Oral History: New Possibilities, Old Concerns

In the article ‘Telling Stories: A Reflection on Oral History and New Media’, oral historian Steven High explores some new technologies that have changed the methods of oral history (anno 2010).

High argues, as does Michael Frisch, the authority with regard to oral history, that oral history is more than an interview and its transcription alone. By transcribing an interview, so much elements of a stories go to waist, such as voice, body language, tone, pauses etc. Therefore, High shows how to process and store interviews in different ways that will ensure the entire message of the stories can be preserved.

High showcases his own project, The Montreal Life Stories, to show how new technologies and media control their current methods of ‘doing’ oral history. High has attempted to create a history project that is as democratic as possible. By including all the participants in the interviewing or filming activities, they feel involved in a small community on its own. To reinforce this feeling, High and his co-workers chose to use a project managing software that is transparent and open to all the participants. This way, the seperate working groups of the project can communicate and share stories and experiences with each other.

New media used for digital storytelling, such as digital video or audio clips, are becoming more and more common on the web and are essential to projects like High’s. By including the interviewee in the selection of the clips, the authority of the interviews is shared. Also,the database software in which the stories are stored, is modelled after the critiques of High’s students on one of his earlier attempts to build a database for oral histories. As a result, High, a couple of oral historians and a software engineer created a tool from scratch: Stories Matter. By asking paricipants as well as interviewees to give their opinions about the used method, High has succeeded in finding an even more democratic way of history making.

High also touches the subject of memoryscapes (not related to the Life Stories project). Memoryscapes or sound walks are similar to audio tours, but situated outside museums. Supported by fragments of oral histories, these can be either walking tours, bus rides or any other way of moving from one place to another. A memoryscape is an effective way of experiencing the stories of a space, urban or rural, told by the locals. For example, the first memoryscape developed by Toby Butler is a walking tour along the Thames called Drifting, Britains most iconic river and environment.

There is one aspect of oral history High does not address in his article. Although he points out the importance of voice and video in oral histories, and describes the entire process of collecting and storing testimonies, he forgets to mention how we should approach the trustworthyness of the personal accounts of the interviewees. Memory can be deceitful and interviewees are always subjective, even if they themselves are unaware of this. This is not new to oral historians; they must be creative in finding ways to bypass the problem.

Although obviously this is not the intial goal of the article, it still is an aspect to consider when working with oral histories. For example, on the Life stories webpage, when you select an interview, a short biography is given to provide context. However, I think this could be more elaborate. Especially the testimonies in Toby Butlers memoryscapes are not provided with context or explanation. The accounts in his ‘Drifting’ sound walk are very personal, and these stories are only shortly introduced. On the website, there is a short description of the interview, but it is unlikely that the listener reads this during his walk, the audio tour is just not equipped this way.

Dealing with this aspect of oral history is difficult, even if there are new media and technologies to try to tackle it. In the case of the memoryscapes, new questions pop up. It is, in short, public history in all its controverse: a history by, with and for the public, but is it the most succesful way to reach some sort of historical truth?

18 thoughts to “Oral History: New Possibilities, Old Concerns”

  1. The last aspect you introduce, the trustworthiness of oral history, is indeed an interesting dispute. These limitations and risks of using memories to ‘tell a history’ remain inevitable, even when you are able to make use of these new (digital) technologies and media to process, store and present oral histories. That is also why I really liked your blogpost title.

    However, I do think it is pitiful that you did not bring in some other perspectives on this question and the new possibilities for doing oral history and link them to your blogpost. Could you find any recent, ongoing debates on these issues?

  2. I think another aspect that people should be aware of is the selection criteria of such memory scapes. It’s not only the question wether an account is trustworthy, but also why these ones were selected. In the dockers walking tour (http://www.memoryscape.org.uk/Dockers.htm) the websites states that these stories were selected from a ‘unique collection of 200 interviews gathered when the docks fell into disuse’. On what grounds were these stories selected? It’s a good thing that in projects like the Montreal life stories the interviewees can are included in the selection process, but have also they made this proces transparent for the viewers of the project?

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