Oral History, Folklore, and Vernacular Architecture

Case Study: Oral History, Folklore, and Vernacular Architecture

by Janet C. Gilmore and Troy Reeves

This document arose from discussions, both in-person and electronic, between Gilmore and Troy Reeves. Reeves, who has led oral history activities at UW-Madison since 2007 and has served as a contributor to the OHDA grant, asked her to respond to a few questions, which are included. She worked with Reeves to focus the responses presented here to the audio or video aspects of vernacular architecture (VA).

What is Vernacular Architecture?

Vernacular architecture (VA) is a distinctive type of architecture as well as a distinctive paradigm for studying architecture. As in folk architecture, vernacular architecture generally refers to most buildings, built environments, and landscapes—tangible aspects of cultural heritage—that evolve organically from everyday human practices. As a paradigm, vernacular architecture embraces almost all human buildings and built environments as worthy of scrutiny, finding folk and vernacular practices evident even in what we might consider non-vernacular buildings and environments. Most specialists are trained as historians and architectural historians, although cultural geographers, landscape historians, and folklorists are influentially involved in the field.

Besides focusing historical research methods on studying any building, space, landscape, or -in maritime contexts- boats and ships, vernacular architecture also emphasizes a kind of historical archeological inquiry that we might call “reading the building,” which is comparable to “reading the landscape” or “reading an object.” An important method for reading a building involves careful observation and documentation through examination of its structural components and delineation (measurement and preparation of scaled drawings), as well as photography, field documentation through ethnographic interviews and oral histories, and appraisal of the building’s historical and contemporary contexts, both functional and structural. This work is coupled with archival research in a distinctive range of primary records- particularly property and land records- and altogether supports the field’s involvement in historic preservation and museum curation.

Vernacular architecture studies thus require a distinctive mixture of research methodologies that are undergoing change as digital technology revolutionizes field methods, field equipment, the production and stewardship of documentation, preservation of historic buildings and landscapes, and access to library and archival resources. Each one of these research areas requires familiarity with specialized research methods, tools, formats, access, and degrees of accuracy that are currently challenged by newer digital methods, technologies, and capabilities.

What current major issues in vernacular architecture involve the move from analog to digital?

One of the biggest issues in VA is the shift to digital technologies in its primary documentary technique: building measurement and drawing. While this methodology falls outside the focus on audio and audio/video changes in the digital age, a brief discussion of the impact of digital software and equipment may be useful comparatively. Emerging design and drawing software are poised to displace the deliberate, time-honored hand techniques of establishing baselines, measuring and re-measuring, as well as drawing in the field with integral field notes. Especially for students learning these methodologies, the older techniques emphasize the development of building observation and analysis, patience and teamwork, as well as an understanding of simple measurement tools and techniques on which newer digital equipment is based. Like the software, newer digital measurement equipment may promise greater accuracy and save time, but this often comes at the expense of inculcating important understandings. My experience testing cheaper varieties of laser equipment that casts more exact baselines and measures distances is that the equipment often requires an upward learning curve to work properly and plenty of time-consuming attention that takes away from more fundamental skill teaching. Less expensive models can introduce as much inaccuracy in need of re-checking and calibration as hand techniques. In other words, the newer digital equipment and software can clutter fundamental teaching functions that typically occur in short-term field settings.

These circumstances differ for public historians or folklorists working as independent contractors or specialized professionals, especially in regard to HABS/HAER/HALS production standards. This work often requires production quality and work efficiency that depend on high-quality, time-saving equipment, and the hiring organization’s resources to store, preserve, and provide access to the records and reports produced. In order to command work and top wages, professionals involved chiefly in documentation through measurement, scale drawings, and photography of buildings, will acquire expensive, state-of-the-art digital photographic and laser measuring equipment and work with sophisticated photogrammetric and computer-aided design software.

What changes, if any, have occurred in collecting VA audio or a/v material?

Photography remains a key complement to building measurement and drawing, while sound recording remains a secondary documentary technique chiefly used in formal interviews. Because many buildings outlast builders, personal testimony about buildings is often seen primarily as a way of obtaining limited cultural context and historic depth, unless original builders and users are still alive.

Most VA specialists have adopted digital cameras and sound recorders, which they can use similarly to analog versions. This new equipment demands an upward learning curve regarding features and adjustments, not unlike those they first experienced when learning to record or photograph with analog. The equipment looks similar to the analog, and sound recording still relies on excellent microphone use.

Digital formats for images and sound have made some aspects of working with these formats easier and more convenient, such as ease of reproduction, transcription, and editing. Digital imagery makes it easier to judge the quality of a shot immediately, and digital software allows for easier adjustments in lighting, photo composition, and sizing. Because of embedded metadata per image, it is also potentially easier to adjust digital images that correct for typical lens distortions. This step is especially important for refining the accuracy of historic records. Digital photography of sources in archival settings, especially Sanborn maps, allows for the use of images as overlays (as in GIS) and base maps for placing individual buildings in context.

An ongoing challenge in working with students is their ready access to a variety of the latest personal devices that record images, video, and sound. While a few have acquired the highest quality cameras, most have not. Most students prefer to use what they have, including cheaper point-and-shoot digital cameras, cell phones, and iPods. Only the rare student shows any interest in using “retro” analog equipment (which I always make available). While students can be trained and required to learn how to use the more sophisticated equipment available and produce recordings in recommended analog or digital formats, most students like the easier use and unobtrusiveness of their own audio/visual equipment. The recording quality through mini-microphones, in the case of iPods, for example, is becoming so sophisticated that the results are (almost) justifiable. Professors can require students to record in specific formats on this wide range of equipment, but then they must stay one step ahead of the latest developments on many fronts, know a lot about a lot of ever-changing equipment, or rely on specialists. Often students are the best teachers in determining what they like and prefer to use, so there is a kind of back-and-forth learning model that emerges (unless professors require nothing but use of specific equipment).

Students enjoy the technique of simultaneously recording visual and audio while they follow people relating their experiences to specific locations in and out of buildings. They are less inclined to take individual photos while keeping a sound recorder playing to do this same kind of documentation—it also can allow a single individual to capture both dimensions at once, alone. This recording technique proves quite useful once researchers are no longer in the field, as videos can reveal more contextual information and capture some details that are hard to determine from other sources. Hopefully, as this digital format evolves, it will result in better quality images, sound, and modes of transfer and storage. Right now, video clips consume huge amounts of digital space, and finer types of videography require transfer from mini-DV tape, a time- and space-consuming process that necessitates transfer of only choicest segments. Besides, the media itself has a dismal storage life. The mode of documentation has interesting potential for audio/visual production, but some students may quickly post this material on YouTube, disregarding the spirit of consent forms that documented individuals may have signed. Thus again, professors need to make sure that they teach fieldwork ethics fully and with respect to some of the new formats and potential for quick distribution through social media.

What changes, if any, have occurred in curating/archiving VA audio or a/v material?

The continuing development of new digital equipment and software—including industry blindness towards records preservation and continuing access—are serious and almost invisible time-consuming problems in the stewardship of ethnographic documentation. Archivists have developed numerous storage standards for physical materials that can last for 500 years, if undisturbed by natural and political disasters. Meanwhile solutions for preserving shorter-term media formats, like video and sound recordings, remain elusive. Archivists fully engaged in preserving digital files and obtaining the finest documentation in the first place are constantly reviewing new equipment and software. They also work with others to devise preferred production and storage standards and inform non-specialists about the latest recommendations.

Unfortunately, this moving target requires massive amounts of time, expertise, cost, and exceptional communication skills. While there is hope for creation of best practices and standards, especially by federal agencies, these are also in progress and flux. Most small operations have limited budgets and grant funding resources to keep up with this ongoing, highly esoteric expense. Here at UW-Madison, we have been able to tap modest grant sources for over a decade to keep some semblance of archiving expertise and attract national consultants. But we have not been able to afford a full-time archivist to monitor digital repositories, update digital resources, and build new archival collections. Because of our public folklore outreach mission, we also continue to monitor the well-being of old ethnographic collections at regional non-profits, providing advice and limited services as possible, obtaining and inventorying orphaned collections when necessary, and transforming selected materials into online digital resources.

Through this process, it is becoming clearer that our small budgets best cover extremely part-time workers with skilled archiving training, many of whom have graduated from UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies. In addition, we have come to rely on university archival and digital preservation resources for hosting and maintaining digital sites as well as physical collections. To that extent, we generally coordinate our systems with theirs and contribute to localized standards of practice, while our hired part-timers do the esoteric mark-up work and keep communications active.

Meanwhile, we encounter a number of ongoing challenges with archiving class-produced ethnographic collections, including the recently-produced VA ones. In one scenario, faculty worked with university digital specialists to build a publicly accessible digital folklore archive of student materials. The IRB-approved forms and process for this platform are introduced in class and required for completion of coursework. The university’s digital center maintains and backs up the site. This platform still has some disagreeable quirks that, in part, result from customizing existing digital center models, following IRB requirements, and orienting the archives to folklore classes.

Another scenario involves more limited in-house access, local servers, IT administrators, and readier access to media in its original context. Aspects of the IRB process are incorporated less formally in class, and ideally students complete and organize materials according to submission guidelines currently in progress. This process has involved establishing consistent file organization and file-naming protocols, some orchestrated after the fact at great expense of time and resources. The corpus must be backed up on departmental servers and external hard drives, and a master set needs to be moved to permanent university digital archival storage. While students, faculty, and others work with these materials, it is too easy for records to proliferate in differing combinations, threatening control of access, copyright, and proper attribution. These collections also have hard-copy components that need to be archived and, in many cases, printed copies of field materials- VA field notes, drawings, field reports, and metadata logs- are useful to keep. These also require hard-copy archiving.

Overlying these two areas of digital and analog archiving are ongoing needs to transfer older digital formats into newer ones, and to convert older analog materials into digital formats—providing new archival architecture, storage, preservation, and access for them.

What changes, if any, have occurred in disseminating/publishing VA audio or a/v material?

Digital media now make it easier for individuals and non-specialists to produce syntheses of clips from all formats in a range of media productions that can gain public exposure. Again, however, software often requires uphill learning curves, varies by ease of transformation into other formats, and requires regular upgrading.

In VA and public folklore, the digital revolution now makes possible the online publication and potentially global distribution of drawings, photography, and- importantly- a surfeit of “gray literature.” This gray literature includes substantial documentary reports submitted to various institutions and agencies that formerly languished in archives and took weeks, if not months, to obtain. Good examples include the growing body of Historic American Landscape Survey reports and National Register of Historic Places nominations.

New digital publication mechanisms also enable the reproduction of past ephemeral productions such as exhibit catalogs, photo-text exhibits, and even exhibits containing artifacts. This reproduction can continue, hopefully, into perpetuity- although obviously ongoing transfer into new digital formats requires further effort, cost, and priorities. These online versions of past work can also operate as multi-media productions synthesizing sound and video clips along with static images and text. Intriguing new exhibit applications can even project multi-media virtual spaces to explore experientially. Seductive personal devices like iPods and iPads are also already being tapped to develop interactive game-like applications that integrate the host of digital media into driving and walking tours, exhibition embellishments, and K-12 educational exercises.

Citation for Article


Gilmore, J.C., & Reeves, T. (2012). Case study: oral history, folklore, and vernacular architecture. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/oral-history-folklore-and-vernacular-architecture/.


Gilmore, Janet C. and Troy Reeves. “Case Study: Oral History, Folklore, and Vernacular Architecture,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/oral-history-folklore-and-vernacular-architecture/

This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation. 

Permanent link to this article: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/oral-history-folklore-and-vernacular-architecture/

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