Picture This: The Visualization of Oral History

Oral history—the name itself indicative of the field’s methodology—involves the collecting of personal narratives of past experiences or remembrances. One of the basic tenets of oral historians is that histories are made more profound and compelling when we learn about them from the people who were there to experience them. However, oral history is a two-way street; narrators share their stories and listeners must connect with them. After all, it is generally not the case that the recordings produced from oral history interviews are placed on shelves and left to gather dust. Rather, researchers put their work in repositories at universities, archives, libraries, or online with the hope that people can, and will, access them. During interviews, researchers rely on the voices of the narrators to convey emotion, subtlety, and nuance. Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that the intricacies of the human voice will be recognized by all listeners. When listeners do not understand, or cannot process, an oral history interview, the meaning behind the project is significantly diminished. Many researchers are attempting to bridge this gap and extend the reach of their projects by adding visual elements (including video, photographs, or other supplemental material) to their oral histories.

The reasoning behind this transition from strictly audio to audio-visual is a result of the increasingly digital nature of our society. Digital technology created a need for new oral history methods and, in turn, provided a means to implement these new strategies. As William Schneider discusses in his article, “Oral History in the Age of Digital Possibilities,” the digitization of oral history interviews has “made it easier for anyone, at any time, to get access to recordings, and this decreases the likelihood of any in-person dialogue between the interviewer/recorder/ collection manger and future listeners.”[1] Therefore, he argues for a greater contextualization of the digital recordings through the inclusion of supporting documents that will help listeners better understand the meaning behind the project, the interview setting, and any relevant historical background. In other words, researchers should consider including more visual information to set the stage for the story listeners will be hearing.

denshoBaggage inspection at an assembly center in Turlock, CA. Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project

The researchers behind Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project took this idea to heart.[2] Densho chronicles the experiences of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. Beginning in 1995, the group had collected 93 interviews by 1998; today, that number has increased to over 800 oral histories.[3] From its inception, Densho’s researchers set out to create a project that did more than collect incarceration stories. In the eyes of its creators, the project needed to convey these stories “in a way that kept them alive so that similar targeting would not happen to another group.”[4] For that to happen, the stories on Densho needed to be accessible and emotive. Fortunately, Densho has succeeded in both aspects. The 800+ oral histories on Densho are all videotaped interviews; moreover, the site also features thousands of photographs, letters, and other primary sources on its digital archive. By focusing on a visual method of storytelling, the oral histories on Densho build connections with viewers. The videos and historic images create an immersive experience grounded in personal narrative and historical context that cannot be found in the same degree in traditional audio-only oral history.

The visualization of oral history not only creates more deeply contextualized projects, it also makes the field accessible to a greater number of people. In 2013, Peter Kaufman noted that “video will account for the vast majority (86 percent) of global consumer Internet traffic” by 2016.[5] Today, most people either own or have access to an Internet-enabled device and are accustomed to consuming media via a screen; many websites, particularly YouTube, are testaments to the power of video as a system of content delivery. Due to the global popularity of these devices, Kaufman feels the necessity of transitioning the field from oral history to video history.[6] Additionally, the visualization of oral history generates increased accessibility by making interviews much more apprehensible for individuals with hearing loss. In his article, “On Making Oral Histories More Accessible to Persons with Hearing Loss,” Brad Rakerd states that visual cues often benefit hearing impaired individuals when they listen to an oral history. These visual cues may entail sign language interpretations for the deaf, images that help promote understanding of a subject, or videotaped interviews in lieu of traditional audio recordings. Videos are specifically important because they tend to “supplement whatever can be heard in the audio record and, in turn, make a speaker’s message easier to understand.”[7]

screenshotScreenshot of The Birmingham Black Oral History Project video project. The Birmingham Black Oral History Project

The Birmingham Black Oral History Project, founded in 1990 in the Handsworth area of Birmingham, England, has recorded the stories of the black and Asian people who immigrated to Birmingham during the 1960s. The project includes video interviews, typed transcripts, and historic photographs to help supplemental the spoken material. In 1992, the project published a two-part film entitled The Land of Money? which grouped segments of the videotaped interviews into specific topics and themes. The use of video in the Birmingham Black Oral History Project, though engaging for all viewers, is particularly useful the hearing impaired. Just as Rakerd notes the importance of visual cues in comprehension, he specifically mentions the benefits of being able to see a speaker as they talk if the speaker has a pronounced accent.[8] Therefore, the digital aspects of The Birmingham Black Oral History Project have created a product accessible to a wide range of users with varying abilities.

The surge of videotaped interviews in oral history projects over the past 20 years serves as a sign of the future of the field. Though some researchers may be hesitant to experiment with new digital technologies, the advantages of these new strategies are evident. If oral historians can broaden their access and audience, while keeping the narrators’ stories the heart of their projects, oral history will make a smooth and lasting transition into the digital age.

[1] William Schneider, “Oral History in the Age of Digital Possibilities” in Oral History and Digital Humanities, edited by Douglas A. Boyd and Mary A. Larson (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 20.

[2] Densho: Japanese American Incarceration and Japanese Internment, accessed February 13, 2017, http://www.densho.org/.

[3] Tome Ikeda, “Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project” in Oral History and Digital Humanities, edited by Douglas A. Boyd and Mary A. Larson (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 137.

[4] Ibid., 134.

[5] Peter B. Kaufman, “Oral History in the Video Age,” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (2013): 1.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Brad Rakerd, “On Making Oral Histories More Accessible to Persons with Hearing Loss,” Oral History Review 40, no. 1  (Winter/Spring 2013): 71.

[8] Ibid., 70.


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