Oral History: Digitally Remastered for the Public

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)!

This is me and my pup, O'B. I will give you an oral history of O'B's life if you want. All he does is sleep, eat, poop, love you, repeat. But honestly, O'B is part of my oral history and I can share my moments with him (and have) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, what have you #digitalage

This is me and my pup, O’B. I will give you an oral history of O’B’s life if you want. All he does is sleep, eat, poop, love you, repeat. But honestly, O’B is part of my oral history and I can share my moments with him (and have) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, what have you #digitalage

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The Interview Experience

So it’s official, I’m going to be interviewing Alan Dein from the BBC on March 25th. Although I’m quite nervous about the whole thing, overall, I’m very excited; I think it’s going to be a great opportunity.  Why am I nervous?  Although we all know I love to chat, I think I’m mainly nervous because Alan probably can out chat me; I hope he doesn’t try to spin the interview and suddenly we are 30 minutes in and he’s actually interviewing me!

I’ve been listening to his BBC Radio 4 broadcast “Don’t Log Off” and I am so impressed with how comfortable Alan is when he questions his interviewee.  Moreover, this interviewee is someone who Alan (besides some background research on the interviewee’s Facebook page) is speaking with for the very first time. The interviewee may say the most shocking statement, but Alan stays calm and collected as he proceeds to his next inquiry.  I want to interview like that BUT I know my interview with Alan will not be as seamless and its not fair to myself to set the bar so high.  I am nervous that the interview will not be a smooth, cohesive, comfortable interaction. I need to face the fact that it’s the first time I’m doing anything like this so it is bound to have some, ok fine, A LOT of flaws. However, looking past the flaws, I know I’ll do a decent job, I’m friendly enough (I think), and considering Alan’s choice of career, he probably likes to talk about just as much, if not more, than I do.

I think our radio project interviews for Alun Lewis’ have been great practice for this major oral history interview.  When listening to my interviews with various fish and chip experts I hear myself just jumping to the next question after my interviewee finishes his answer to my previous one.  Hearing myself do this, I cringe; it is painfully awkward to listen to.  I’m chalking it up as a major learning experience.  For my interview with Alan I am going to actively listen and not allow myself to be pinned down by my prepared questions.  I want to be engaged with what he is telling me; I don’t want to be some Channel 4 news anchor robot who can only spit out rehearsed questions.

Ok, so, besides the nerves (and the reasons why I’m so nervous does not end with my previously stated concerns, but I’ll move on) I am mainly excited for this opportunity to interview Alan.  As I said, I’ve been listening to “Don’t Log Off” and if you haven’t listened to it yet I suggest you do so; it is fascinating!  In one episode Alan speaks to an American from the midwest who meets and falls in love with a Russian woman over the Internet.  However, here’s the kicker, he doesn’t speak a lick of Russian, and she doesn’t speak a bit of English.  They use Google translate to communicate. Alan calls the relationship “Lost in Translation” (pun intended). Where I’m at in the series is this man is booking a flight to Russia where he plans to meet this woman, marry her, and bring her back to the U.S.  I spoke to Alan on the phone this week and we chatted about this interesting relationship; according to Alan, he follows up with the man later on in the series. You can find out what happens here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HGIMK01uCg

Speaking with Alan over the phone calmed my nerves a lot actually.  The American man and Russian woman interview happened in 2012 and Alan was able to recall exact details from it.  I had listened to it only days prior and I had a hard time remembering the specifics.  He knows his stuff and I’m overjoyed that I get this opportunity to interview him, but most importantly, learn from him.

Here’s the link to “Don’t Log Off” definitely check all the episodes out! http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jxzy9/episodes/guide

alan dein


Inception: the Oral History of an Oral Historian (hopefully!)

As of this week I might be able to interview BBC’s Alan Dein for the oral history project.  I think that this interview (although it will be very intimidating to interview an expert) will be an invaluable learning experience. I will certainly do a lot of preliminary research of Alan’s life and works.  In preparation, I plan to listen to many of Alan’s own broadcasts, not only so I can ask him specific questions about them, but also pick up some great interviewing tips.  One of Alan’s more recent projects “Don’t Log Off” explores Facebook and Skype and “real-life dramas” that happen online.  I think it would be really interesting to perhaps have a “technology age” twist on my interview, such as how technology has changed/developed oral history practices since Alan began working as an oral historian in the 1990s.  However, regardless of what I “think” this interview could be about, I am really just looking forward to hearing what Alan’s story is, as he has spoken to so many different people and broadcasted so many different types of radio shows.  I’m quite excited to get the oral history of an oral historian (it seems a bit like “inception”… like dreaming within a dream).

If the interview with Alan Dein falls through, I would like to explore gender, perhaps more specifically the female role in society during the 1960s/1970s in Britain. I know that time period was very significant to the Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S. so I would like to get a better sense of what it was like in Britain.

I received a scholarship to come to Royal Holloway from a woman, Dinah Nichols, who graduated from Bedford New College in the 60s.  Bedford New College had yet to merge with Royal Holloway and was an all female school. When I met Ms. Nichols last term she briefly discussed some of the challenges that she faced in society (i.e. in the workforce) being a woman. I thought it would be interesting to interview her and hear more about her experiences as an educated woman during that time. From what I have heard from her and about her I believe she has a great life story to tell.  I’m getting coffee with her (hopefully) in the coming weeks so if Alan Dein does not work out I can ask her if she would be interested.