Challenges to Oral History after the “Digital Revolution”

What have been the repercussions of the increasingly digitised world that we live in on oral history? Well, the repercussions have doubtlessly been felt by all operating in the field of oral history, whether good or bad, or more likely, a complex concoction of the two. This has been fuelled by our inherently complicated relationship with technology. The world we live in is, on the one hand, mesmerised by technology, and observes changes as undeniable progress, but, on the other, it fears the future and the exponentially increasing power of technology over our lives. My essay will address the new challenges incurred by oral historians as a result of the so called “Digital Revolution”.

Gone are the days when oral history was conducted and then placed in the archive, unheard,OH mix tape for eternity. Though of course many are left unheard, we now have the technology to make oral history records available to the masses, but is this necessarily something we should be striving for? There are ethical, logistical and academic concerns to consider first. Accessibility will be the focal concern of my essay, namely, what issues arise from making oral history available online?

Oral history has increasingly come under the jurisdiction of public historians, we see it being used by television makers, museum curators, and even, theatre producers. It has been used by Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) projects to engage with communities and promote social cohesion. This propagates the understanding that anyone can do oral history. Indeed, there is nothing to stop anyone, whoever they may be, from conducting their own oral history project, posting it online, and allowing the public to pass comment. This has been heralded by some as a democratisation of the past, but is this an accurate interpretation?

My question is this, does digital oral history mean bad oral history? Does opening up, or indeed, conducting oral history specifically for a digital audience automatically make it less academic, less credible, less worthy? Or has the use of technology, and the opening up of oral history records ‘put the oral back into oral history’?

I have asked a lot of questions because digital oral history is a diverse area. I have chosen to look at accessibility because I feel this is the strand which has had the most significant impact on the way oral history is conducted and interpreted. I argue that whilst increasing accessibility can be a wonderful thing which promotes the utilisation of oral history, we should not open the field entirely to public scrutiny without addressing the serious ramifications.

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