Oral History: Place in Public History

Oral tradition is the foundation for tracking history.  When people started coming together and sharing their stories, that was the beginning of oral tradition.  We can see the effects of oral tradition throughout history, but most notably with the sharing of religions and similarities between different oral versions, before writing became common.  Fast forward a few thousand years and we have rich histories, both oral and written.  Oral history still has a very strong place in public history.  Why do you think children (and even adults) still beg their parents or grandparents to tell them stories?  Because the stories are part of the human experience.  The same remains true for maintaining and preserving oral histories.

Digital technologies have enabled oral history to move from the cassette tape recordings of yesteryear to digital files that can be accessed from anywhere today.  Thanks to technology, we are able to share, edit, and catalog audio and video files that contain precious historical narratives.  Questions that arise with oral history projects include where to host, how to catalog, important terms, usability, design, cost, etc.  All of these questions can also be asked of an in-person archive as well.  Open source software has enabled many institutions to implement digital archives of oral histories for free.  This comes with its own necessities of IT and programming support, as well as strong documentation.  Problems that may arise are usability issues for the less-technologically-inclined individuals, but that could arise from any digital site.  As technologies keep improving, the future may hold automatic speech recognition and artificial intelligence, but for the time being, the current status of digital oral history is in a pretty good state.

As for my own history project, and how looking at digital oral histories has impacted it, I think I will try to include the interviews that I had compiled.  Up until this point, I wasn’t sure how I would host them and include metadata, but using OHMS was simple and fairly user-friendly.  I will test an interview with the software and see if I want to continue with further oral histories.  This would be incredibly helpful for contributors to my project, because they simply could include voice recordings of their own experiences within the project.

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