Search, Explore, Connect: Disseminating Oral History in the Digital Age
by Doug Boyd
I cannot imagine designing an oral history project for the purpose of collecting narratives that will be forever ignored and hidden from the public in obscurity. We work hard to interview narrators, document communities, and preserve oral histories because we want individual stories to, eventually, connect to the historical record and contribute to a larger social, cultural, and human understanding. Not all projects are designed for immediate and widespread distribution; some are kept restricted for lifetimes. However, the hope is that recorded oral history interviews will, eventually, resonate and connect with future researchers.
The digital age has greatly enhanced opportunities and possibilities for a single oral history interview or project to be globally distributed and have a major impact. The most revolutionary aspect of the digital revolution, from an oral history perspective, has been the recent eruption of possibilities for accessing, publishing, and ultimately disseminating oral histories in new, creative, and innovative ways. Whether you are archiving or providing access to your project in a digital repository, building an interactive community Web site, creating a podcast series, constructing an audio or video documentary, authoring an e-publication, building a mobile app, constructing a physical or a digital exhibit, or framing your oral histories in a digital project environment, disseminating your oral history project in the digital domain creates unlimited possibilities for a single interview or project to have a major impact on the historical record.
When designing an oral history project, consider your outcome. Assuming there are no restrictions on the content you collect, consider how you want to present your oral history project. Ideally, you are arriving at the “Disseminating” section of the Oral History in the Digital Age project prior to conducting your oral history project. If this is the case, you can now design a project specifically shaped for new and exciting forms of public use. If you are coming to this section after you have already conducted interviews, fear not; the possibilities for disseminating your project are still incredible.
However excited you are about the digital dissemination of your oral history project, always consider, when possible, working with a professional archive that has proven experience in curating oral history interviews. I have seen numerous oral history projects designed specifically for “archiving” interviews on a Web site. A Web site does not necessarily equate to an archive. As Web site technologies evolve and your personal priorities shift, maintaining a Web site for your, once well-intentioned community project may not be your top priority in five years. Explore all kinds of exciting possibilities for digitally presenting your project, but remember, the digital product should not constitute the entirety of the project. Technologies and priorities will change. Construct your project with a framework and infrastructure that can adjust and adapt to these inevitable future changes. If your interviews are archived, your interviews and projects could be reused and reinterpreted in the future in innovative and creative ways that you cannot imagine. Also, remember that oral history interviews create a relationship and that agreements about use should be honored. Informed consent takes on a new connotation when considering global distribution, and serious privacy concerns arise.
Many archives deploy the repository approach to providing access to their online collections which makes full interviews accessible and searchable, via a content management system (CMS) such as CONTENTdm. No matter what the topic may be of an interview or project, there can be a great deal of personal information revealed raising powerful privacy concerns when providing online access to full interviews. Having interview text indexed by Google, discoverable and accessible can come at a great cost to your interviewee’s personal privacy. Archived interviews that contain privacy risks should be appropriately restricted (see the essay Major Legal Challenges Facing Oral History In The Digital Age by John Neuenschwander). The exhibit approach can be an excellent option for providing limited and curated access to a widespread, online audience. Typically, this curated approach focuses on the presentation of select excerpts from the interviews or projects. Platforms such as Omeka or WordPress can provide meaningful organized excerpts which amplify voices in a careful and intentional way. Through the construction of online digital exhibits a curator can control access to online interviews, create a meaningful online experience for the user, and still minimize privacy concerns in the short term.
You may think that a Web site representing a small and specific oral history project may not have widespread appeal. However, Google and other search engines are ensuring that your project will be accessed all over the world.
Researchers can now obtain in seconds what once took weeks to discern in an analog realm. Complex systems once only accessible to institutions are now accessible, easy to use, and are being given away for free. New tools are being created on an ongoing basis to provide pinpoint accuracy in users’ ability to search, explore, and– ultimately– connect with oral histories online. If your intention for embarking on an oral history project is to document life stories and to use digital tools to connect these individual stories to the historical record, you now have an incredible amount of power. Use this power for good.
Citation for Article
Boyd, D. A. (2012). Search, Explore, Connect: Disseminating Oral History in the Digital Age. 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/search-explore-connect/.
Boyd, Douglas A. “Search, Explore, Connect: Disseminating Oral History in the Digital Age,” 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/search-explore-connect/
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.