Oral History in the Digital Age

14 Feb

Oral history used to be simple.  Stories were told.  At first, they were committed to memory and passed on by word of mouth; then they were told and written down.  Even after the invention of sound recording equipment, oral history was definitively analog.  In order to hear an interview, you had to obtain a physical copy of the recording to play in person.  Then came the electronic age.  Along with the rapid growth of the World Wide Web came devices capable of digitally capturing audio and video.  And then those devices got better and cheaper, until now anyone with a smartphone can interview and upload an “oral history”.

For trained oral historians, this presents both opportunities and problems.

  • Opportunity: the equipment and software needed to record and create oral histories has gotten much cheaper, smaller, and better overall.  Recording interviews no longer requires cumbersome, expensive equipment that produces only a medium-quality recording.  Digital recorders and cameras now fit in the palm of your hand, often cost less than $200, and can produce recordings so clear a listener feels as if they were actually there.
  • Opportunity: training someone to use digital equipment can be a simple matter of “press the On button, then press the red dot that says Record, and when you’re done, press Stop”.  More precise training can be easily disseminated, whether by step-by-step instructions online or streaming webinars.
  • Opportunity: the Internet provides the ability to collaborate on large or widespread collecting projects.  Oral historians on opposite sides of the United States can now work on national projects without delayed communications.
  • Problem: now that nearly anyone can do it (in theory), oral history is not always viewed as a true specialty by the public anymore.  On the surface, the quality of a professionally collected oral history is not all that much different from one done by a middle-schooler interviewing their grandparents for a class project.  And not everyone looks deeper to see what sets professional oral histories apart.
  • Problem: while uploading and disseminating recorded interviews can be done with the click of a button, creating a user-friendly form of the recording requires hours of transcription, data entry, and coding.  These are not skills that all oral historians are able to learn.

Modern oral historians have created hundreds of collections of interviews of varying focus and quality.  Particularly in the 1990s, and continuing to today, there has been a concerted attempt to capture the history of the turbulent twentieth century “before it’s gone”—that is, before the people who lived that history die.  For instance, thanks to dedicated oral historians, there are now thousands of hours of interviews with surviving participants of World War II, from those hosted by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, as well as numerous university collections: the Oral History Center at the University of California-Berkeley and the VOCES Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin are just two of many.

So what does the digital age mean for oral history?  Well, the major effect is that digitized interviews are now accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and that is definitely a good thing.  However, as stated above, creating a usable digital archive requires oral historians to acquire an entirely new set of skills and vocabulary.  That means that programs teaching oral history to the next generation must provide training for these new tools: editing software, metadata, and database coding, among a host of others.  Once upon a time, interviews were collected by small, dedicated teams of oral historians in limited geographical areas; now, a team of historians can all be in different places at once, trace and contact possible interviewees for a project across the country in days rather than months, and potentially even conduct their interviews without ever coming face-to-face with their interviewee thanks to live streaming programs like Face Time and Skype.  This reliance on technology can also come with some backlash: with so many options available, keeping the standards of best practice up to date is difficult at best, and probably a nightmare in some cases.  Digital files can be altered or destroyed in ways that make them just as unrecoverable as their analog counterparts.  Servers crash; websites go down.  Technology, software, and file types become obsolete and must be upgraded or converted to remain accessible.  The twenty-first century has made oral history more complex than ever, in both good ways and bad.

And yet, the digital transformation of oral history cannot change the core of the practice: recording the stories people tell.  From paper, to vinyl, to tape, to CD, to MP3; no matter how they are recorded, disseminated, and accessed, oral histories capture the experience of life for future generations.


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