Oral History: Using Voice as Evidence in the Digital Age

In the beginning…

International Oral History and Technology

This project began as an attempt to answer the question of whether digital tools could or could not be used to conduct international oral history interviews to replace historians having to travel in order to conduct interviews in person.  Instead, this project evolved into an exploration of how digital tools have changed the products of the research in the field of oral history.

Oral historians, unlike many traditional historians, have been quick to adapt to changes in technology and have adopted new technologies in the conducting of interviews.  Newer technologies have generally made the process of conducting interviews much simpler; therefore, like Microsoft Word or Zotero for the traditional historian, these tools are rapidly embraced by oral historians.  So the use of paper and pen evolved to the use of a tape recorder, which evolved to the use of the video camera, which evolved to the use of digital recorders, and so on.

Issues with Newer Technologies and Collection

With this in mind, it would not be too radical to assume that Skype, FaceTime, and other similar video conferencing tools would be widely accepted as useful tools in conducting oral history interviews, especially those abroad.  The issues with the use of Skype are, however, obvious.  Unlike adapting to the use of different recording technologies in an in-person interview, Skype removes the face-to-face contact with the interviewee.  This could easily lead to interviewees feeling uncomfortable or detached from the interviewer.  Some case studies have shown that younger interviewees are very comfortable with the use of Skype and have even been less reserved in digital interviews.  But, these same younger interviewees tend to also be more distracted during the interview and resort to multi-tasking.  In a couple instances, the interviewer even heard the sounds of a video game being played by the interviewee while the interview was taking place.

Using video conferencing tools to conduct oral history interviews also eliminates the possibility to interview the populations without access to the internet or a computer.  Relying solely on Skype and other digital conferencing tools for interviews also rules out the opportunity to meet interviewees by chance.  The pros and cons of using digital tools such as Skype in oral history interviews shows the limitations of the use of technology in the practice, although it would help greatly with travel expenditures.  As a last resort, it is not the worst practice to use Skype in conducting an interview necessary for research.  But while the use of Skype is not the worst practice, it is also not the best practice and should not be the first option when planning an oral history project.

Using Digital Tools to Create a Product

While the pros and cons of using newer digital tools in the process of conducting oral history interviews seems obvious, the more surprising finding in my research was the discovery that the use of digital tools in the oral history field is completely changing the way in which oral history projects are presented to the public.  In the past, after an interview was conducted it was only the transcription of that interview that was used in the final product that was provided to the public.  With this method of dissemination, the most important aspects of the interview, the voice of the interviewee, the connection between the interviewer and the subject, and those intangible aspects of the interview were lost.  The incorporation of digital tools into the final product of oral history projects is allowing the public to experience oral history as never before.  While digital tools may be falling short of improving the way in which oral histories are conducted internationally, the oral history field is greatly benefiting from using digital tools in its products and reaching an international audience.

Exploring Oral Histories in the Digital Age

In order to explore the various ways in which new media is being used to present oral histories to the public, I have mapped out some of the most innovative oral history projects using StoryMap.  I think the use of the map is useful tool in the presentation of this information as it reminds us of the importance of the role of place throughout the presentation.

Please visit my StoryMap, “Oral History in the Digital Age,” for examples of how digital tools are enhancing the public’s experience with oral history.

Conclusion

The use of video conferencing tools in conducting international oral history interviews is not frowned upon by the field, but it should not be a first resort in oral history research.  While it may save the researcher time and money by avoiding travel, the most important interviews are those that most likely will not manage to be recorded using Skype, FaceTime, and other digital tools.  Using these tools can be equated to conducting an interview over the telephone and I doubt that anyone would prefer doing that over in-person interviews in the actual country of research.  Despite the lack of progress in the convenience of conducting oral history interviews, exciting things are happening in the Oral History field as a result of digital technology being used in Oral History projects.  Digital tools in the final product of Oral History research is advancing the field by presenting the primary source interviews as the star of the Oral History projects.  In this increasingly Digital Age, technology is being utilized to ensure that Oral History reaches the public in innovative and engaging ways.