Oral History and Sound Studies: Frisch and Boyd

The first reading for this week was from Michael Frisch, in his piece he is looking at the transition of oral history from old audio devices like cassettes into digital files. This change will be advantageous for historians but will also present some new challenges.

First of all this move will mean that there will be less need for oral histories to be transcribed into print, thus losing certain aspects of the history like voice tone and inflection. The digital revolution means that all data can be stored equally and easily while preserving the original aspects of the oral history being taken, it also allows individuals to access the data much more easily particularly through an online database.

Frisch notes that the challenge that will come with the change in technology and the broader access to historical information is figuring out how to navigate in the digital space. The use of time stamps on sound files is one way to make this easier for people looking through an oral history archive. This is one thing that I have noticed quite recently with some podcasts, the creators have begun putting markers into their own recordings so listeners can jump to sections that they are interested in.

The more difficult issue is sorting out how to search through a potentially huge database of history for information and stories of interest. One can start with the basic search strategies like with words or themes to find items. However, Frisch points towards using a more complex type of search using qualitative analysis and the meaning of a history in order to find it in an archive. As he notes, this may require more development of A.I. to assist the search. Finally Frisch suggests also that the nature of oral history projects will change moving further into the digital age. Instead of being finite, projects and documentaries could become long lasting collaborative efforts that do not follow the standard format of current documentaries.

The most interesting aspect of Frisch’s piece was the question of searching through archival databases. I think that he makes some good suggestions about how to structure this but I think there is still a problem of scale. The amount of data being put into archives, particularly online archives will only get larger and I wonder how searches will be prioritized. In other words, will certain items or topics pop up first from a search and how will this affect researchers? Is there a way to design a search engine for such a database that is “fair” for all the different stories from history.

The Boyd piece on the questions to ask when making an oral history project was pretty strait forward but it did connect with the Frisch article. The questions of why are you doing a project and what is the desired outcome are certainly important. Most of the other questions are technical issues like budget, technology resources, and who is your partner. The only question that I found interesting was the last one about legal and ethical issues. I had not really considered what ethical or legal problems might arise from an oral history project. Beyond the issue of privacy and personal information, what other ethical problems might there be when conducting oral interviews or compiling these stories into a larger oral history project?

One Reply to “Oral History and Sound Studies: Frisch and Boyd”

  1. Hi John, technology’s potential to innovate oral history storage is an interesting and exciting idea. As much I absolutely hated doing transcription for my oral history project, I see it as a necessary tool for keeping oral history accessible. Frisch’s idea seems daunting, but like you pointed out, there are plenty of questions to be answered. Yeah, we might lose the nuance that comes with an audio file, but someone who has any hearing handicaps should still be able to access the information presented in oral interviews. I think it would be even more worthwhile to invest more into using technology to accurately transcribe interviews. That way, we can direct the money (hopefully) paid to a transcriptionist to something like upgrading equipment.

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