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.

Oral History Metadata Synchronizer

The University of Kentucky created an Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) in order for users to add metadata to oral histories.  It has created multiple tutorials and guides to make using the site more user friendly.  It allows the user to not only add metadata, but also to add transcripts and tags.  Audio and video can be used in the OHMS system.  It is fairly easy to use, and any issues are easily solved by using the tutorials and guides.

Personally, as a not-so-technologically-minded-person, it was a fairly simple site to use.  I did have some trouble with my original choice for an oral history, a YouTube video, when it would not load the video.  I simply chose to move on to an audio clip from the Library of Congress instead of fighting the system.  I’m sure if I took more time to figure out the problem, it would be fixable.  Once I uploaded the clip and added the metadata, I simply needed to add the transcript and tags.  It was a quick and easy process, with minimal headaches involved – always a plus for me!

I really enjoyed listening to Maggie Schockley talk about the love her mother had for her family, and how she made quilts for them every Christmas.  (Johnson, Geraldine Niva, Maggie Schockley, and Maggie Schockley. “My mother made thousands of quilts.”. Hillsville, Virginia, 1978. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/qlt000152. (Accessed March 30, 2016.))  It reminded me of the passion for quilting in my family, with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmothers.

The abilities of this software to add the metadata and transcript right to the audio allows anybody working with oral histories to quickly and seamlessly catalog their data.  I can see quite a positive result for projects like that.  I may even use OHMS when it comes to my own project and the few oral histories I have available.