Oral Histories and the Digital Future

14 Feb

When thinking of history, it can be assumed that the vast majority of the public only associate the subject with old books and shows about pawn shops. However, this is 2017 and as much of everything else in this world, history is making a big showing in a digital format. Oral histories in particular have made quite the impact since they can be easily accessed by millions online. Before this relatively recent move to the digital, oral histories would be stored away in archives which are difficult for someone across the country to listen to and use for research. There are many different oral history projects that have taken advantage of the digital world in sharing the stories of the people they focus on. For example, Anne Valk and Holly Ewald who head on the Mashapaug Project which not only collects oral histories from people living around the Mashapaug pond in Providence, RI, but the project has also brought people out to clean up urban waterways around Providence. Two other projects, the Gay Ohio Initiative, and the Pittsburg and Beyond: The Experience of the Jewish Community, have both used the digital world to their advantage to share these oral histories with the world, and thus creating a place for certain communities to come together around one cause.

The Mashapaug Project is impressive in its outreach to the local Providence community that not only includes the oral history aspect, but the project incorporates art and preservation of the urban pond. The project began when Holly Ewald was asked to make more aesthetically pleasing signs to warn people to stay away from the water in Mashapaug Pond, an urban pond with a severe pollution problem. [1] As Ewald’s signs became more popular, people got more interested in cleaning up the pond. Ewald wanted to take advantage of this clean-up movement and use her art background to create the Urban Pond Procession, a day to parade through the town in the name of the ponds displaying different kinds of art. [2] The UPP caught the attention of Anne Valk, who worked at Brown University with the the John Nicolas Brown center for Public Humanities, an organization that gets students out to work in the community, specifically with oral histories. Valk and Ewald decided to team up and create the Mashapaug Project to collect oral histories of people who have lived around the pond, or have spent time around the pond in their lives. [3] This was a perfect partnership as Ewald already had the connections with the pond, and Valk had the graduate student resources to collect these oral histories. The students not only created an exhibit that featured information about the history of Mashapaug Pond and the community, but also, the oral histories were displayed on two separate websites, one, “Reservoir of Memories” (https://reservoirofmemories.omeka.net/items/show/64) which has excerpts from the oral histories collected, but also pictures of the exhibit that was created. The other website, has a full digital archive, meant for researchers, that has all of the oral histories in full. Both Valk and Ewald did not think that their project was particularly a digital project, but they can see the merits of putting the information in a digital format. Both the Mashapaug Project and the UPP have brought the Providence community together to celebrate the waterways, and now that information can be displayed online for those around the country to hear. By making this project digital, people in the community around the pond will have a validation of their own histories as they are shared with the world.

The Gay Ohio History Initative is an organization that is based out of Ohio History Connection and is dedicated to collecting oral histories, letters, pictures, and other documents to “GOHI works to preserve, archive, and curate the history and culture of LGBTQ citizens of Ohio.”[4] One of the objectives of GOHI is to provide education for community members, museum educators, and school teachers on the LGBT community and their history in Ohio. As a part of their mission to educate the public on LGBT history, the GOHI has collected a sort of database of websites that have oral histories and other types of histories that highlight this community. As a digital source, much like outhistory.org, GOHI provides a way to share oral histories with the masses online. By making this information more visible to the public through an online resource, this one again validates the history of the people making it.

Finally, “Pittsburg and Beyond” is an oral history project catering to a different community all together, the Jewish community in Pittsburg. Started by the National Council of Jewish Women in Pittsburg, the Pittsburg and Beyond project works with the University of Pittsburg’s archives to collect interviews of people in the Jewish community. These interviews have been collected in a span of 32 years, between 1968 and 2001, and are all available online for people to listen to. [5] This collection is not transcripted however, making it difficult for researchers to navigate. There are over 500 interviews that focus on women in the Jewish community that have shared their family history to the world. This collection is definitely massive but the time put into collecting them is impressive. The benefit to digitalizing these would be like the other two examples, validating a history of a certain community.

Digitalizing history is becoming more and more popular as the 21st century moves on, and it really only makes sense. With new technologies, it is only common sense that historians take advantage of them and share their research in new mediums, especially oral histories. By digitizing oral histories, it is an easy way to share the history of a particular community with others around the world that might have similar life experiences or are researching a particular community. Rather than having interviews sit in an archive, only to be reached at a certain location, putting these interviews online shares this important information with the world.

[1] A. Valk and H. Ewald, “Bringing a Hidden Pond to Public Attention: Increasing Impact Through Digital Tools,” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (April 30, 2013), doi:10.1093/ohr/oht019.


[2] “UPP Arts,” 2017, accessed February 14, 2017, http://www.upparts.org/upp-arts.html.


[3] A. Valk and H. Ewald, “Bringing a Hidden Pond to Public Attention: Increasing Impact Through Digital Tools,” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (April 30, 2013), doi:10.1093/ohr/oht019.

[4] “Gay Ohio History Initiative,” February 14, 2017, accessed February 14, 2017, http://gohi.org/.


[5] “Pittsburgh and Beyond: The Experience of the Jewish Community (national Council of Jewish Women Oral History Collection at the University of Pittsburgh),” 2008, accessed February 14, 2017, http://digital.library.pitt.edu/n/ncjw/index.html.



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