Digital audio: Oral history and sound studies (Feb 22)

Oral History and the Digital Revolution:

Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility

Michael Frisch

The first reading was published in 2004 and serves as an introduction to the potential oral history that will soon become. As it is from 2004, it is dated but much of the predictions of what oral history would be were accurate. Oral histories, like everything else, became widely available and accessible as a result of the information and technology boom of the late 90s and early 2000s. The author, Michael Frisch, writes to share all the ways recorded histories can be reinterpreted and constantly relevant using digital search and cataloging tools. He briefly talks about the difficulty archivists face in how to catalog and indexing oral histories.

He argues that the oral history field was previously dominated by documentaries as the primary mode of utilizing oral history, but with technology, that authority will be quickly democratized. His prediction of rapidly developing technology moving from tape to CDs to begin fully digital was completely accurate. He mentions the start of digitization of oral histories began as archival projects uploaded to websites such as Holocaust survivor histories and other university-led efforts to broadly share stories. He argues that researchers did not have the tools to quickly evaluate oral histories as audio recordings and preferred text transcripts that can quickly be looked through. Again, he predicted the emergence of digital tools such as time stamps to quickly reference moments in audio recordings. Although dated, this is a very good Oral History 101 for the 21st century that thoroughly predicts the potential impact digital tools will have on returning the value of audio and video recordings.  

Designing an Oral History Project:

Initial Questions to Ask Yourself

by Doug Boyd

The second reading is very straightforward “How To” guide for conducting oral histories. The author, Doug Boyd, takes the reader through every step of preparing, conducting, and preserving oral histories. He goes into preparation for the “point” of the interview. What do you want to get out of it? What is your project? Questions like these will narrow your outlook and questions when conducting the interview. He also goes into the importance of audio and visual recording equipment, the compatibility of each with the other, and the budget limitations for the best available equipment. Each section starts with a different header or questions prompting the next step in conducting oral histories. He also touches on the importance of digital storage and working with an archive to preserve the file for future use and comments that the importance can often be underestimated. Finally, he discusses using caution during and after the interview as you are handling sensitive and personal information. Ethical questions must be asked on how it will be used and if the subject is comfortable with it.

Digital Video Preservation and Oral History

by Kara Van Malssen

The third reading is highly detailed descriptions and guidance on how to choose your camera, how to save your files, and what all of those letters at the end of file names mean (yes, they actually mean something). If you are not familiar with file names and sizes, this reading will be very difficult to understand and should be used as a reference for future problems with files. The reading goes into the details of how best to save files and discusses the different levels of quality of the file when using the camera, types of files, and method of storage. I will not pretend to thoroughly understand the nuance of files and all that it encompasses and hope that I will not need to know it in the future. However, as we live in a digital age and will most likely encounter issues caused by not heeding the advice in this reading, its importance cannot be understated.


Jonathan Sterne

The fourth reading starts by contrasting MP3 files with WAV files, noting that MP3 dominates cyberspace as the optimum file for audio because it is more compacted. It also details the benefits of compression as it rids the file of unneeded audio details to optimize the recording and saves space. The reading then goes into the history of saved audio and the progress its made since the 20th century. It examines the development of audio files from a traditional military focus to a corporate capitalistic view. The reading defends MP3 as the dominant file for audio files and goes on to predict that although it has been continually challenged by competitors, it has stood the test of time and, at the time the reading was published, still remains the go-to audio file. Whether that remains true to this day in the midst of streaming services and sites like YouTube, we will see.

HiPSTAS and Grant Proposal

The fifth reading is of the High-Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS) website and their NEH grant proposal in 2013-2014. The site’s goal is to make audio recordings that predate the digital age readily available and relevant to ongoing and future research. Audio files are becoming decreasingly utilized as scholarship shifts towards the seemingly endless modern audio and visual files. With their decrease in popularity, the chances of preserving dated audio files also decreases leading to the HiPSTAS mission. The site offers tools and software to assist researchers in accessing, preserving, and contributing to audio file research. The grant proposal is to conduct two rounds of academic training and recommendations on tool development in support of digital scholarly inquiry in sound. The proposal is very thorough and outlines a lot of the same information found on the sites’ “About Us” page. Their effort is to promote the use of sound collections by current and future scholars including graduate students, librarians, and other professionals who might be interested in learning more about the subject.

The amount of details set out in the proposal is also interesting to observe for anyone considering writing a grant proposal. It sets clear objectives, methodologies, and audiences in a comprehensive fashion that ultimately was successful. The project set out to preserve sound recordings and was successful enough to build more tools such as Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization (ARLO).

Digital Ethnography Toward Augmented Empiricism: A New Methodological Framework


The next reading focuses on the subject of ethnography, particularly the emergence of digital ethnography. Hsu is an ethnographer that started her journey by observing and recording cultures by examining them in person, however, with the emergence of technology, ethnographers’ subjects are now easily accessible through social media. Social media allows ethnographers to broaden their research to include virtually everyone in the world. With this new technology comes a shift in the academic field which allows it to grow into a digital branch. Like other readings, this one has been quickly dated as it was published in 2014. Academic fields grew at a slower pace than technology so Hsu recognizes this by arguing the viability of digitalization as a tool to support methodology and theory. At the time of her writing, the field was still assessing how best to use this new digital tool so Hsu provides her opinion on how it can best be used.

Hsu focuses on computers as tools for scalability and Intermodality (or multimodality). Scalability is the ability of computers to identify and calculate trends at a scale never before possible. It can be used as a filter and tool “to rethink how we sample culture”. Intermodality is the convergence of different contexts and data to discover new patterns and relationships. This previously would have been extremely difficult to accomplish without the help of computers. Digital maps are an example of how you can track similar trends or relationships in things like music and location. The combination of scalability and intermodailty is what she terms, augmented empiricism, the closest thing to empirical precision ethnographers can discover to make sense of huge amounts of data that can then lead to the most impactful questions.

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