“Oral History: How do you make it accessible through new technologies?”

As promised – and after a bit of a wait here is my presentation from the HAM ED peer learning circle on New Technologies + Social Relevance

Let me ask you a question – did you have a glass of water today? Did you think about the technology behind that glass of water? What made it safe for you to drink? How is it that by simply turning on a tap you unlike millions of people around the world have access to clean water? When most of us turn on the tap we seldom stop to consider where the water comes from, we take for granted that it will be there, and it will be clean and safe for us to drink.

The Project

This summer I will be working on an oral history project for the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology. Investigating the history behind that glass of water you had.

My task is to gather the oral histories of the people who have worked at the Hamilton waterworks.

The oral interviews I gather will be analyzed for common themes and narratives. I will then use my analysis to identify artifacts, photographs and textual documents that compliment these histories. The oral interviews will be gathered in two formats through a multi stage process involving both audio and video data. The use of digital media will eventually allow the data to be accessed through the Internet creating a valuable resource for the public.

As the 150th anniversary of the Hamilton waterworks approaches this project will help to create renewed interest and pride in local history, and will serve as the building block for future projects including an exhibit and publication. I also hope that it will give people a greater appreciation of a resource that we as Canadians have often taken for granted.

So, gathering and disseminating these oral histories is my main goal, but secondary to that I would like to be able to show people what goes into the making of history, I feel that it is important for communities to understand and be part of how their histories are shaped. Fortunately this to can also be accomplished through the use of new technologies, my work will be followed by the blog “a drop of history” I hope to create an on line environment where people can comment on my research adding their own stories or asking new questions, thereby allowing the community to help shape the history that I am developing.

I would like to take a moment now to talk about why it is important to present sound recordings of oral histories.

The Importance of Hearing Oral History

In the past oral histories have often been done a great disservice by researchers. In his article the Peculiarities of Oral History Alessandro Portelli comments that “Scholars are willing to admit that the actual document is the recorded tape, but almost all go on to work on the transcripts and it is only the transcripts that are published.” Although this article was published in 1981 it addresses some of the same issues we are encountering today. We have been slow to change, many digital history projects still use only the transcripts of interviews, but we have the technology to provide the sound records and it is important to do so.

Anyone who has ever conducted an oral interview understands the frustration of trying to capture the rich structure of storytelling on paper. There is no doubt that some of the the most important information is lost along the way, pauses can indicate many things, however without the context of the narrator’s voice it is difficult to tell if the interviewee is gathering their thoughts or avoiding a difficult subject. Reading a transcript does little to acknowledge the humor, or sadness in the voice of an interviewee. These audio cues provide meaning and context for narratives, they also make the history alive, it is one thing to read history but to hear it told by someone who was there creates an intimate connection to that story.

Finally it is important to acknowledge the role we play in the dissemination of this history – how do our transcriptions affect the narrative, are they truly capturing the spirit of the interview, what disservice are we doing to our audience as well as our subjects?

So theories and projects aside how do we dive into the digital world and harness it’s power to enhance our oral histories? Well there is no one answer to that and I am by no means a computer expert but here is what I have learned in preparing for my own project.

The Technology

Making Files

One of the first steps in research that relies on oral history is creating recordings, there are many different types of digital recorders available on the market, all have different features, but the best for digital projects are those that can record in MP3 format. MP3s are high quality and universally compatible.

Once you have made the recording some editing may be necessary it is always a good idea at this stage to create a master recording, which should remain unedited. All new recording can be developed from the master file.

To edit your recordings you need editing software,I would suggest Audacity as it is a well known open source programing that is basic enough to be user friendly and is compatible with both MacOS and Windows.

What Platform Will You Use?

The next step in the process is choosing a web platform which will allow your recording to be accessed on-line. It is important to decide how much programing you want to do or learn and if you want to spend money on developing your platform. blogs and wikis are free and require little programing knowledge they also have the added benefit of being part of pre-established networks which can create extra traffic to your site. If you do have a good knowledge of programing both can be edited to create a unique design and style. Of course many museums already have existing websites, if this is the case you can enhance your site by creating digital oral exhibits or adding sound to existing exhibits.

All three platforms may require you to invest in an on-line hosting service, however there are free options available for this such as You Tube and Google video. Finally if you have a website you should make sure your provider can support the type and amount of media you want to have.

Streaming vs Download

The next step is deciding how you want people to access your information will you provide streaming or downloading? Depending on your preference there are a few different options for your site.

Pod casts which can be video or audio are already a popular method used by museums to create guided tours and on-line lecture series. Pod cast can use both streaming and downloading. If user subscribes to your podcast it will be downloaded regularly by their media player, many websites also provide users with the option of streaming the podcast media without downloading it.

The majority of Pod casts use RSS feeds allowing users to subscribe to their cast and receive regular updates without having to visit your site. Setting up an RSS feed does require some programing in HTML if you are using it on a website, most blog sites will guide you through the process without requiring you to do any programing.

As was previously mentioned You Tube and Google videos are another option for including oral histories on your chosen web platform. You Tube and Google videos can be embedded into most websites and blogs, and this is a good method for those with little knowledge of programing as most blog providers guide you through the process. With the video option you can also add photos you your recording creating a slide show of sorts to accompany the oral history. For those concerned about copyright You Tube and Google video are good options as neither require you to give up your copyright, however be warned that you are responsible for monitoring the use of your video and neither site accepts any responsibility if your copyright is infringed.

A third popular option for those who have more time to learn some basic HTML programing is a stand alone media player usually this consists of a window to display video or just a control bar for audio, these include the usual set of play stop and pause buttons. There are many open source customizable media players available and most organizations provide you with the correct HTML code to install their player. If you want to go with a widely recognized media player you can use widows media player, real player or quick time, all three play MP3 format, and the plug-ins are free for your visitors to download, however all three also cost you, the producer money.

Getting Noticed

Once you’ve gone through all the hard work of creating your website or blog and making your research accessible it is a good idea to promote your site, this can be done through traditional methods such as news letters or posters. However some options that are both free and sure to attract a wide audience include: free directories for blogs and podcasts; adding your podcast to itunes; and links with other sites which creates more traffic and higher Google rating.

Copyright and the Creative Commons

A final issue that should be addressed in presenting oral history on-line is copyright. In any oral history research it is good practice to inform your interviewee of the ways in which their information will be used. However when it comes to copyright things become a bit complicated.

Canadian Copyright protects the rights of the maker of sound recordings under section 18. It defines the maker of a sound recording under section 2 as “the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the first fixation of the sounds are undertaken” This means that copyright either belongs to the researcher or the institution that hired the researcher depending on the type of agreement that they have.

Of course on the Internet it is difficult to control how your work is used, and I believe, as do many digital history scholars that copyright when followed too strictly can do more harm than good, especially in the case of research materials. Although the researcher or institution may wish to retain ownership of their work, knowledge is best used when shared as widely as possible. Fortunately the development of the Creative Commons License has allowed researchers and institutions to license their work in new ways, requiring users to give the researcher or institutions credit for their work and at the same time defining the acceptable uses of this work. In any case it is always good to include some sort of disclaimer for your users asking them to reference you when using any part of your work.


I realize this is a lot of information to present in 15 minutes but it is important to ensure that oral histories are accessible as they were originally recorded and not solely through transcriptions. The emergence of new technologies has provided a wealth of options for this.

I must reiterate I am no more a computer expert than any of you. I should confess that 8 months ago I hated computers and I was absolutely sure that I could never grasp any of the concepts I have spoken about to you today. However I have come to appreciate all that they can do for those of us working in heritage and culture.

I firmly believe that researchers have an obligation to make their research accessible to the members of the communities they are working with. I also believe that in the case of oral history digital technologies provide one of the best means for doing this.


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