A Whole New World: Oral Histories in the Digital Age

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Oral histories have long served as a way to capture the individual stories and perspectives of historical events. These first-hand interviews chronicle for the future the lived experience of the past. As Michael Frisch notes, “there are worlds of meaning that lie beyond [the] words” (2). Employed for centuries as a way to better understand and preserve history, oral histories are nothing new. The digital age, however, presents significant implications for capturing, preserving, analyzing, and providing access to these interviews.

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As Doug Boyd’s article, “Designing an Oral History Project: Initial Questions to Ask Yourself” proves, much preparation needs to go into conducting a successful oral history interview. When designing an oral history project, a clear focus and goal are necessary, as is knowledge of the technologies, equipment, and budget needed to conduct and complete the project. You must also acknowledge your own technology skill level, research the topic you will be interviewing about, decide upon an archival strategy for curating your project, and consider the legal and ethical questions associated with oral interviews. These questions only become more complex and necessary as one considers, and incorporates, the various technologies associated with born-digital material and audio and video recordings in the digital age. Kara Van Malssen’s article on digital video preservation discusses the varying formats of video digital files and the differences in capturing, preserving, and providing access with digital files.

But digital also means more than just changes in file size, video capture, and preservation.  Frisch asserts in his article, “Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility,” that oral history audio and video collections are rarely organized or indexed, making them unsearchable in any useful way. For this reason, most users choose to study the transcribed text associated with each interview, rather than struggle to work with the audio or video files. The digital revolution, he contends however, has profoundly changed this because not only can all files expressed in digital form be organized, searched, and extracted equally, but also any place within digital data can be accessed instantly. These factors mean that users can now locate the deeper meanings within the audio/video materials themselves, no longer relying heavily on text versions. Furthermore, this kind of accessibility allows for content analysis in different ways and on a different level than previously possible. Frisch explains that audio/video oral history content has normally been characterized as “raw” documentation, meaning that it is “almost impossible to search or navigate analytically,” and becomes “meaningful, sharable, and usable only when it is ‘cooked’—in the form of a documentary selection or arrangement then served up to consumers” (13). New digital tools, however, can create new non-linear paths for discovery and research. “Because audio/video indexing means the entire content can be usefully, intelligently, instrumentally searched and accessed at a rich level,” Frisch argues, “it becomes a great deal more than a ‘raw’ collection,” providing access for anyone to “continually ‘cook’—to explore a collection and select and order meaningful materials” (16). With digital tools, in other words, new understandings can be gleaned from not only the content of oral histories, but also the audio and video files—actually creating ways to investigate those “worlds of meaning that lie beyond [the] words.”

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Wendy Hsu echoes Frisch’s arguments by proposing an expansion of the definition of digital ethnography, changing the “focus of the digital from a subject to a method of research.” She contends that digital technology can and should be used as a platform for collecting, exploring, and expressing ethnographic materials. Like Frisch, Hsu explains that digital tools can calculate and reframe information with precision and speed previously unimaginable. This means that new patterns regarding how we understand and sample culture and how we analyze the relationship between the macro and the micro can be revealed. “A deepened engagement with cultural content in multiple registers,” she argues, “could enable us to identify patterns of social linkage and cultural meanings that are otherwise inaccessible in participant observation methods.”

So what does all of this actually mean? And is anyone actually putting into practice the kinds of digital analysis of oral histories outlined by Frisch and Hsu? If so, are new understandings of history, historical events, and culture being revealed? The School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin and the Illinois Informatics Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received an NEH digital humanities grant to plan and host HiPSTAS, an institute on High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship. This institute was created in response to the increasing need for more accessible sound archives, and the demand to provide scholars and students with new modes of analysis for exploring the important cultural expressions and historical research embedded within oral history audio and video files. Oral histories and sound recordings, the HiPSTAS website explains, hold extreme cultural significance, but scholars have limited access to spoken word audio and are unable to conduct new research and share methodologies and findings because of current modes of access. HiPSTAS’ work hopes to change this by exploring what important historical research is hidden in sound files. Hundreds of thousands of hours of “culturally significant audio artifacts” have been digitized, and sophisticated systems of computational analysis of sound have been developed, they explain, but “there is no provision for any kind of analysis that lets one discover, for instance, how prosodic features change over time and space or how tones differ between groups of individuals and types of speech.” By bringing together a group of humanities scholars, graduate students, and librarians and archivists interested in these modes of sound recording analysis HiPSTAS hopes to analyze current practices, develop new tools, and advance the research on audio analysis. Their end goal is to develop an open-source, “freely available suite of tools supporting scholarship on and using audio files.”

The new possibilities for historical research and conclusions provided by digital analysis of oral histories is extremely exciting. Like our discussions on distant reading, text analysis, and visualization, doing oral history in the digital age allows us to change our understandings of previously explored topics. We can and should employ digital tools to not only make planning and implementation of oral history projects easier, but also to expand the cultural and historical significance of oral histories and sound and video recordings. I wonder though as well, what new challenges will this also bring? Do you all see any downside to or difficulty for implementation of this kind of computational analysis?  Do you think that projects like HiPSTAS will be the most effective in the push to save sound archives?

4 Replies to “A Whole New World: Oral Histories in the Digital Age”

  1. I got close to 5,000 results when I did a general query for “oral history.” I looked through a few and they seemed all relevant: https://www.popuparchive.com/search?page=1&query=oral%20history

    On another note, I would have liked the authors to talk more about real-time visualization of sound. I’m thinking of the music visualization you can toggle on/off in various media players. However based on real sound qualities that those are, they do add a layer of experience. It would be interesting to see a real time sound visualization like that for oral histories and how those can be implemented in analyzing these histories.

    1. Yeah, you’re right. Seems as though users are favoring including it in the title vs. tagging it. Also, tag: “Oral history” retrieves 18 results vs. “oral history” (3).

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