Oral Histories in New Media

Oral history interviews can be a challenge for many historians, especially those who spend a lot of time in the archives and prefer to work alone. Unfortunately for those historians, oral historians inherently require non-traditional research methods and co-creation. Doug Boyd, in Designing an Oral History Project: Initial Questions to Ask Yourself, and Michael Frisch, in Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility, provide insight into how historians can develop oral histories and package them for modern media.

Boyd lays out nine framing questions that he urges any historian embarking on an oral history project to ask. These questions can be seen as mini-missions one must complete before they can proceed on the greater quest (you can tell I am a big fan of gamification). Perhaps the best way to discuss Boyd’s work is to examine these questions individually.

Bear with me…this will be a long, but super informative post!

“Why are you doing this project?” should be the first question that every (oral) historian should ask themselves when tackling a new project. Boyd urges to write down the answer so it can become the guiding framework when embarking on the rest of the project. Not only will the answer advance the project in the intended direction, but it will also allow you to effectively describe why you are interviewing that person when they inevitably ask.

“What is your desired outcome from this project?” should be the next question. Answering this question will allow you to create a project that most aligns with where you want it to live once completed. If you want it online, it needs to be high quality. If you want it to be broadcasted, there are additional things to consider depending on the platform. Regardless, you need to recognize that the oral histories are the product.

“What recording equipment will you use?” is the next logical thing to consider, once you identify your outcome. You need to consider whether you will be producing video or not, what type of microphones, the compatibility of your devices, the learning curve, and your budget. The video question is perhaps the most difficult to answer, but it also comes at a hefty price tag, something many projects cannot be flexible with.

“What are your budget needs?” Is a question that has to be asked in conjunction with the previous one. Although this question may seem repetitive, it goes beyond the question about equipment and into the overall production. Who is transcribing? How will you disseminate the project? Who will design the website? All of these factors have a major impact on the budget.

“What is your level of technical expertise?” may be one of the more sobering questions you have to answer. A young historian may be tempted to overestimate their capabilities, while an older historian may dismiss their abilities because of their iPhone illiteracy. Either way, it is important to understand that your answer to this question will directly impact who you will be asking for help and who’s time you may waste.

“Do you have enough digital storage?” is obviously very important to consider before you hit the record button. High-quality audio recordings result in very large files that need to be stored somewhere. In addition to “enough” you must determine whether you can store them in a stable enough place.

“Who is your archival partner/what is your archival strategy?” should be asked earlier, in my opinion. This will have a fundamental impact on many of the questions from above. No point in paying for video recording if your parter archive does not accept them.

“What are the legal and ethical questions you should be considering?” is a question that a traditional historian does not typically have to grapple with as deeply as an oral historian. In essence, oral histories are testimonies from living people who could lose their jobs, family, and friends if not handled properly. Make sure your narrator is giving informed consent and that they sign any necessary waivers.


“Are you ready?” is one that nobody can truly answer, but is nonetheless a question that must be asked. After answering these questions and doing all the appropriate research, historians should be as prepared as they can be.

Whereas Boyd’s suggestions are helpful before the recorder is turned on, Frisch’s article advises once the recorder is turned off. In this article, Frisch argues that new digital platforms allow for oral history projects to be more interactive on the internet. Users can, and should, be able to democratically access and search through the interviews. This approach will allow the projects to go beyond the binary of raw and cooked (another influential approach courtesy of Frisch) and allow it to continually be cooked in different ways, by different people. Essentially, the meanings of these interviews will no longer be up to the historian (or documentarian) but to the audience. The interviews can mean 100 things to 100 people, and are no longer used as tools to advance one argument.

This “post-documentary sensibility” allows for a more fluid dissemination of impact and meaning with the audience. Essentially, Frisch is arguing that technological advancements make it that historians must now recognize their shared authority with their audience. Frisch’s suggestions are compelling, but they are not without extensive work after a project would already be considered done. It is only a matter of time until somebody writes nine questions to ask when doing a project like this.

Digital Preservation in Practice and in Theory

When you do oral history interviews, one of your first steps is usually deciding how to record them. Although transcripts are useful in their own way, they are unique based on the transcriber and often do not and cannot embody the same tone and emotions as audio or even visual digital records. But when you decide to audio or video record interviews, you also have to think of how to archive them and ensure they are preserved as technology advances and makes some formats obsolete.

Remember these?

There are two facets of digital preservation we should cover: the practical and the theoretical. 

Let’s start with the practical. Anyone getting started with oral history and wanting to take a serious approach to preservation can find a solid guide in Kara Malssen’s article, Digital Video Preservation and Oral History. Malssen provides a very in-depth and hands on guide to creating and preserving digital video. She starts from the very beginning and makes it clear from the get-go that decisions made when creating files have long-lasting effects and consequences.

Malssen does helpfully list and define some important terms: wrapping and encoding formats, bit rate, resolution, and file size. She emphasizes how the file format (ex: .mov, .avi, .mpg) and codec (ex: H.264, DV, MPEG-4) are important for the format’s lifespan and accessibility, whereas the bit rate and resolution are tied to quality and file size. Using all this information, she goes through the main steps: choosing a recording device with the rights specs, determining how and where to retain and store files (in three forms: the original as a preservation master, a mezzanine copy for new edits, and a proxy copy for redistributing), then figuring out technical and preservation metadata. Throughout all this, Malssen makes sure to remind us to keep up on best formatting to keep the file preserved and accessible as time goes on.

Although Malssen’s article is step-by-step and incredibly helpful, it is chock full of technical terms that aren’t always defined and so not exactly accessible to a wider audience. Oral historians and dedicated people (like us!) will certainly find use in the article, but more casual hobbyists might choose instead to find a simpler explanation.

Moving on to the theoretical side of digital preservation, Jonathan Sterne’s book MP3 includes a foreword style chapter entitled “Format Theory.” Sterne talks about audio files instead of video, so we see another side of the story.

For Sterne, telephony is the basis of everything to do with audio recording today. Not only was it the first step, but it also shaped our notions of what “hearing” is. Sterne ties this all to the question of audio quality – as technology progresses, he points out, we continue to use MP3s despite the ability to do better, despite them being even lower quality than CDs or records. For this, Sterne questions what he calls “the dream of verisimilitude” – in other words, the idea that progress means technology just getting closer and closer to representing reality. Sterne links this back instead to the “history of compression.” We’ve been compressing as long as we’ve been making advances, so we don’t always mind discrepancies in our audio. It’s often just part of the experience!

Now we come to where theory comes in more directly; since we already have media theory, why not format theory as well? In backing up his argument, Sterne gets into specifics which involve a lot of numbers and some diagrams, so let’s focus on the question instead. Why not focus on the hardware of format as well as the software of mediality? It would lead to different, interesting approaches to research and the history of formats.

Sterne continues by laying out to outline of his book, following a chronological approach to format theory, going from a new hearing research in the 1910s to the rise of MP3 and file-sharing. He ends the chapter on the note that–despite our ability to do better and its proprietary nature–MP3 is a significant cultural touchstone, not just because of its popularity, but because it represents a time in history where the dream of verisimilitude came in to question.

Both of the readings here speak a lot to digital preservation. Malssen’s is a go-to guide for preserving oral histories, but mainly for those who already have a pretty good foundation or the time to do the necessary research. Sterne’s book promises an interesting and fairly important background into audio formatting and digital preservation, especially for those in relevant fields. Overall, I found the two texts interesting and definitely important, but they do have their specific audiences.

A Resource for Audio Collections: HiPSTAS Audio Toolkit

This week’s readings deal heavily with topics in oral history and the recording and collecting of digital audio. HiPSTAS, or High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship, provide a toolkit useful to anyone compiling collections of audio files in creating sets of metadata and identifying speakers.

HiPSTAS has worked on a number of projects with the goal of developing different digital tool kits that can assist researchers in compiling, identifying, and defining segments of audio files. One such program is the Audio Labeler program, designed to label segments of an audio file usually in relation to a single speaker. The website goes into great detail about how you can train the program to identify the speaker you are focusing one by feeding it many small clips of that person speaking with that person, other speakers, other sounds and even silences already labeled. By doing this you can then train the program to apply that algorithm to unlabeled files so that it can label the files for you.

This tool would be very useful for compiling a collection of audio files on specific people, particularly for libraries and archives where there might be many different audio file collections. Identifying speakers and providing these labels is needed so that one who may be conducting research can search for these files. This program is meant to help expedite that process so that librarians or archivists or whoever is compiling these files doesn’t have to listen to every single audio file and individually label each segment.

It is not a system without some flaws though. The process involves feeding the program pre-labeled audio files, sometimes close a thousand of them. This means either someone still needs to individually label those small files or running a different program to do that, but those programs can at times be unreliable.

HiPSTAS’s most recent project has been to develop a formula to upload annotations to the segments of these audio files as well. The project, called AudiAnnotate, would allow researchers to translate their own analyses of the audio files into publishable media annotations. The hope for this project is that it would make audio file collections easier to search through and more accessible to researchers so that they are used more often and therefore preserved more often by libraries and archives.

Overall I found the projects that HiPSTA has and are continuing to develop very interesting. I hadn’t really thought about the problems of trying to search for a specific audio file before but these programs that make it easier to navigate audio files like their any other type of information seems really helpful for maintaining collections. I would be interested to see how AudiAnnotate works as its development progresses and how annotations of these files could be shared among researchers.

Obligatory Baby Yoda

Ethnography and Digital History – A Historian’s Take

Before reading “Digital Ethnography Toward Augmented Empiricism: A New Methodological Framework” I did a quick google search for Wendy Hsu, and found their website: beingwendyhsu.info/

In the about section, it explains that W.F. “writes here to reflect on the intersection among ethnography, civic innovation, and the arts, and on their research of urban sounds and music.” The website is essentially a blog, complete with a “tags” section referring to the content of the posts on the page.

This should look familiar!

I had heard of ethnography, but did a quick Google search “what is ethnography” just to be sure and found the definition “the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.” Ethnography has a long history in sociology, but as Hsu’s article suggests, it also holds potential for public historians and researchers in general.

Hsu’s overarching question is “How do digital technologies deepen ethnographic practices?” To answer this, Hsu breaks down their dissertation project to hone in on the methodology of digital ethnography and promote the usefulness of both physical and digital material. The introduction certainly made me think about Jocker’s Macroanalysis with the discussion of close and distant readings of material.

Hsu defines two key terms – scalability and intermodality. Scalability encourages “us” to rethink how we sample culture, the close and distant reading of material referenced above. Intermodality is the relational exploration “we” can do with material. Hsu’s project focuses on the relationship between music and place, but goes beyond the physical by using software to survey Myspace. (major throwback!)

Please tell me you all remember dial up internet….

This leads into a discussion of software methods for data gathering, one of which is called “webscraping”. A basic definition is that webscraping “bots”, which are further defined in the article, extract targeted information from web pages. This allows the researcher to go beyond default user interaction with the website. When reading this I was curious if this is how Facebook and other sites collect data to sell to other companies, and Hsu somewhat confirmed this with their discussion of Amazon.com.

Hsu used webscraping to create a form of mapping, which contained many, many layers of information. A large focus in this article is the role of quantitative data, and that researchers have to be careful to not rely on data alone. Ethnographers, and certainly historians, can use data to reinforce an idea or trend, or even use data to find a new line of inquiry. Hsu suggests layering information, similar to the close and distant reading approach previously mentioned, in order to better “see” the story.

Digital historians, ethnographers, and even journalists alike should take serious note of Hsu’s methodology, especially when it comes to their use of digital audio workstations (DAW). In this case, Hsu used audacity to peel back the layers of a recording to make sense, and eventually meaning, of an old cassette tape. With little information on the tape, Hsu was able to make use of digital resources to break down the historical context and content stored.

W.F. Hsu includes the term ‘augmented empiricism’ in the title of the article, which “describes the goal of finding and documenting social and cultural processes with empirical specificity and precision.” I’m sure this is a term commonly used in ethnography, but the process and goal seem applicable to everyone! This article helps make digital history a little more accessible to me, and encourages my curiosity of asking interconnected questions that may have answers in the digital world!

Audacity 101

Here is their homepage

Audacity is a free to download sound editing software. I have used it previously for sound design projects in undergrad, but it also has many useful tools for budding digital historians. Essentially, it allows you to clip audio, rearrange those clips, record sound, clean up said audio, and much more. For theater it was an incredibly useful tool, and we were required to do many projects with it in my undergrad (unfortunately for you, I deleted all the files after my classes ended and have none to share with you). It is supported on most operating systems and downloaded very quickly onto my laptop.

Fun fact, Audacity is currently not supported on macOS Catalina. They discuss this on their website and in a post linked to the statement on their homepage, explain that this is due to Apple’s change in application restrictions and that they are working to catch up with the requirements for “notarization” for their next release. There is also a workaround that does allow Audacity to open and be used on a Mac running Catalina, and having tested it, it works and the instructions they provided were easy to follow.

Note the sentence in red, which unfortunately confirms that my laptop will not work with the most up to date version- without a workaround.

After getting the app up and running on my laptop, it was very easy to drop in a song from my computer and start working with it. Cutting and pasting works just like in a word document, so you can literally cut the audio up into chunks and use them as need be. They can also be moved very easily around the mixing area. You can label your sounds as you need to and even change which direction the sounds will come from if you have directional speakers that the sound will come out of. There is also a very long list of effects that can be added to the sound itself, and Audacity will record sound within itself if you do not want to upload a track into the app. There are a few different options to save your file once you have reached that point as well, it can be saved within Audacity, exported as an MP3 (or other file types), saved as a compressed file, or saved as a “lossless” file as well. 

Unlike SoundCloud, Audacity is not a community of people utilizing a platform to share audio, but it can be very useful in its own way. Audacity can also be used for many more complicated tasks, that I hadn’t thought of before exploring the tab on their website that discussed their Frequently Asked Questions and looked at the plug-ins that can be used with the software itself. They also have a section where they discuss the accessibility features of the application like that it can be operated with just a keyboard or through voice software as well. These features struck me as very forward thinking of the design team, especially for software that is free for everyone to use as they need.

This software could be used for many different things within the public history or digital history world. As a public historian myself, I see it very easily being used to help keep track of oral histories or being used to create a soundscape for an exhibit. The software itself is very user friendly and accessible, and for tasks beyond the everyday splicing and dicing of audio, there are YouTube videos and support communities to discuss those. Overall, I think it’s a useful software and even more impressive for the fact that its free. It has many incredibly helpful features to work with audio, and with some work it becomes almost second nature to use and work within.