Technology, Volunteers, and Oral Histories

14 Feb

As technology is always evolving it has infinite possibilities to reshape not only how oral histories are collected, but also how researchers access and use the testimonies. From the beginning, oral history has morphed and adapted along with the technology used to capture memories.

There are several reasons why digital methods and communication are changing the practice of oral history. The first is simply better, faster communication. Projects like the Civil Rights Movement Oral History Survey Project proved researchers could implement a search and collect testimonies from across the United States despite only meeting in person a few times.[1] Resources like email, Skype, and Google Docs make communicating and working with a large group of geographically diverse people easier to accomplish. Researchers and oral historians are no longer limited to working with people physically near them or be burdened with expensive traveling costs if they wish to work with someone located elsewhere. The ability of web users to leave feedback on sites can enable the site creators to modify their site if they determine from comments that something is missing. An example is when the Statewide Guide to Kentucky Oral History became searchable online in 2001.[2] Douglas Boyd had users consistently contacting him to find out how to access the interviews online, not merely the finding aid. This feedback caused Boyd to look at how to bring the oral histories online, as more people were interested in accessing the material online versus visiting the physical repository.

Another reason practices are being reshaped involve the technology itself. Today there are many platforms available depending on the needs and available funds of the collection, and these platforms continually update and add widgets that can create a truly custom website.[3] The advancement of technology gives way to new opportunities for expanding not only the oral histories, but also visual tools. Digital storytelling, like MemoryMiner, permits users to upload photos, video, text descriptions, etc. and tag who is in the image and where it was taken.[4] Social media also reaches unprecedented amounts of people every day, which influences how users will interact with oral history sites and can also bring more awareness to the site itself. Most social media users expect to use well-created, modern sites that have an easy to use interface. If the site does not reach these standards, it can cause them to disregard the site, and the oral histories, in search for a more user-friendly site. While looking at digital history projects, I tend to be drawn to sites that are interactive and have an attractive interface, over other, older sites.

Sites like Quilt Alliance, rely on the public to gather and record oral histories. Volunteers can sign up to interview people in their communities or at quilting conventions. Using the simple technology of their recording-enabled smart-phone, volunteers can access questions and once completed the interview is simply uploaded to the website.[5] Volunteers can also help index interviews using Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, which matches any uploaded media with transcripts and keywords. Help from the public can be extremely useful to practicing oral historians. This can limit the amount of processing time to make completed interviews accessible online, the public can advance their own computer skills, and relying on volunteers can help reduce costs typically associated with maintaining oral history sites. Also, using specialized interviewers, in this case experienced quilters, can work on the behalf of the interview. These volunteers will have the background knowledge to follow a technical conversation about creating quilts and will have an unparalleled enthusiasm for the subject matter. I believe a dependence on volunteers with a basic understanding of computer systems will soon be the norm, as people want to feel like they are contributing to preserving a history they are passionate about.

Quilt Alliance instructing people how to become interviewers or other types of volunteer. Courtesy of Quilt Alliance.

Another great digital history project, which I believe oral history sites will aim to be like is the Freedom Mosaic. This website is highly interactive, with images that reflect ‘then & now’ when hovered over, the ability to see where events took place, quotes, and video recordings of individuals recounting their experiences with civil and human rights. The interface is interactive and runs seamlessly. Freedom Mosaic has widgets to share the site with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and email. This not only provides the opportunity of sharing the site with a mass audience, but can also reach others who may have similar stories they are interested in sharing.


Human Rights page for Basem Fathy. Courtesy of Freedom Mosaic.

Digital methods and communication will continue to reshape the practice of oral history through the technology used in how the interviews are collected and placed online. Technology seems to advance almost hourly, no matter the budget, there is a way to create an online repository that is unique to the collection in what it offers and what users can accomplish. The increase in availability and ease of communication will encourage non-oral historians to participate by offering their own story or facilitating an interview. Volunteers can make a huge impact on digital collections, by spending time teaching them simple computer skills, they can reduce the processing time and help make the collection fully integrated, by synching video, images, transcripts, and metadata.

[1] Timothy Lloyd, “The Civil Rights Oral History Survey Project,” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (May 25, 2013): 50–53.

[2] Douglas A. Boyd and Mary A. Larson, “Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement,” in Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 77–96.

[3] Dean Rehberger, “Getting Oral History Online: Collections Management Applications,” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (May 25, 2013): 83–94.

[4] “MemoryMiner | Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling,” accessed February 14, 2017,

[5] “Get Involved with QSOS,” Quilt Alliance, December 31, 2015,


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