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History of Oral History Program

The Oral History program at the Bank has had an on and off chronicle since its beginnings in 1961, when the World Bank Group's management first approved a historical project to tape-
  
The interviews give glimpses into the complexity of the Bank's evolution beginning in 1944 at the Bretton Woods Conference, where the Articles of Agreement of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were negotiated.  They are conducted on an institutional level, with the goal of eliciting from the participant as full and accurate an account as possible.  That is, capturing firsthand accounts of important events and experiences from those who observed and participated in them and, in some instances, supplemented with personal and anecdotal material to illustrate.  The Oral History Program Interview Series has recently been re-established as an ongoing and integral function of the World Bank Group Archives.   
record a series of interviews with present and former members of the Bank staff. Its purpose was to build an 'institutional memory' for purely archival and research purposes; mainly to be used for a future scholarly study of the Bank's history and operations. The project was conducted jointly by the Brookings Institution who employed Professor Robert W. Oliver of the California Institute of Technology, and Columbia University who prepared and became the repository of the transcripts. Around thirty interviews were conducted which constituted a major source for the authorized history of the Bank by Edward S. Mason and Robert E. Asher, The World Bank Since Bretton Woods (pdf 606K; table of contents only), (Brookings, 1973). The transcripts of these interviews were eventually acquired by the World Bank Group Archives.


In 1981, a feasibility study to revitalize the program was done, however, the recommendations were not funded and thus not implemented.  Soon after the death in 1982 of the Bank's fourth president, George D. Woods (Jwho served from January 1963 --March 1968), his wife commissioned a biography about her husband's years at the Bank. Eventually, Professor Oliver undertook the project and conducted a series of interviews over the course of five years beginning in 1985, referred to as "Conversations About George Woods and the World Bank". Professor Oliver's  book, George Woods and the World Bank  (PDF 163K; table of contents only), was published in 1995. At the same time, during the period between 1981 and 1989, a few more interviews were conducted and added on to the existing collection, in addition to a small number acquired from the Harry S. Truman Library.


Beginning 1993, the Oral History Program Interview Series became one of the main functions of the newly-created Office of 
 
As with the transformation of the World Bank Group from an investment organization to a development assistance institution, so it is today with the transformation and shift in emphasis of the Oral History function within it.  While the openly stated goal of Oral History interviews is to fill in the gaps in supplementing and complementing written records that are found wanting for historical analysis as well as to build 'institutional memory' for archival and scholarly research purposes, today's interviews, on the other hand, are to be highly focussed, and of direct relevance to the overall strategy and objectives of the Institution.  Thus, serving as learning histories and executable knowledge tools, not only for the Bank or the individual scholar, but also for researchers in many fields as well as partners and clients of the Bank, interested in learning more about its development practices and policies as one of the primary institutions concerned with international development.  In this context, the internet is the perfect vehicle for international communications, offering the Bank new opportunities for information and knowledge sharing.  This, also is in line with the 1996 Annual Meeting address to the Board of Governors of the Bank's ninth president, James D. Wolfensohn, emphasizing the role of the Bank as that of "a Knowledge Bank." 
the Historian, until its disbanding in April 1998, when the function was brought back to Archives—the last interview was conducted in 1997. During that time, then in-house Bank historian, J. Kraske, in collaboration with his associates wrote Bankers with a Mission: The Presidents of the World Bank, 1946-91 (PDF 184K; table of contents only) (Oxford University Press, 1996) using a number of oral history interviews as a source. Also, the second authorized history of the World Bank Group published by the Brookings Institution in 1997, The World Bank: Its First Half Century (PDF 295K; table of contents only), relied in part on the oral history interviews, in addition to those conducted by the authors. Today, the Oral History collection's main repository is the Bank Archives comprising interviews conducted with almost 120 Bank staff.



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