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.


Fiction and Friendship: Hopes and Concerns

Harry_Potter_british_booksMy biggest hope for the interview is that I will get some insight into the role fiction has played in various life events, and if (and if they do, how) my interview partner shapes their life narrative around the fiction they have read. I would also like to find out which books stand out to them in their life history and those which they give special meaning to – books they read as children and see if they then read these to their children (if applicable), books they read at school and what they took from them, and books they read as an adult, and especially those they felt particular emotional connection to. I also hope to see how fiction reading has worked with friendship – the person I am interviewing is a member of a book group, so they obviously find reading to be something of a social activity as well as a personal one, so I hope to explore this topic further as well.

As far as concerns for the interview, I think one of my biggest challenges will be to make sure that I respond to what my interview partner says by asking appropriate follow up questions and not missing out key bits of information by getting flustered and trying to ask all the questions I pre-prepared. I am also slightly concerned that I will get tempted to give my own insights and experiences on books I’ve read in the interview, rather than focusing on how fiction has intertwined with my interview partner’s life story.

Finally, I am also aware that my ideas of the significance of fiction on life events might be somewhat over-inflated, and that the ideas I have to begin with simply don’t match up to other people’s lived experience of this. Whilst this will not be a wholly negative thing if this is what comes out of the interview, it’s something I am mindful of. tumblr_mbvgfrtJsr1rnvzfwo1_500


Friendship and Fiction

I would like to do an oral history interview which explores the relationship between people’s life events, and the fiction they read. The idea began when talking with a group of my friends, where all of us are avid readers, and often enjoy reading the same books, or at least the same sort of books. Discussing books has now become one of the main things we connect about, and in discussing this, we also brought up the idea of not only having friends through books and reading, but books being sort of friends as well.

Before this is dismissed as madness, I think there might be some basis for this which I would like to investigate further. I would like to find out if people remember the books they were reading at various life events, both positive and negative, and why they decided to read them, what they remember of them, and what that book means to them today. Many of my friends who I discussed this idea with said that they had particular books, or a series of books, which they considered to be friends, as they are the ones they turn to in times of turbulence.

This idea also has some historic grounding. During the Second World War, Mass Observation did a file report and a study into what people were reading, asking not only readers, but librarians and book shop owners. What was revealed, was that at the outbreak of the war, there was a marked decrease in the popularity of non-fiction books as more people turned towards classic novels which they had read before, as a source of comfort and escapism. Although it is obviously highly unlikely and unfeasible to get someone now to recall what they read during the war, I would still like to interview an older person about their lifetime reading habits, and which books stand out to them as ones inspiring friendship.