of politicians and presidents, but in the 1940s Nevins took up the life of John D. Rockefeller. Convinced by the rise of the wartime “Arsenal of Democracy” that there was a creative as well as a destructive side to the great American business enterprises, Nevins offered an unusually balanced portrayal of the man historians had previously preferred to vilify.

By then Nevins was also champion of a new methodology: “oral history.” Having been a journalist, he understood the importance of the interview. Nevins also realized that as the documentary record gave way to the telephone, historians had to find new ways to capture the past. In 1948 he founded an ongoing oral history program at Columbia.

It was in the 1950s that Nevins came closest to becoming a historical consultant, as co-author of a multi-volume history of the Ford Motor Company. Not surprisingly, Nevins approached Henry Ford and his company with an open mind, drew upon oral history, and crafted an engaging and edifying story. “It requires imagination to penetrate the past,” Nevins wrote. It also required imagination to work for Ford without working for Ford. Although the company had commissioned Nevins to write the history, it sent the checks to Columbia University.

A Time of Year for Reflection

A Time of Year for Reflection?

Some of the busiest times for writers, publishers, and purchasers of organizational history are during the year-end holidays. Is it because the holidays are a time for reflection so there’s a greater felt need for history? Maybe. Perhaps most of us are reflecting on how much work still needs to be done. Regardless, those tasked with managing history projects for their business usually have competing priorities throughout the year, so reviewing the manuscript or pulling the trigger on publication gets pushed back until after the working day, week, or season, is over. I can date nearly all my Christmas vacations to which comps I was comparing or what layout I was proofing, often during odd hours under the tree while the family was sleeping. It’s no different this year. To all you historians, communicators, designers, printers, and proofreaders—happy holidays! I’m with you, reflecting, and also trying to meet a deadline.