Creating an oral history of urban decline

This is a modified version of a talk that I gave at DRHA (Digital Research in the Humanities and Arts) at Dublin City University at the beginning of September. The topic of my talk was digital oral history and urban decline, concentrating specifically on a project that I am working on in collaboration with the Cork Folklore Project and as part of my IRC funded research in Digital Arts and Humanities at UCC. Slides are here. There is a pdf of the slides uploaded here (under Research presentations).

Background information about the Cork Folklore Project (CFP)

CFP is a public oral history/folklore archive. There are three main contributors who ensure the ongoing running of the CFP: a community enterprise scheme (Northside Community Enterprises, providing of office space, admin and much else besides), University College Cork (providing a research director, project manager and some editorial overview) and government employment scheme (providing researchers and other staff). The CFP has many different outputs, including an annual magazine, books, dvds, radio shows and websites. CFP has been in action since 1996, when it was set up to collect stories of everyday life in Cork city. The archive (which can be consulted by appointment) currently stands at around 550 interviews and collection is ongoing.  One of the most recent projects by the CFP has been the collection of oral histories about North and South Main Streets in Cork city.

North and South Main Streets – medieval origins of a city

Cork city developed on a collection of low-lying islands in the middle of the River Lee. North and South Main Streets were the main thoroughfares through the early city, leading from the bridges that connected the island city to the settlement on the banks of the river to the north and the south. The North and South Main Streets have been called the “historic spine” of Cork city.
The streets were the main thoroughfare of the city until 18th and 19th centuries when development (i.e. the construction of wider streets over small channels of the river) commenced. The new streets (e.g. GrandParade and Patrick’s Street) became the main shopping streets of the city.

Although the decline in the status of North and South Main Streets began a long time ago, the theme of decline recurred throughout the oral history interviews that were conducted by the CFP (in 2014 and 2015).

Why create a digital oral history of these streets?

The initial impetus to collect oral histories was part of a drive to collect memories of the streets as they were in the past (since it is clear that they are undergoing a period of transition). CFP were partnered with other researchers, and oral history was just one aspect of the project. The researchers within CFP took to this project with enthusiasm and were commited to creating a full oral history, representing life on the streets today, and in the past. Their aims were:
  • To preserve an archive of how the streets were
  • To get views from traders and residents about how the street is now

The commitment of the CFP researchers led me to choose this collection of oral histories as suitable starting point for my pilot digital oral history project that I am creating as part of my PhD. The aims of the digital project were:

  • To find a suitable replacement software for hosting the Cork Memory Map, a CFP digital project that is in need of upgrading
  • Objective -to create an online mapping project to disseminate excerpts from oral histories in a way that is accessible to casual users online.

Current status of the digital project

After some trial and error Omeka and Neatline were chosen as the base software for our new project. These are open source software projects developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Centre for History and New Media at George Mason University and the Scholars’ Lab at the
University of Virginia Library, respectively. One factor that guided our choice was a desire for compatibility (the CFP catalogue is being developed in Omeka and that leaves the possibility of integration in the future open).
The visual display for the new Memory Map is based on Neatline. Neatline was developed to allow humanities researchers to display interpretative, subjective stories, the anti-thesis of big data visualisation (Nowviskie et al. 2013, 692). The creators of Neatline contend that it is for building arguments as you use it, with the process of working with the digital tools seen as integral to the process of research and interpretation: “method is a path to argument”(Nowviskie et al. 2013, 693). This philosophy suits the CFP since we are constructing the digital oral history project while also involved in an ongoing collection of oral histories.

Responses to the new project

The idea of process as interpretation came out clearly when I tested the new site with CFP staff. They looked at the site, played with it, and gave feedback and opinion,making suggestions about changes and what they liked. These sessions were recorded. It emerged that the presentation format gave researchers who were already very familiar with the material a chance to see it in a different way. This is a good justification for the process of building the project -method as a path to interpretation (as the creators of Neatline suggest).
Some of the responses:
“Straight off though my general sense is that I really like it, it’s, like both of us have done a good number of the interviews that are here….and, seeing it this way I’m going, ‘God there’s loads of really good stuff there,’ so it’s obviously bringing out good stuff about the material cos it’s striking me even though I’m already familiar with it, so that seems like a strength.” (MS)
“And it’s such a different way of accessing it, like, d’youknow like when I was reading the excerpts this morning it was very much like in a book, which is nice as well but this just gives it a whole different perspective.” (DC)

More justification

Another justification is that disseminating extracts using a visual interface such as a map, is a way for an oral history group to publish/broadcast archival material in an engaging way. This is because one of oral history’s probelms (or “deep dark secret” according to Frisch), in that long form oral history interviews are not widely listened to online (or in
archives) because it takes a lot of concentration to listen to a full interview, they can’t be scanned in the way that a transcript can, and so on. Using place-based stories or anecdotes that emerge as excerpts from oral hsitories is a way to make the interviews more accessible to people.
In addition, engagement and outreach (promotional activities) online are now seen as an
important part of the work of cultural and heritage organisations:
“Promotional activities are becoming an increasingly important aspect of the business of cultural institutions in general. In terms of digital preservation, there are c
ompelling reasons to engage in an active awareness-raising campaign and programme of outreach activities” (http://www.dpconline.org/advice/preservationhandbook/institutional-strategies/outreach)

Are there wider benefits?

Beyond our own organisation, are there wider benefits that emerge from the creation of these digital oral history projects, is there a possibility of a more dynamic effect?
One of the things that became clear in the collection of oral histories from North and South Main Streets, with the recurring theme of decline, is that transformation is difficult for those who live through it. One of the ways that people cope with transformation is through narrating stories about the past –these help them to understand the present.
The danger is that this becomes nostalgic utopianism –Hoberman says that this can
stop people from looking forward (Hoberman 2001, 18–20). But it can also have a positive function –memories and stories of the past can become a “powerful imaginative construct” (Hoberman 2001, 39) that allows people to better understand and to begin to change their present for the better.

Looking forward

Hence, oral history sometimes used in the planners’ toolkit.
“Stories of battle and triumph from the inner city –stories from people struggling to revive  neighbourhoods abandoned by everyone else –allows
us to analyse and to better understand as well as to more effectively plan for the future. Not incidentally, they also help us to admire the power of the
human spirit” (Thomas 2004, 66).
We hope that this is the case for North and South Main Streets and that
both our oral history and the associated digital project can contribute
towards a positive imagining of the future for the medieval main streets of
Cork.

References

Frisch, M. (n.d.) Three Dimensions and More: Oral History Beyond the Paradoxes of Method Michael Frisch for The Handbook of Emergent Methods Sharlene Hesse-Bibe and Patricia Leavy, eds., Guilford Publications (pdf at http://www.randforce.com/Emergent_Draft.pdf, accessed 13 October 2015).

Hoberman, M. (2001). High Crimes and Fallen Factories: Nostalgic Utopianism in an Eclipsed New England Industrial Town. The Oral History Review, 17–40.

Nowviskie, B., McClure, D., Graham, W., Soroka, A., Boggs, J., & Rochester, E. (2013). Geo-Temporal Interpretation of Archival Collections with Neatline. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 28 (4), 692–699.
Thomas, J. M. (2004). Neighborhood Planning: Uses of Oral History. Journal of Planning History, 3 (1), 50–70.

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