Taking Advantage of the Tools: Projects Enhancing Oral History with Digital Technologies

14 Feb

As technology continues to progress, we historians must also progress not only to accommodate, but seize the opportunity to grow with these advancements. Oral history is one such field that can and does benefit from the utilization of new technology and tools, and thankfully there are numerous projects jumping on these advantages. Many of these new, and even not so new, mechanisms allow for visualization, greater accessibility, and increased collaboration.

Peter Kaufman addresses the potential relationship between video and oral histories in his article “Oral History in the Visual Age,” published in Oral History Review in 2013. In it he states, “number crunchers tell us that video will account for the vast majority (86 percent) of global consumer Internet traffic by the year 2016…”[1] It’s evident that people rely heavily upon visual aid for education and entertainment, and this is only growing.  With available online platforms like YouTube and Flickr, visualizing projects is much more convenient. Considering the cost and tedious nature of transcripts, video interviews can also aid listeners who may have difficulty understanding or making out what is being said without the use of a transcript. Kaufman argues that oral history should become visual history, and whether or not that is true, it’s irresponsible to deny the bonuses visual aids can provide to oral histories.

Cambodian Women’s Oral History Project: Life Stories of Survival under the Khmer Rouge Regime is an oral history endeavor that collects testimonials from  women survivors of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975-1979. Many of these women suffered sexual and gender-based violence. Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia are still assessing these crimes and atrocities.[2] As of now, the website has testimonies from three Cambodian women, ages 52, 59, and 80, in 2013, at the time of the interviews. Each testimony provides two transcripts, one in Khmer and one in English, several images related to the narrator, and a Youtube video of the interview.

These videos serve to further engage the listener. My only qualm would be that for those who only know English, it is next to impossible to read the English transcript while watching the video. Regardless, there is still a greater connection to be made with a narrator’s testimony when one can watch it be given. To be able to see the narrator describe her experience increases the experience of the viewer. They are not merely a voice, but an actual human being with a life and a story to tell. Even while watching without the transcript and left unable to understand what is being said, witnessing Kim Khem, 80, subtly push her face away as she cries is certainly enough to evoke emotion from the viewer. Visualization is adding vicariousness to oral histories.


Kim Khem, 80, Takeo. Photo courtesy of Cambodian Women’s Oral History Project, 2013.

Another important element of many oral history projects is encouraged collaboration and contribution. These assist in generating different viewpoints, expertise, and can also help to build the archive. It is not uncommon for archives to purchase items from people and organizations. Donations are incredibly cost effective for archives with limited funding. The site builders for the American Social History Project’s  September 11 Digital Archive have created an easy to follow contribution section for users to upload various files. In the digital archive, users are able to contribute a story regarding how their life was changed after the September 11 attacks. They can opt to only describe a story, but may also add any photos, audio, or visual files along with their story, as long as they submit their email and agree to the Terms and Conditions of the project. This site uses the manageable yet powerful CMS Omeka, which allows for these types tools on the site that serve as a convenient way to expand the project’s inquiries and resources.[3] Making contribution easier is a simple and effective way to increase contribution. Now, anyone who wishes may add to the efforts of the project, opening up the potential for a variety of memories that may be applicable and useful.

Oral histories must undoubtedly be heard, making accessibility a vital component to most  projects. The team at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries tackled digital technologies to increase accessibility and efficiency in using their oral histories. The Nunn Center is responsible for close to 10,000 oral histories in their collection, as wells as recent projects like “Kentucky Derby Memories.” In 2008, the  Center created the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), a web-based system that allows users to locate specific intervals in interviews based upon word and category searches.[4] The Center is working to expand OHMS and make it an open-source plug-in that works with other content management systems. This compatibility should prove to be very valuable by making it available to most any user.

As of now, the system encodes transcripts, then connects those transcripts to corresponding moments in the audio or video, however, it occasionally eliminates the need for transcripts. Doug Boyd, director of the Nunn Center, explains that transcripts can pose limitations for searches, “as as text searches do not always offer access to interview content.”[5] A narrator could describe an event or circumstance without ever using an actual term for that event, rendering it useless to use said term to search for the related event. OHMS transcends those limitations by mapping natural language and descriptive content. The system allows actual people to log in and index a chosen interview, adding descriptions for the moment they index. Not only does OHMS greatly reduce costs of curation, acting as a free tool for many needed mechanisms of the archival process, it encourages collaboration. Being user-friendly also stimulates that participation and communication that otherwise might not exist in a program that is difficult to grasp.


Indexing an Interview on OHMS. Photo courtesy of oralhistoryonline.org

It can be hard as a historian, especially with a weaker grasp on recent technology, to readily evolve one’s work along with the digital changes. However, oral history is strongly intertwined with the digital, and this relationship will only increase relative to the technology itself. Utilizing certain forms of digital tools can also prove to cut costs for archives. The day in which transcribers are no longer needed may be closer than we think. Accessibility, collaboration, communication, and usability are all important factors to a thriving oral history project.   Technology is causing oral history to evolve in a ways that open up availability and broaden participation. These projects set an example for the direction oral history might be heading. They show that by utilizing the technology, oral historians can meet these core objectives while expanding the possibilities of future projects.

1.Peter B. Kaufman. “Oral History in the Video Age.” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (2013): 1-7. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed February 14, 2017).
2. “Cambodian Women’s Oral History Project,” accessed February 14, 2017. http://cambodianwomenoralhistory.squarespace.com/about/
3.Dean Rehberger. “Getting Oral History Online: Collections Management Applications.” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (2013): 83-94. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed February 14, 2017).
4.Boyd, Doug. 2013. “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free.” Oral History Review 40 (1): 95–106.https://academic.oup.com/ohr/article/40/1/95/1486276/OHMS-Enhancing-Access-to-Oral-History-for-Free (accessed February 14, 2017).
5.Boyd, Doug. 2013. “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free.”





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