The Democratization of Oral History in a Digital Age: Promise and Challenges

14 Feb

In recent years, the explosion of digital humanities has impacted the history world tremendously. Scholars, long accustomed to working in the tradition framework of the academy, are struggling to adapt. Oral historians are no different. Digital methods are reshaping the practice of oral history in several exciting ways, but I will address the two that provoke me the most. The first addresses the promise that oral history will no longer be the exclusive domain of professional historians.  The second relates to one of the problems that will emerge as a result of the first.


The ability of non-scholars to record their own histories, absent the need for professionally trained oral historians, will add enormously to the corpus of oral histories in the future. Technology has progressed to the point where billions of people across the globe have access to the greater world community through the internet. They can interact with others passively through blogs, YouTube videos and social media. People are now taking an active role in producing their own content and making it available to everyone with an internet connection. Facebook has a function whereby anybody with an account can tune in to live streaming video from across the planet.,-86.040173,4z.

These contributions are not confined to cat videos and fashion podcasts. StoryCorps is a non-profit whose mission is “to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives”.[1] Since 2003 StoryCorps has collected over 50,000 oral histories from everyday people in recording booths around the U.S. It is their smartphone app that I find especially exciting. This free app makes it easy for anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection to conduct their own oral histories and upload them to the StoryCorps website where they can be viewed online. In the future, most oral histories will be collected in this manner. Of course, there are some drawbacks. Taking the trained oral historian out of the equation poses some problems in that the quality of the oral histories will decline. Also, as with StoryCorps, some support on the back-end is required as editors are still needed to review the recordings and process them in some way. However, the massive amount of history that can potentially be collected in this fashion will redefine oral history forever. The problem with this approach is that so many recordings will be collected it will overwhelm our ability to process them in a way that make them relevant and useful sources.


Oral history interviews are often hours in length and can cover a wide range of topics that might be of interest to a wide variety of scholars (both professional and amateur). Just processing them into transcripts is often a time consuming and expensive process. However, transcribing is not the greatest obstacle towards making oral histories useful. As the mountain of oral histories accumulates, there is a very real risk that they will languish on servers unused. Tools are needed to enrich their content and findability so that researchers can take advantage of them. Peter Kaufman, an executive producer from Intelligent Television, discusses some of the emerging platforms designed to address this problem in his 2012 article, Oral History in the Video Age.[2] The University of Kentucky has developed an open source, web-based application that is designed to allow users to more efficiently find relevant information within oral histories. The Oral History Metadata Synchronizer ( creates metadata from transcripts and generates a time-coded index. This allows users to quickly discover topics of interest and find the corresponding moment in the audio recording. In the future, there will be a great need for more sophisticated ways to search and assemble multimedia content that allows scholars to effectively wade through the enormous amount of amateur generated oral histories that are sure to come.


The explosion of oral history content has the potential to reshape the world oral history in the digital age. The great challenge that we must overcome is how to best take advantage of it.  Training ordinary people to conduct a decent oral history interview is not the biggest obstacle. The greater problem is in developing strategies to uncover those gems hidden inside a 60-minute oral history.  It will require an interdisciplinary approach uniting historians, coders and web-developers to institutions committed to invest resources toward that common goal. I believe it will be well worth the effort.




[1] “About,” StoryCorps, accessed February 14, 2017,

[2] Peter B. Kaufman. “Oral History in the Video Age.” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (2013): 1-7. (accessed February 14, 2017).



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