Has digital technology already left its mark on oral history?

16 Feb

In many ways, emerging digital technology has already dramatically changed the practice of oral history. When the WPA Slave Narrative Collection, one of the earliest oral history projects, was collected during the Great Depression they were often not even recorded, but simply transcribed by the interviewer. These transcriptions were filed in state libraries and rarely accessed outside of a handful of interested scholars. They were generally presented with no biographical information, sparse illustration and little context. Until the 21st century they were only widely published in the form of a microfilm that excerpted many of the interviews, but left most of the content languishing in their respective repositories. Moreover, the interviews were almost universally conducted by white writers, and with no audio recording it is difficult to be sure that these interviewer’s perspectives have not significantly altered the content of the project. Today, practices such as these are nearly unheard of in the field. While some oral history projects may lack images, context or extensive metadata, modern technology has made it unacceptable to lack all of these qualities as the WPA projects did so often.


Digital technology has already left its mark on oral history in four broad categories: Contextualization, classification, publications and democratization. Contextualization is the practice of presenting oral histories with elements such as images, video and historical and biographical information in order to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the interview. An excellent example of good contextualization can be found in the U.S. House of Representative’s Oral History of the House. This project not only offers video and images to accompany the interviews, but also organizes the interviews into sections dealing with people, places, events and objects. Individual interviews are accompanied by images of the interviewee, a written transcript and a biographical profile that includes hyperlinks to additional related subjects. The Oral History of the House also serves as an excellent example of the expanding potential of metadata, as the interview can be viewed in sections linked to specific subjects mentioned in the video. However, the videos hosted on the House page do not appear to be cataloged in a way to include them in larger catalogs such as the Library of Congress and WorldCat, nor do they link metadata within the collection. Aside from this problem, this project serves as an excellent example of how oral history should be presented.


Of course, the U.S. House of Representatives has the luxury of consistent funding, widely perceived importance and institutional duration that many oral history projects do not have. The ease of recording and publication facilitated by digital technology has been a boon for smaller institutions and collections of citizens interested in preserving and collecting oral history. In particular, oral history projects at universities have proliferated since the turn of the 21st century. One example of such a project is UNLV’s Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, which collects the stories of those who worked at or were affected by nuclear testing in Nevada during the Cold War. Although it is likely that there would be extensive historical discussion of nuclear testing without digital technology, the lower barrier of entry has enabled the NTSOHP to construct a narrative that challenges government reports and gives a voice to those that felt the consequences of the testing. Not only does this project provide context with a timeline, images and maps, it also internally links its metadata, making the project easily explored and valuable to researchers and illustrating the value of proper classification. Although the project did not have the resources to be comprehensive, digital technology enabled the collection and publication of a massive database of valuable material that may never have been created with analog methods.


There are still many questions surrounding the future of the practice and how to make best use of digital technology. However, I believe that we have already seen most of the significant changes in technology that will impact the field. While not every oral history project is capable of collecting and distributing video at the present time, the essential technology exists. Digital recording can only become more accessible as mobile technology improves and linked metadata has been extensively explored. While there may be a desire at some point in the future for VR technology to accompany oral history projects, at the moment there is no media or data that cannot be presented alongside recorded interviews. Gone are the days when websites had to constantly adjust to changing file formats and display methods in order to stay current and accessible. Instead, we must focus on implementing our existing technologies in order to make best use of our digital resources. Rather than asking how digital technology affects oral history, we should ask how we are going to leave our mark on the field using these tools.   


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