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Nebeker Frederik
IEEE History Center, Rutgers University,, Research Historian f.nebeker@ieee.org

The Importance of Oral History in Researching the Development of Computers in the Soviet Union

In European universities of the 19th century, the documentary tradition of historical scholarship became established. It required that historians cite all sources and use only original documents as sources. In the last half century, the historical community has recognized that for many types of history a different type of documentation is indispensable: the personal testimony of participants. By recording the testimony, producing a transcript, and making the transcript available to scholars, practitioners of this new type of history, called oral history, turn eyewitness accounts into citable documents.

In the case of the development of computers in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), oral history has only begun to take hold as a viable method of documentation. Such an activity would provide an essential supplement to the record provided by paper documents, particularly since libraries can preserve this activity in electronic form. For some computer projects, paper documents have not survived or are not presently accessible – or cannot be documented in paper such as with interactive software. Even in cases where there is abundant documentation, it is usually the case the important aspects of the work, notably the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the authors of those documents, have not been captured in the written documents.

In this work, the authors will discuss, on the basis of extensive experience with oral-history projects, how oral history might be used in building a broader and richer picture of the development of computing in the FSU.