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Announcing the Release of the California / San Francisco Fire Departments Oral History Project

The world of firefighting is much more than masked people in uniforms running into burning buildings and rescuing scared cats from trees. While the bravery of firefighters can’t be overestimated, they also work in a complex system that requires constant training and education, a cohesive partnership with local government, extensive procedures and protocols, managerial oversight, effective communication within departments and to the public, acute familiarity with the local and regional environment, and a whole lot of administrative work. The San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) is a shining example of how people make a civil service operation run and keep people safe. All of these elements, as well as the historic and cultural aspects of the department, are why we chose it as our focus for our California Fire Departments Oral History Project.

The project was originally conceived by Sarah Wheelock, an independent researcher. She wanted to explore several major thematic areas of firefighting in California and she worked with the Oral History Center to do just that. With great sadness we learned that Sarah passed away in 2014 and thus she was unable to see the project through to completion. Taking over the project in 2016, I wanted to honor her original plan and cover the themes that she had outlined. So, I decided to embark on interviews within one department – the SFFD – to document the ways in which they have handled urban fire, climate change, diversity, technological change, and changing demographics.

The SFFD was founded in 1849 and was run by volunteers. It became a paid department, officially integrated into city government, in 1866. The 150th anniversary of the paid department was in 2016, when I was conducting interviews. Given my budget for the project, I was able to interview six people who worked with the SFFD in different capacities. I wanted to include multiple perspectives to understand the organizational, cultural, geographic, economic, and political systems of one of the oldest departments in the country.

The individuals who I interviewed were able to illustrate many of the themes that I wanted to document, and much more. Among the six people I interviewed were Chief Robert Demmons (the first and only African American chief of the SFFD who instrumental in integrating more more women and people of color into the SFFD), Bill Koenig (longtime firefighter and co-founder of Guardians of the City and the SFFD Museum), Jim Lee (also a longtime firefighter and co-founder of Guardians of the City and the SFFD Museum), Steve Nakajo (member of the SFFD Fire Commission), Lt. Anne Young (one of the first females hired), and Jonathan Baxter (longtime paramedic and current Public Information Officer). 

These interviews work in concert to illustrate day-to-day operations in the stations, administrative duties, how the city of San Francisco and the department work together, the relationship between paramedics and the department, training, equipment, fire science school, the role of unions, the challenges and triumphs of integrating the departments, the public perception of the department, the role of innovation and changing technology, cultural changes in the department, challenges in fire safety particular to the geography of San Francisco, and the hopes for the future of the SFFD.

It is with great excitement that we present the California / San Francisco Fire Departments Oral History Project. I want to give a special thanks to all of the narrators for sharing their stories with me and helping me to document one of the most historically significant fire departments in our country.

This project is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Wheelock. Her California Firefighter oral histories from the 2000s will be released in early 2018. 

Public Presentation: The Kitchen Sisters’ Nikki Silva in Conversation with Shanna Farrell

Join us on Tuesday, August 8, 2017 for a special evening with Nikki Silva of the award-winning Kitchen Sisters. She will talking about her work with oral history, radio, and their new project, The Keepers. OHC’s Shanna Farrell will be moderating the conversation. This event, free and open to the public, will be serve as our Advanced Oral History Summer Institute’s keynote presentation.

Tuesday, August 8

6 – 7:30pm

MLK Jr Student Union, Tilden Room

5th Floor

Nikki Silva is one half of “The Kitchen Sisters” independent radio, podcast and multimedia production team. With her artistic partner Davia Nelson she has produced hundreds of stories on NPR and public media including the duPont-Columbia and James Beard Award winning series Hidden Kitchens, the Peabody Award winning Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project, The Hidden World of Girls and many others. Their podcast The Kitchen Sisters Present received the 2017 Webby Award for Best Documentary Podcast. The Kitchen Sisters national radio collaborations have brought together independent producers, NPR stations, artists, writers, historians, and public radio listeners throughout the country to create intimate radio documentaries that chronicle untold stories of cultures and traditions around the world. Their upcoming series, The Keepers, explores the world of archivists,  librarians, curators, collectors and the collections they keep. The Kitchen Sisters are the authors of Hidden Kitchens: Stories Recipes and More, a New York Times Notable Book of the year. Silva is also a museum curator and exhibit consultant. She lives with her family on a commune near Santa Cruz.

New Release: Former SPUR Executive Director Jim Chappell

Jim Chappell is one of San Francisco’s unsung heroes. Chappell, who is thoughtful, articulate, savvy, and pragmatic, has helped shape San Francisco into a modern city. Have you ever used SPUR’s Ballot Analysis to help you understand the county’s elections? Chappell writes those. Have you noticed that Union Square looks and feels better than it used to? Chappell worked on its redesign. Have you ever wondered how MUNI functions? Chappell makes sure that it works for its riders.

There are dozens of other projects on which Chappell worked during his tenure as SPUR’s Executive Director from which we benefit. There are many projects that are unknown because they are invisible to us, and this is because he has made it so we don’t have to think much about them. He has spent much of his career making San Francisco a manageable city (aside from housing prices, another he issue that he and SPUR work on consistently).

In our interview with Chappell, which was conducted in 2016 by Todd Holmes and Shanna Farrell, we explore some of the lesser known histories of planning in the city. By the virtue of his training and experience, he is an expert of what makes San Francisco function, what its greatest needs and challenges have been, and how to work within a system to affect change to keep it working for its residents. His interview is like the oral history version of the 99% Invisible podcast, and Chappell shares a part of San Francisco’s history that can’t be found elsewhere.

Public Event for Voice of Witness’ “Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation”Event

We are pleased to announce that we will be co-sponsoring an evening public event with the Graduate School of Journalism in support of Voice of Witness’ forthcoming book, Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation.



Event: Editor Mateo Hoke in Conversation with Shanna Farrell

Date: Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Time: Reception at 5:30pm, Conversation at 6pm

Location: UC Berkeley, J-School Library in North Gate Hall

Berkeley, California 94720-5860


Please contact Shanna Farrell at sfarrell@library.berkeley.edu with any inquiries about the event.

Clips from Our Interview with Dorothea Lange Now on SoudCloud

This month on SoundCloud we are featuring clips from our interview with Dorothea Lange. Listen to audio excerpts and read the transcript of our oral history interview Dorothea Lange: The Making of a Documentary Photographer.

The full transcript is available online, with an introduction by interviewer Suzanne Riess, and for the first time featuring audio excerpts from the interview, preserved and digitized through our partnership with the California Audiovisual Preservation Project. 

Also, check out the new documentary Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightening.


Dorothea Lange

Join Us at Bar Agricole on July 1st for Fundraiser!

In conjunction with our Indiegogo campaign, we’re having at fundraiser for our West Coast Cocktails: An Oral History project on Tuesday, July 1. Thad Vogler has graciously offered to host us at Bar Agricole.

We’ll be holding a silent auction with items from local businesses like Umami MartOmnivore Books on Food, Shrub & Co, and a raffle for bitters-making kits from Oaktown Spice Shop and gift certificates to Trou Normand, Bar Agricole, Bourbon & Branch, and Cask.

We hope you can join us!


Bar Agricole

355 11st Street

San Francisco, CA



Please contact Shanna Farrell at sfarrell@library.berkeley.edu for more information.

West Coast Cocktails: An Oral History Has a New Logo!

We are pleased to announce that our new project on West Coast cocktail history has a new logo. Jess Peterson and Emily Collins, who won our logo contest, have created our new design.

The logo contest was run in conjunction with our Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for oral history interviews with bartenders, bar owners, spirit distillers, and cocktail historians who have been key figures on the West Coast. For more information on the project, please visit the project website, listen to clips from our pilot interviews on SoundCloud, or watch clips on YouTube.

Congratulations, Jess and Emily!

Calling All Artists: ROHO is Running a Logo Contest!

ROHO is developing a new project on the legacy of the West Coast craft cocktail, which will feature long-form oral history interviews with bar owners, bartenders, craft spirit distillers, and cocktail historians.

The project will record life histories and focus on themes of community, gender, labor, ethnicity, storytelling and myth-making, dissemination of information, geography, culinary influences, and popular culture. ROHO is launching a logo contest for the project and is accepting submissions from May 1 to May 30, 2014; the winning design will be announced on Monday, June 2. The logo contest is in preparation for a crowdfunding campaign that ROHO will run to offset the costs of the project which will launch on June 3.

ROHO is looking for designs that capture the essence of the role of storytelling in cocktail culture. Submissions should include vector-based mockups in full color, black and white, reverse, banner size, and thumbnail sizes for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SoundCloud.

The winning logo will be used on our website, social media outlets and all project-related printed material. In addition to being credited as the logo designer, the contest winner will be invited as a VIP guest to all project-related events and receive a $250 gift certificate to either Amazon, craft spirit store Cask, or San Francisco restaurant Bar Agricole. While UC staff are welcome to participate in the contest, they are not eligible to receive rewards.

ROHO was established in 1954 and is the second oldest oral history program in the United States. There are ten subject areas for which there are over 4,000 interviews archived in the collection with people like Ansel Adams, Warren Hinkel, Ernest Gallo, Robert Mondavi, and Dorthea Lange; the vast majority of our interview transcripts are available online.

Submissions and questions should be emailed to Shanna Farrell at sfarrell@library.berkeley.edu


Q: What is oral history?

A: Oral history is the collection and analysis of historical information through first-person narratives about specific topics, themes, or events. These narratives are documented through recorded long-form interviews, which often take the life history approach, wherein the narrator works from the beginning of their lives to the present.

Q: How is it different from journalism?

A: Oral history aim to contextualize history and is a highly collaborative process between the narrator and the interview. Oral history interviewers ask open questions that illicit longer responses and interviewers often take cues from the content of the narrator’s answer, whereas journalists usually ask topical and pointed questions for shorter interview sessions. Furthermore, oral history interviews are expected to be archived and added to the historical record for future use, while journalistic interviews are often not heard by anyone but the interviewer.

Q: How did I listen to your interviews?

A: ROHO’s interviews are archived in The Bancroft Library (TBL) at UC Berkeley. Audio and video files of most of our interviews can be requested through TBL though transcripts of the vast majority of our collection are available as PDFs on our website and accessible at any time.

Q: Why can’t I listen to or watch the interviews online?

A: Unfortunately, the audio and video files of our interviews are very large and would take up most of TBL’s broadband. However, you can request these audio and video files of the interviews at TBL or read the transcripts on our website. We also have clips from a selected series of interviews (which change monthly) available on our SoundCloud account.

Q: How can I connect to ROHO?

A: You can follow what is going on with ROHO through our website, newsletter, blog, or our various social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, Instagram, and YouTube.

Q: How do I donate to ROHO?

A: You can donate here. We truly appreciate your support.

Q: How many people will this project include?

A: We hope to include at least thirty individuals, but would like to interview as many people as possible.

Q: Who will be interviewed for this project?

A: We have conducted a four-hour interview with cocktail historian David Wondrich, completed pilot interviews with Jennifer Colliau of Small Hand Foods, Claire Sprouse of the United States Bartender’s Guild, and Rhachel Shaw of Hog Island Oyster Co, and a short interview with bartender Dale DeGroff. We have spoken with several high-profile bar owners, bartenders, and craft spirit distillers who have expressed interested in being interviewed for the project.

Q: Will I be able to listen to or watch the interviews?

A: You will be able to watch and listen to clips from the interviews on our YouTube and SoundCloud pages when the interviews are complete. You will also be able to request the audio and video files of the interviews at The Bancroft Library and read the interview transcripts on our website.

Q: How long will this project last?

A: We anticipate this being a multi-year project and do not have a project deadline.

Q: What kind of logo are you looking for?

A: We are looking for designs that capture the essence of project and somehow related to oral history/storytelling and craft cocktails. The rest is up to you.

Q: What should I submit?

A: You should submit your design in the following formats:

-Vector-based (for Adobe Illustrator)

-Full Color

-Black and White


-Banner Sized

-Sized for social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SoundCloud

Q: How do I submit a logo?

A: Logos should be submitted to Shanna Farrell at sfarrell@library.berkeley.edu.

Q: How will I know that my logo was received?

A: You will receive an email confirmation from Shanna Farrell within 24 hours of your submission.

Q: When will the contest winner be announced?

A: The winner be announced by Monday, June 2 2014.

Q: How do I donate to the project?

A: You can donate to the project through ROHO’s website. We truly appreciate your support.

West Coast Cocktail Project Launch Party

The cocktail has a long and storied history since it was defined in 1806 as a “stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” The popularity of cocktails has ebbed and flowed since the Prohibition Era and much information about cocktail culture–particularly who was doing what and when–went undocumented. As a result, myths have evolved about drink inventions, drinking habits, popular trends, and training methods, which have been perpetuated in recent years.

ROHO is developing a new project on the legacy of the West Coast craft cocktail.Our project will document the legacy of the West Coast craft cocktail through a series of interviews with key bar owners, bartenders, craft distillers, and cocktail historians. Interviews will focus on themes of community, gender, ethnicity, labor, myth-making, storytelling, the dissemination of information, geography, the role of California cuisine, craft and artisanal culture, popular culture, bartender/customer relationships, and the perception of bartending as a respected profession. Our esteemed project advisors include bartender extraordinaire Dale DeGroff, cocktail historian and journalist David Wondrich, and PUNCH co-founders Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau. (We also want to thank our friends at Prizefighter for their help.)

We’ll be launching a crowdfunding campaign on Tuesday, June 3, 2014 through Indiegogo, which will run until Thursday, July 10. The funds that we raise will go to paying for these interviews. We hope to interview at least thirty people and once the campaign is complete we’ll begin by interviewing Jorg Rupf of St. George Spirits, Murray Stenson of Elysian Bar, Thad Vogler of Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, Julio Bermejo of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, and Mike Buhen of Tiki Ti.

We’ll be holding a launch party to celebrate the start of the campaign on Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 at East Bay Spice Company from 5:30 – 7:30pm. There will be West Coast cocktail specials, we’ll be playing clips from our pilot interviews, and Shanna Farrell will be saying a few words about the project. We hope that you can join us!

Here’s the information:

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

at East Bay Spice Company

2134 Oxford Street,

Berkeley, CA

from 5:30 – 7:30pm.

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