Oral History: Digitally Remastered for the PublicPosted: March 21, 2015
For my first paper I am going to tackle how oral history is fitting in with today’s digital age and, in turn, transforming the oral history practice into public history. I think that oral history is being absorbed into public history due to the digital age because technology has allowed for oral history to become so accessible to the public (tv, radio, the web, etc.). The line between oral history and public history is blurring. Here is a little sneak peek at what I am thinking about including in my paper.
I think the most interesting aspect the digital age has brought to our world is the fact that anyone has the ability to be an oral historian. Maybe not a good oral historian, but an oral historian nonetheless. With an app on your iPhone you can record an oral history interview (or even your own oral history) and then, with the click of a button, you can upload the video or audio recording onto Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, what have you. There is power in this digital age. BUT, with great power comes great responsibility (shout out to my favorite superhero, Spiderman). With the digital age any individual has the power to share his own history, or the history of another individual; however, with that, any individual can also hear it. What if the oral history is offensive? What if it raises uncomfortable questions? We discussed the idea of censorship (or at least monitoring oral histories on the web) last class and I think that it is a sticky issue. As much as someone has the right to say whatever he wants to say, I also have a right to not be offended by it, don’t I? I guess a solution would be then don’t watch/listen or don’t search for it on the web. I’m really just playing devil’s advocate here, I don’t think oral histories should be censored at all.
But anyways, that comes to my next issue: searching. With the digital age it seems that an infinite amount of oral history videos and recordings are now on the web. Access to them is easy in the sense that they CAN be accessed, the problem lies with HOW to access them. We are able to access oral histories on the web by typing in key words that are linked to such oral histories, but who decides what those key words are? Because of the mass quantity of oral histories that are, or will, become available on the web, searching for one in particular could become like searching for a needle in a haystack. Perhaps the audience will have TOO many choices. So, how can oral historians narrow down those choices?
Word searching software, such as OpenCalais, help to determine key words in an oral history without the influence of the human mind to create search terms. Also, with the mass amount of videos on YouTube, oral history and non-oral history, searching for exactly what to access is an immediate challenge. For this reason, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and University of Kentucky Libraries use the application, Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) which helps to create key search terms to help narrow down choices. Further, oral history apps are being used to connect the public with specific genres of oral histories. Cleveland State University created an app called Cleveland Historical that links users with a variety of oral histories throughout the Cleveland area (still an archive of over 500 oral histories however).
These are just some of the challenges that I’ve found with using oral history in the digital age, but, to be honest, I think that the benefits greatly outweigh the challenges. Access is clearly a benefit of digitizing oral histories. By digitizing oral histories, the public is able to directly engage with them with the press of a button, click of a link, the swipe of a finger. There is little need to spend hours in an archive anymore. Which brings me to my next point: saving time. While a mass amount of oral histories will be on the web, sifting through many of them to get to the one you want to use or listen to will still be much quicker than spending time in an archive, where you would search for an oral history clip, play the clip on some sort of device, and repeat the process until you would find the right one.
Lastly, as I previously mentioned, I think the greatest benefit of the digital age is that we can all become our own oral historians and, as we know from class, I love talking about myself (and my lapdog, O’B…check him out)!