Oral history in the digital age

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Oral history in the digital age


Oral history started in archives, took off in academia in the 70s and 80s


Oral history is archival to its core


Individual research interviews get destroyed

But not true of oral history

Part of good oral history methodology is that interviews should go to archives

Intended for archives

Nothing you ever write will be as rich as those oral interviews


People bring in collections, we do interviews

That’s rare for an oral history program

Usually no formal relationship with the archives

We have access to resources that most programs don’t

Digital library has a whole content mgmt. system

ILSS? Huge grant for oral history in the digital age

Resource for any of us doing historical research/archival research


read this: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/07/mapping/

represents a qualitative leap forward

moved from interpretation of 90s to digital era – major paradigm shift

ethnic study centers participate most set up not as a strict academic field

collections are never finished, new finding aids, upgrade of tech

has become a real burden at a time when archives have less $$

revisit what we already have as well as forward in time

Xiaomi: digital continuity plan?

Not just getting facts anymore, documenting the way people think about the past and the present

Trying to get more well-rounded views. More interested in the stories than how accurate they are

Try to compensate for what is lost, but you do lose when u put sthg in the archive

Field notes are very helpful

Shoah $60 million oral history project – biggest ever. Designed so the material could be used in other things . parts available to other organizations to use for other projects

Shoah indexed on a grand scale, more useful than transcirpts

Define the project before you start

Legal agreement

Form you record

Finding aids/access you create to those interviews

Public records requirements

Can embargo, but not limit access

Ethical issues

Shared authority – Frisch

Refers to the actual process of the intvw itself. The co-creation of meaning

Meaning is created as a shared process in an interview

Shred AUTHORity mutual creation of meaning

Interviewee always has their own historical vision of some kind

Portelli: “history-telling”

People are telling their stories in the ontext of a larger history

Oral history is different: indiv experience in historical context

Engage a person in a process of making historical sense of theur lives

Can’t get to an objective oral history. Not even desirable. What makes it valuable is the not-just-facts aspect. Always based on a exchange, a relationship



Definition has been extended beyond the interview

Shorthand of how the interview is used, how the community is a part of that


Ethical questions abt how much agency interviewees have

Shoah by Landsman – 8-9 hours. Interviews at various sites

He does some things that ppl criticize

Barber in a camp

Recreates the situation, and then starts interviewing him. They cut ppls hair before they went to the gas chambers. Couldn’t tell family goodbye bc the guard is right there. At one point the barber says he can’t do it, but Landsman really pushes him and then he does it. How ethical is that? Is that really a shared authority?


Kathleen Blay intvws on the KKK white women who were members of the Klan in

She didn’t challenge them. They assumed she agreed with them. She didn’t let them know her purpose. Published a good book on the subject. Implied contract where you try to be up front abt where stand. Don’t disguise your purposes. It’s her personal feeling. Don’t expect them to fundamentally misunderstand her objectives. Interviewing keeps you honest abt your source materials. Responsibility to your sources for honest/ethical portrayal. Recognize ppl are human beings and your criticism comes at a cost in a way.


Archival issues in oral history

Basic rule is that harm not come to the interviewee

M.T. maybe the person WANTS to face consequences of looking bad. Why is it for the interviewer to decide?

Disguise identities if the interviewees are in danger


Boston College Case

Faculty interviewed members of the IRA then promised that the interviews wouln’t be made available. But they were in a public institution and the interviews got released. Imperiled the interviewees in terms of safety and legally


The notion of informed consent/shared authority becomes very important in an archive. Legal agreements.


She relies a lot on what people want out there.

Someone who is being talked about who hasn’t given legal consent can present a problem.

Legal and ethical issues should be reported by the interviewer to the archive


Conerned with something showing up on a Google search


Work in Haiti: how well the interviewees would understand what informed consent really means




Frisch: history background, consulting, technology. How we can use technology to design oral history

Non-text-reliant digital index and search mechanisms will enable imaginative, unforeseen uses for oral history



Anne: Community informatics researchers haven’t yet dealt with affect

Relates to Yow article

Besser’s transgender living archive

A lot of the projects have profound effects on the archivists/researchers

Want to make that the theme of their next annual conference

Think about how to introduce thinking abt who you are yourselves when you go into communities, interview ppl with different backgrounds or even similar backgrounds where u might learn things that you took for granted/assumed

Psychologists on Shoah project to hdeal with how the indexing affected the indexers


My question to Anne, regarding student researchers working in the own communities/backgrounds

When researchers come from those communities as well as being in the university community

Spend a lot of time explaining themselves and their own stance

Self-reflexivity should be carried over to all researchers, not just the researchers who are not a part of the community being studied

Insider understands more of the nuances, but may gloss over things that seem apparent to her, but not to an outsider

Increasingly we have people who straddle both simultaneously

A of time thinking about oneself


Khan’s question: Act globally, but think locally or act locally but think globally

Anne’s answer: Archives tend to think very institutionally. Anne says they haven’t done either very well. Tend to think very institutionally and nationally, not locally, nor globally.




Differences bt anthropologist’s analysis versus historian’s

Anthro is more ethnographic, abt capturing community dynamics within a networked system

Historians more abt the documents, facts


Oral histories done by different backgrounds are different?

Historians in US tend to be very empirical


Portelli is a literary theorist

Who cares if the stories are true? Enabled him to do some really interesting work.


Stoler gets at some of the standard oral history assumptions:

Looking for agency, narrative

Oral histprians have been very invested in getting the person’s story. The complete whole. Interested in rescuing histories. Stoler very affected by postmodernity, antithetical to how oral historians work, they focus on individual stories, whereas she goes after a bigger picture.


Typically centers around events. People already know what people want to hear abt them. The assumption is that youre in a space where you’re enabling people to speak freely. The skay footing of that enabling. Only enabled as much as it can be within that context.



People developed all sorts of grand theories based on their interactions

“we told her exactly what she wanted to hear”

I don’t think you have the right to hear that story

Is it part of the anthropological method to include what your interpretation is. They pay attention to other things

Historians listen and anthropologists watch.



Historians are more process-oriented

Oral history is very narrative-based



The other piece of her work is to work with the documents across the grain. The is a second method. She reads the docs for how they say it, not what they say.


Power is the thing that is at work here.

Can you ever get around those power structures


My point:

The woman who wouldn’t speak with Stoler directly

She was asserting power

Lasting effects of colonialism that she didn’t trust




Could you tell from the piece that the author was African-american?

Anne thinks it’s tenor is remarkably neutral in that respect

Yale professor



The name can condition the audience


Javier brought up the example of women writing under pseudonyms



Teaching note:

That Teresa lady doesn’t know how to deal with questions. Can’t build on the question to tie in to her lecture. Anne is amazing at how she does this.


Bias in archives (WPA project)

Khan asks why narrative is better than interview



Like Stoler, trying to read the archive to determine what hasn’t been recorded.



Would it be inappropriate in an interview to ask the interviewee how they feel about an assumption that you’ve proven is wrong? For example, If Stoler had asked the people who described their relationships with the servants as loving, etc., that the former servants felt completely different, what would have transpired?



Most problematic about WPA is that the interviews weren’t recording. So can’t go back a revisit the records, can only look at what the interviewers wrote about the interviews.



Conventional racialized dialect

Wonder how much transcription was done based on how the interviewee sounded/spoke.




The number of times the thing is removed from the original affects the trustworthiness of what’s in there declines over time.