Oral History in the Digital Age

This week’s readings were about the meaning of oral history in the digital age, and how the practice of oral history has been affected by the new tools and technology of the digital age. This post will focus on the articles written by Michael Frisch, Doug Boyd, and Kara Van Malssen.

In “Oral History and Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility” by Michael Frisch, Frisch stresses the importance of how new digitial technologies have opened new ways to work directly and easily with audio and video productions. Before the digital age, Frisch believes that the potential of audio and video documents were largely untapped because they were generally used and represented “through expensive and cumbersome transcription into text” (1). However, with the new technologies that come out of the Digital Revolution, people are able to search and organize within the audio and video documents directly, without relying on a transcription, and any point of the audio or video can be accessed instantly. For Frisch, this is important because this means that the actual voice of the speaker returns to the center of focus within oral history (3). Frisch believes that in the future, the entire practice of oral history will be digital, rendering the use of tapes and CD-Roms (which I am pretty sure are already basically extinct) useless. Frisch does not get into the specfic technologies of the digital tools used in oral history, arguing that they will already be old and obsolute by the time his article is published, since new and better technology is coming out all the time. Boyd and Val Malssen address this issue about oral history in the digital age, especially in terms of preservation.

We have already discussed the impact and issues that can arrise with rapidly changing digital technology in previous weeks when discussing digital archives and digital collections. In “Digital Video Preservation & Oral History,” I had never really put much thought into all of the pieces that make up a digital file before this class, so I appreciated the clarity of Van Malssen’s article. Van Malssen breaks down the most important components of a digital video and stresses that the preservation of a digital video must be addressed by the creator throughout its entire life cycle, not just an afterthught at the completion of the project. Both Van Malssen and Boyd stress that the decisions made about early during the creation of a digital video or audio project, has consequences as the project progresses, in terms of its preservation and usability later on. According to Van Malssen, using  video formats that are widely-supported will last longer in contrast to those that frequently change. However, even common and widespread platforms are subject to change, as seen through our discussion about digital archives and digital collections. Therefore, “it is important to constantly monitor the technological landscape to know when a format (container or encoding format) is at risk for obsolescence”  and “maintain original, high-quality files in their native codec and resolution.”

Out of the three articles, I really enjoyed Doug Boyd’s article, “Designing an Oral History Project,” the most. I once kind of did an oral history project in high school where we really di not have much guidence except to interview a person. I thought Boyd’s questions for designing an oral history project were supper helpful and something I would have benefited from in the past. Like Van Malssen, Boyd stresses the idea that your decisions in the beginning of an oral history project, has consequences down the road, especially in terms of the kinds of questions you ask. In order to frame your project, you need to ask yourself: Why am I doing this project? What is my desired outcome? What equipment will I be using? All of these questions will provide focus and clarity for your project. Boyd also stresses the importance of preservation throughout the stages of the project, especially when deciding how to create and distribute the oral history project, especially with rapidly changing technology.

Some questions to consider before class:

1.  When Frisch wrote his article in 2006, he predicted that oral history would be completely digital within 10 years. Has this happened or are we still transitioning to be fully digital?

2. What other questions and factors are important to consider when designing an oral history project that Boyd may not have mentioned?

3.  Have you ever participated in an oral history project and encountered the technological issues that can arise due to rapidly changing technology, and how did you avoid it or overcome it?

4. Why do you think it is so important for Frisch to refocus voices into the center of focus rather than transcriptions of what is said? Do you agree that the potential of audio and video material have been underutilized by historians in the past?

9 Replies to “Oral History in the Digital Age”

  1. I definitely agree with Frisch’s assertion that the audio/video components of oral history have often been underutilized, and that we often rely too heavily on transcriptions. I wonder, though, if recovering those nonverbal elements of an oral history will require more than just the technologies he’s talking about. So much of oral history is still used as part of the source material for traditional, written academic texts. Even if a historian can use actual audio instead of transcripts during their research, how much of that can they effectively bring to the pages of a published monograph?

    1. I think you bring up an excellant point, especially because history is still very focused on written sources and academic texts.

  2. When Frisch wrote his article in 2006, he predicted that oral history would be completely digital within 10 years. Has this happened or are we still transitioning to be fully digital?

    I don’t think that Frisch’s prediction can ever actually come true, because in a way there will always be people who prefer the “traditional” methods. With that in mind, I think we are almost as close to being fully digital as can be expected. Major institutions like the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress have been working for years to transition their sources to a digital format, but this is a process that could still take many years due to funding and staffing concerns. However, this process is underway and will hopefully be completed soon. Until then, I believe we are on our way to full digitization of oral history, but Frisch’s prediction is slightly off.

    Why do you think it is so important for Frisch to refocus voices into the center of focus rather than transcriptions of what is said? Do you agree that the potential of audio and video material have been underutilized by historians in the past?

    I definitely agree that the potential of audio and video material has been underutilized by historians in the past, and I feel like a large part of that has to do with the fact that the field prefers to use print sources for simplicity’s sake. Many prefer to use the transcripts that are made from the actual interviews, but in doing this the historian misses out on emotional contexts, nonverbal cues, and the performance aspect of the interviewee. The field has begun to shift in this regard, but it is something that may be happening too late, as we have lost many of these aspects from past interviews that cannot be recovered. These voices are as important to the source material as the information provided, and as Frisch said, we must recenter these voices.

    1. I think it will also be interesting to see over the course of our careers if there will be a growth in the use of oral histories with the technology all around us. One point that Kyle made was that he studies the American Civil War, so his time period of study does not lend itself to such projects. However, as the centuries go on and we have more and more of these technologies, will oral histories be utilized more? In light of yesterday, will people use interviews from marches as oral histories?

  3. So, it’s true that historians have tended to favor documents or document performing evidence. This is enforced by their training and education that traditionally emphasizes the importance, or empiricism of these types of sources over others. However, this has been in flux for a while.
    As Kyle suggests above, some oral histories may only exist as documents, but the overall trend is towards digitization in the creation, presentation, and preservation of oral history – and returning to a place where historians are accessing and critically analyzing the aurality of oral sources, using interdisciplinary studies like narrative analysis.
    Add on that digitizing oral histories and making them digitally accessible is only getting cheaper and easier, and oral history looks to be an increasingly digital field.

  4. Why do you think it is so important for Frisch to refocus voices into the center of focus rather than transcriptions of what is said? Do you agree that the potential of audio and video material have been underutilized by historians in the past?

    I think that Frisch wants to refocus on voices because they provide the “raw” meaning of the source. Voices can reveal a lot about a person and how they mean what they say. When I say something sarcastic in a conversation vs. when I text it to someone it carries a whole different meaning, and in focusing on voice in oral histories you hear the intricacies of the source. In digitizing the voices in the oral interviews you give researchers and everyday people a chance to make their own meanings, rather than presenting an interpretation of what the interviewee said.
    I do think that interpreting digital audio/video has been underutilized, but I don’t know how historians who write books would be able to include voices in their texts without transcribing the interview. I think listening to the way people talk about their experiences says quite a bit about their experiences and should be included in historical works, but again, I don’t know how authors can write about how they interpreted someone’s oral history without embedding the audio in the text. Maybe the future is digitizing books with audio files attached.

    1. It’s kind of out there, but thinking about your comment about how historian would incorporate the actual voices of individuals in their books, with the rise in popularity of audio books or Kindles, I wonder if it would be easier for historians to now embed actual audio or other digital conent into their writing.

  5. I feel I have to push back against this notion that we have made most of the progress which it is possible to make in terms of digitizing oral history. We have certainly made much progress in terms of using digital methods in the research aspect of oral histories, but I would suggest that is only the first of many steps towards creating comprehensively digital histories. To make the most of these technologies, we must make the consumption of these histories, once written, also digital. That is to say, we should move towards entirely digital publication, and take advantage of new formats by, rather than having our footnotes lead to citations, transcripts, etc., having them lead directly to the sources themselves.

  6. I think it’s important to consider original format and original intentions when regarding oral histories and their transcripts. Much of human communication is done through audio/visual elements. When one writes, one accounts for the fact that a reader will not have that audio/visual component and chooses more specific words which don’t rely on tone of voice or gesture/expression for emphasis. When one speaks, words are chosen less carefully and grammar and syntax suffer, rendering a transcription less useful than the original audio/visual interview and less useful than a written answer. This is not to say they are useless; it is only to say that the audio/visual now more available and more usable on the internet are going to improve our ability to interpret our sources.

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