Oral history and public history go hand in hand. Telling and truly listening to stories is one of the most crucial parts of public participation in history, and the benefits last for generations. As I noted in an earlier blog, the women and men I interviewed about their memories of the last family member living in what is now an historic house would now be well over one hundred years old. However, the audio tapes of those interviews still exist and, hopefully, my transcriptions of them do, too. In my head, I can still hear one woman’s voice as she described that last residing family member: “She was a lady, a lady. They don’t make people like that anymore.” I remember the interviewee as quite a lady, as well. Fortunately, I’m not the only person who will ever hear that story, or many others that countless other people have heard in interviews.
As I noted in another post, I remember sitting at my first Microsoft computer with my head phones on, listening to and rewinding the tapes as I transcribed. Even having a computer seemed like magic to me then, as this new technology allowed me to type, listen, and then go back to retype. After ten hours of work for each one hour interview, at the end of two months I had a stack of printed out interviews. Sharing electronically was not an option. It wasn’t even possible, as far as I knew, to send a message from one computer to another. Now, with technology such as OHMS, we can gather interviews from sites like YouTube, transcribe them, and create metadata for them. Many of these interviews are searchable online, aiding people all over the work with their research.
Oral history interviews may play a very positive and crucial role as the large Baby Boomer generation ages. Sites such as Oral History in the Digital Age (OHDA), by IMLS and several collaborators, are valuable and accessible resources for people interested in the field. By learning from them and utilizing technology such as OHMS, family members can tell and easily share their stories for future generations. If some parts of these stories are viewed by family members as being valuable to a local historical agency or another community, just those parts of the interviews can be uploaded and transcribed in OHMS and then made available for sharing and searching. The technological advances in oral history may bring together generations of family members and, possibly, may reunite long-lost friends who see the interviews of people they knew long ago. As older people lose their memories and/or pass away, their families are all still able to hear those family stories from the people who lived them.
Many history based projects, both broad, such as The American Folklife Center, and more event/situation specific, such as Nevada Test Site Oral History Project and the Bracero History Archive realize the importance of preserving historical memory through oral histories. Very conscious of its audience, the Bracero History Archive also makes its site available in Spanish.
In addition to the benefits that new technology in oral history can bring to people and history based projects, new technology is allowing the Occupational Folklore Project to interview people about their work. The Occupational Folklore Project uses structured data forms, and LC Subject headings, facilitating sharing and analysis of an enormous amount of data.
While the structured interviews are useful in data collection, they do not allow for the interviewer’s gut instinct to go with an interviewee’s comments which may prove fruitful. In fact, it is a comment about a family member which I never could have anticipated that led me to fascinating findings which I then asked others about. In addition, if people are only asked specific questions, or types of questions, those are the ones they will reply to. When there is time and opportunity for other topics to come up, people may share unexpected stories which are more valuable than the questions that would have been asked. That’s what has happened to me on more than one occasion, and I encourage oral historians to practice inductive thinking during interviews as well as to ask the questions they need for forms.
Nancy Grace and Bertram Lyons’s piece about the design of the Occupational Folklore Project includes the section “Uploading Interview Files to the Cloud Site.” They provide detailed descriptions of the process, and it is evident that they have given much thought to their users. They are quite honest in presenting the downfalls of using the ADrive (63) as its slowness for some areas and for large files. In addition, they have been wise to keep preservation issues in mind. We all must remember that today’s best and newest technologies will someday go the way of the floppy disk and the computer which still holds my master’s thesis. As astounded by and grateful for Reclaim Hosting as I am, I do ponder what would happen if all of my work for my digital projects suddenly went “poof.”
Whenever I hear oral history interviews or watch an old film like the one of Herbert Hoover discussing Eisenhower’s strategies that I recently watched on BookTV, I am so grateful that these memories have been preserved. While I wish that I could sit down to interview the women who are in A Woman of the Century and then transcribe their comments, obviously, that is not possible. However, I’ve been thinking of how I could incorporate oral history into my project. At some point, it might be fun to interview the contributors about their participation in the project and then to use OHMS to share those interviews. Until that time, I hope that the contributors working on the project are learning and making memories that they will share as stories, now and in the future, with the important people in their lives.
Bertram, Lyons and Nancy Groce. “Designing a National Online Oral History Collecting Initiative.” Oral History Review 40.1 (2013): 54-66. Published March 26, 2013.
Boyd, Doug. “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free.” Oral History Review 40.1 (2013): 95-106. Published on March 20, 2013.