Oral History in the Digital Age – The Uses of Oral History on Public History Websites

So following on from my presentation last week, I’ve decided I’m going to try and focus the presentation down a little into the essay. Essentially, the essay will have three parts to it – the concept of oral history in relation to public history websites, how these websites are navigated and the impact this has on oral history included within them, and finally how the oral history content is displayed and how this shapes the formation of the narrative.

Firstly, I’m going to consider how the driving forces of oral history fit in with its uses on the web. For instance, Paul Thomson claimed that through oral history, those who shaped and experienced history can be given back a central place. In this sense, the dissemination of oral history interviews online would only help to promote these marginalised voices to the ‘central place’ imagined by Thomson. Portelli also writes about the necessity of oral histories being oral – something which the web can promote far better than most other mediums. Following on from this, Steve Cohen draws upon a study into empathy and visualisation, and extends this thought on to include orality – essentially suggesting that hearing someone’s voice necessarily increases empathy and identification with that person. If we accept this idea, then publishing oral histories on public history websites will not only promote the type of histories they focus on to a more central place, but in doing so is more likely to keep with the fundamental principles of oral history (that it is oral) and increases the potential for this history to have an impact on the people who are consuming it.

Then, I will move on to execution (that sounds grim, but you know what I mean). How this history is often presented online

Search terms for 'The Workers's War: Home Front Recalled' website

is not unproblematic. The ways in which the websites offer user navigation often immediately splits the interviews up into categories defined by gender, location, age, etc. Therefore, marginalised groups which are represented through more broad topics e.g. experiences on the British Home Front in the Second World War, are still largely defined by the fact that they from a marginal group – women are always with women, those from the North, or parts of Africa, or Asia, are all categorised together. Other websites offer a short bio of the person interviewed and people can choose from that, which I feel is a slightly better way of navigating through the interviews rather than having them defined by certain terms and socio-economic or geographic groupings. In addition, where the contextual information (if any is offered) is also a key concern – where do you put the background info so people read it – or will they even want to?

Finally, I look at the actual content which is displayed on these websites, especially the way many sites use short clips from

Overcoming Apartheid website

Overcoming Apartheid website

interviews to illustrate certain points. Portelli’s point about narration formation is really key here – how much time people apportion to certain events in their life is crucial to understanding the importance they place on these events. Often, by splitting up the interviews into neat 2-3 minute slots distorts the whole narrative formation and removes this frame of reference. Users are no longer able to compare how much time the interviewee devotes to their childhood as opposed to their teenage years, or how the abuse they received at a park aged 7 is detailed more thoroughly than when they were arrested years later – I’m going off on one here but you get the idea. But on the other hand, is the mere presence of oral history and the type of history it promotes, significant enough that it doesn’t matter how it is displayed? Is some oral history better than none?

Essentially, by no means do I have the answers to all of these questions. But I am saying that public history websites do have the potential to promote some of the driving ideals behind the whole oral history movement – we just need to make sure we don’t distort other ideals in the pursuit of this.

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