Oral History in Public History

Last week I learned about new technologies in oral history. Having never used oral history in my own research, I also learned much about how historians use oral histories. Before starting the readings, I had wondered what the difference was between an interview and an oral history interview. Although I have no doubt that definitions are contested within the field, it seems that oral history interviews are structured by the interviewer to solicited particular historic information. In turn, the interviewee is recognized as an active party in the construction of the interview. In contrast, an interview as might appear on the nightly news is structured to get sound bites and interesting anecdotes.  Again, I’m sure there’s much more to an oral history interview than I picked out of the material written for people already familiar with the field, but these observations stood out to me.

My experience annotating an oral history interview with OHMS demonstrated the benefit new technology has had on oral history. Most of my observations have already been articulated by Doug Boyd. I would add that annotating makes the work of oral history accessible to non-specialists. I annotated a pre-existing oral history for my assignment. I felt, as someone who has had no training in the field, that this was the best option for me. I am glad I chose to do this because as I annotated I learned what sort of information particular questions might elicit (the interviewee made reference to the questions).

Although the OHMS annotation interface does make an interview searchable in much less time than transcribing, I can certainly see that the close listening transcribing requires is mitigated in an annotation exercise. A transcriber picks up on word choice, dialect, and syntax much more readily than someone focusing just on content. Additionally, annotation biases the search to the topics the annotator is interested in and familiar with. In cases where the annotator is a different person from both the interviewer and interviewee, the subjects headings might be different than those the interview intended. Also, I don’t have the familiarity of specific terms that the interviewer did. For example, the nun described her habit and referred to a particular cap. She used a kind of slang term for it. People researching changes in habits would probably find this information useful, but I didn’t know the formal name of the article she discussed. On the other hand, OHMS allows for hyperlinking, so I could have linked that section to a diagram of the Sisters of Providence’s habit.

As for the place of oral history in public history, I can certainly see that oral history could be an important part of a robust project.  In the same way that public history should have an open dialog between curators and the public they are serving, oral history quite literally centers around this dialog. The stories people tell in an interview could easily become the entry point of the public’s voice. I think a potential hazard of public history projects is to limit the public’s agency to a presentation of oral histories.

In my project, I see a potential for oral history. I already have a section for visitors to type up their baptism experiences. Audio or video files could certainly strengthen that section. I shy away from that approach, however, because of my topic. When people tell baptism stories, especially Evangelical Christians, they tell it as a witness to Christ. Although those voices are certainly important to understanding modern, and past, baptismal practices, I fear that the website might become a platform for evangelization. For this reason, I have chosen to restrict the person histories to written stories, selected and curated by me.  If I had more training in the collection and use of oral history interviews, I would likely be more open to using them. This may be a point of collaboration and expansion in the future, but to complete the project by the deadline, I think I will stick to my plan.

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