Oral History in the Digital Age

***Disclaimer: There was confusion and Cristina & I reviewed the same articles, sorry for the repeat in information!***

When sitting down to research a topic, our first objective is to find the perfect primary source to support our claims. What’s your favorite primary source to work with? Picture it in your head! Maybe you thought of diaries, letters, speeches, government files; but how many of you imagined oral histories? As Michael Frisch comments in Oral History and the Digital Revolution, text-based materials are thought to be the most efficient and effective source to engage in history since they are easy to, “read, scan, browse, search, publish, display, and distribute” (Frisch, 2). However, oral histories add a nuance to sources when it comes to the preservation of memory. As Doug Boyd perfectly states in Designing an Oral History Project: Initial Questions to Ask Yourself, “We conduct oral histories, not for obscurity, but to eventually connect one person’s story to the larger historical narrative.” While searching for and through oral histories can provide difficulties, there is a wealth of information than can be garnered from these personal narratives that should be considered when gathering sources for research. Thus, it’s important to understand the production processes and implications of oral histories in order to start utilizing more as they become further accessible with advancements of the digital age.

Why use oral histories?

As Michael Frisch mentions in his article, audio-video recordings are one of the most underutilized forms of historical sources. This is generally because searching for keywords or the right interviews in finding aids is complicated with varying degrees of organization between collections. However, oral histories are becoming easier to work with since technology now allows for, “rich annotation, cross-referencing codes, and other descriptive or analytic ‘metadata’ [that] can be linked to specific passages of audio/video content” (Frisch 3). This means that specific phrases can now be found within these audio/video files, which makes these sources more approachable to work with. Oral histories should be utilized since they offer another layer to analyze than traditional written records do. Oral histories are dynamic in, “context and setting, in gesture, in tone, in body language, in expression, in pauses, in performed skills and movements” (Frisch 2). When conducting or producing oral histories, it’s crucial to keep these considerations in mind. These choices of portrayal, whether for audio or video, affect the message and overall presentation of others’ stories.

Considerations when making an oral history?

There are many considerations to be made when setting out to create an oral history project. In his article, Doug Boyd provides multiple resources and tips to set up a good project, especially if you are the interviewer or director. Boyd reminds aspiring historians to, “understand that an oral history interview creates a relationship between, not only the interviewee and the interviewer but also between the interviewee and the project.” Sharing personal stories has larger implications than the project itself, so it’s important to keep this in mind when framing information for mass distribution. To conduct a successful project, release forms should be signed so participants understand their role in the oral history. Boyd also mentions that oral histories can be expensive if using professional equipment, however they can be conducted with a basic audio recorder or video camera. Audio or video should always be captured at the highest resolutions possible. Kara Van Malssen provided more insight into video recordings in Digital Video Preservation and Oral History. Video captured oral histories introduce additional presentation considerations. Lighting, editing, and directing all contribute to the message that is represented in these visual oral histories. In addition, video or encoding formats have to be taken into consideration; these include: H.264, AVC, DV, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4 (Van Malssen). It’s important to keep in mind that every, “conversion from one encoding format to another– introduces a loss of generation,” especially when preserving these histories (Van Malssen). In preservation, the bit and frame rate, frame size, and coloring of the originals should further be kept consistent. With changing technologies between competing companies, the formats of video will shift with the trends, thus techniques within oral history will too (Van Malssen).

Implications of oral histories?

With the constant advancement of technologies and methods, one word seemed to emerge among these three readings: accessibility. In oral history, archivists of these collections seek to share these stories with as large an audience as possible, which has become increasingly easier with internet access (Frisch 4). While this makes much of the material accessible to the public, not everyone has internet access in the first place. This implies that oral history is limited to only privileged audiences. These limitations, along with usability as previously discussed, contribute to the lack of oral history use. However, these forms of evidence provide, “new dimensions of understanding and engagement through the broadly inclusive sharing and interrogation of memory” (Frisch 17). These primary sources add not only new perspectives to historical narratives but have an impact that is different from written texts. There is an added humanity in oral histories that can be both heard and seen that brings history to life.


  1. Have you ever conducted an oral history? Share your experience!
  2. Do you find oral histories an accessible option for you to use in your research? How so? Where do you search for these sources?
  3. Do you see any parallels in these readings with previous weeks?
  4. Has technology changed since these articles were all written?

12 Replies to “Oral History in the Digital Age”

  1. One of the things that I love about oral histories is that you get to make your own primary sources. I can think of nowhere else in the field of history where this would be considered appropriate. That being said, the sources that we use are actually three sources in one. The first source is the actual information the interviewee provides that can be confirmed by additional research. The second is the performance aspect which gleans nonverbal information about the interviewee. Finally you have the information provided by the individual that cannot be confirmed, the emotional memories that the interviewee associates with events from their past, which is very useful in memory studies and looking at events from different perspectives. In these sources we get several tiers of information from one primary source, and I personally find that fascinating.

    I have conducted some oral history research in the past, mainly for a project in which I investigated the effectiveness of the American public school system and tried to determine if it was proactive or reactionary in terms of safety. I looked at this through the lens of a small elementary school in Northern Maryland (the school that I went to and now teach at) and interviewed long time employees of the school to find out the employees perspectives on this issue. I was unable to come to a definitive conclusion, since I was only able to interview three employees in the scope of this project (this is a major drawback of oral history- to get a significant conclusion, you will need to conduct many, many interviews). However, the experience I had while conducting these interviews made this something that I am interested in continuing in the future.

    The problem that I find myself with in wanting to continue conducting oral history research is that I do not study a time period that meshes with this research. As someone who studies the American Civil War, it is impossible to find a first-hand account of this period, as we are several generations removed. I would have to conduct research on a different time period, which I have no problem with, but it will require much more secondary research on a period with which I am less familiar. That being said, I love oral history and sincerely hope I have the opportunity to conduct this type of research in the future.

    1. Did you post the oral histories you conducted at the Northern Maryland elementary school? If so, where? What technologies did you use to conduct this project? Just curious!

  2. To engage with some of your questions about conducting oral history, I have actually had a lot of trouble conducting oral histories. I think my experience reveals some of the limitations. When I was an undergrad I did my senior thesis about the history of a small Island in the Chesapeake Bay. I had planned to go to the Island and interview the residents. Unfortunately, because the Island itself was so inaccessible I was unable to gather enough funds together to actually get there on enough occasions to conduct pre-interviews and then the actual interviews.

    Additionally, I was unable to find a proper repository for potential interviews. I think part of this difficulty stemmed from the fact that I was an undergrad and not a graduate student. However, the organizations I contacted did not really have the proper formats to offer up oral histories for a wider audience to research and interact with. Additionally, when I tried to access previous oral histories that had been done at the same location in the 1990’s, I was unable to find the original recordings. I managed to get a copy of the transcripts but no one had a clue where the original audio had gone. This was a frustrating experience, but it definitely was great because I did discover the limitations of oral history and also the time and money that it takes to conduct these projects. It is much easier to access archives and libraries to gather source materials and write history. It takes much more time, energy, and money to be able to personally conduct oral histories.

  3. I really loved reading both Kyle and Lina’ comments because I think it only touches on all the different factors of oral history! My experience with oral history is going to be even different than theirs! I for one, love oral histories. I think it’s such a new and emerging discipline of history itself and can be used in public history, digital history and historical research. I also understand that there are a lot of limitations because it’s so new not everyone has accepted oral history as a valid form of research. Like Lina, I have been unable to secure funds to conduct oral histories, even as a graduate student. That also might be because I conduct oral histories on the Holocaust and there’s a lot of legal barriers I have to get through first before I can do the fun part of oral history!

    The technology of conducting oral history is also changing. And it will continue to change! I conducted my first oral history in tenth grade and that was before I even had an iphone or a computer so I obviously couldn’t conduct the interview that way. I used an old handheld recording device. That interview was never preserved because the format was so bad…I’m bummed it’s lost but now I’ve learned how much oral history can grow.

    I actually just conducted my latest oral history last week when we had a virtual class and I’m hoping to go to Munich this summer to conduct some more oral histories. This is a major field of interest for me within the field of history so I could talk about oral histories forever….fortunately I won’t! I’m really excited to discuss this further in class because this is such an interesting part of history to unpack. There’s limitations but there’s also really exciting parts about conducting oral histories that are exclusive!

    1. So there seems to be multiple comments about unavailable funding for under/graduate’s oral history research. Is this because funding is given to larger organizations or professionals in the field? I’m not really sure, so I’d love to hear your experiences!

  4. I do find oral histories accessible in research, however as Doug Boyd points out individuals need to be aware that while oral histories can be primary source material, they need contextualization to help make them reliable. As Frisch has argued in many of his writings, including the one for class, oral histories are unfortunately not seen as concrete the same way a letter or photograph would. All of these other primary sources require interpretation, this is not a new phenomena. We seem to be more critical of a verbal goof then we are a written one or a carefully framed and positioned photograph.

    I believe that oral histories are crucial, and it’s hard to imagine modern research being done without utilizing at least a few. I have done my own oral histories where I interviewed African American police officers in Montgomery County, and I had to take all of the above into consideration. I included documentation of myself and position as a student researcher, while also explain my race, gender, and other identifying markers. It was important me for people coming across these interviews to understand why my interviewees answered the questions the way they did, along with understanding why I asked my questions in specific ways. These relationships are incredibly valuable as other people can pick up on the subtle nuances of the oral history who are not directly involved in it’s creation and distribution.

    1. I’m so glad you brought up the interviewer’s own identities as things to consider when conducting oral histories. Since interviewers come up with the questions and set the tone for interviews, their role is crucial to producing (as close as they can get to) unbiased histories. The readings didn’t really focus on this aspect, which I think is something important to consider. This is something I’d really like to expand upon in class!

  5. As someone who wants to study early American history (the earlier the better), I was also thinking about how oral histories could be used in my research! But I’m also interested in how the public remembers American history, so that could be an opportunity to incorporate oral histories of people talking about their experiences with history (does that make it a primary or a tertiary source? I’m not sure yet). I also don’t know how this would fit with Boyd’s later point of the legal and ethical responsibilities, because some people are very private and don’t like to share or discuss their political beliefs or life experiences with even people they know. In Frisch’s article he argues that digital archives should be made more available to the public – a point I agree with – but how would this be addressed by consent forms in oral histories that have already been done? Would there need to be another set of forms for interviewees to sign/clarify exactly how public their interviews will be?

    1. As someone who is interested in early America as well, I think this would be an interesting and creative way to blend oral history and your own academic interests, especially since there are no people around from the time that you could interview.

      1. If oral histories cannot be conducted with people who are long gone, does this mean we can take an interview that was conducted and dramatize it to create an oral history? I’m not saying I agree with this concept, but would this be a way to create oral histories as long as they are contextualized as created in the present?

  6. I agree with Abigail’s mention of contextualization in regards to conducting oral histories. While I have not been privy to the oral history experience that many of my public history colleagues have, (being general history, I tend to lean towards long and in-depth monographs, as well as physical primary sources) I find them useful in that they create a completely unique primary source. No one oral history will be exactly alike, and it adds an added intellectual exercise to understand why this particular person regarded or disregarded things during their interview. Without contextualizing the interviewee as well as the topic, the historian runs the risk of interpreting incorrectly. While we as historians have a level of leeway with this—thanks to our brilliant critical thinking skills and our propensity to vehemently argue our viewpoints—we need to look at each angle of the history we’ve created, much like we do for physical primary sources. I have a respect for oral histories that is sometimes lacking when interpreting other primary sources because there are more human factors that need to be kept in mind that make utilizing oral histories a very rewarding historical process.

  7. One of the difficulties of oral history seems to be accessibility. Producing and consuming an oral history requires a certain level of technological capability as well as equipment that I think many of us here take for granted. These requirements present issues of representation in communities who have limited access to the technology. As technology is ever-evolving solving this problem requires constant attention to keep everything up to date.

    Finally, as many others here have mentioned oral histories can be fairly easily manipulated and misinterpreted. Oral histories are intended to be heard, as opposed to traditional sources which need only be seen whether it is art or text. As such including oral histories in work that is not centered on oral history presents issues of accurate presentation. Transcription eschews tone, pauses, and other important elements of vocal communication.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *