I presented a poster at the launch of DARIAH Ireland on May 18th in Maynooth. The poster features a BRIGHT rainbow colour-scheme inspired by the Yes campaign in the Marriage Equality referendum. Here’s how it looks in not so big…..
In this post, I’d like to develop some of the themes in the poster (it has a very small word count). To begin at the beginning:
1. About Cork Folklore Project, background and method
I work with the Cork Folklore Project (CFP) an oral history archive that is dedicated to collecting stories of everyday life in Cork city & county. The CFP operates as a collaboration between university and local community groups. Desplanques (2015, 20) describes the the CFP as having a “tripartite academic, local community and governmental structure.”
In many ways CFP operates within the tradition of radical ethnography, concentrating on stories of everyday lives and ordinary people. CFP has been collecting everyday stories of life in Cork city since 1996. It now acts as an archive but also a collecting centre, with a policy of continuing to collect new oral histories on an ongoing basis.
The method used to collect oral histories is an open, ethnographic approach, using semi-structured interviews. People tell their stories in their own words to create a collection of the authentic voices of Cork.
2. New digital projects
I am working with CFP to build some new digital projects. One of the old digital projects is the Cork Memory Map. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, there have been a number of different technical issues with this project and we are having difficulties adding new material to the map. I am in the process of putting a new pilot project together, one that will perhaps eventually replace the Memory Map. At the moment, this work is in trial and under construction, but it is a project that is a new oral history map that presents stories about the old main streets of Cork. This new project comprises an interactive online map, sound excerpts from the CFP interview archive, photographs & texts from interview transcripts. I used Omeka, Neatline and associated themes and plugins to build this.
3. Re-contextualising oral history
Oral history interviews tend to produce quite long interview recordings. In terms of presenting these online, this creates two main dilemmas for the oral historian:
- Ethical issues – the interview format is quite intimate and sometimes people tell stories that are not necessarily suitable for widespread broadcast, although they would be considered suitable to be held in an archive. This means that we have to be very selective about the kinds of material that we put online.
- Long format of recording – this limits the audience (probably to oral and local historians), the web is notorious for promoting scanning, rather than an extended attention span. Our solution is to use excerpts (standalone stories taken from longer oral histories) in digital projects.
However, using excerpts disrupts narratives. Telling life stories for a recording or an interviewer is now seen as a performance (within a very general definition – including almost any act of self-representation). Oral histories are told by a narrator, for an audience. Because of this context is important. Lynn Abrams (oral historian) says that we should “acknowledge that any narrative cannot be separated from its form” (Abrams 2010, 130). But in digital projects we do separate the narrative from its form and create new narrative forms. We do this by using excerpts, and by creating new multi-media narratives online. My justifications for cutting up old narratives (the oral histories) & creating new ones (digital projects) include engagement & preservation.
We create digital projects to Engage with new audiences. By presenting excerpts from interviews in new ways we try to reach a different community of users.
Engagement (and outreach) is now seen as a critical aspect of digital preservation:
Promotional activities are becoming an increasingly important aspect of the business of cultural institutions in general. In terms of digital preservation, there are compelling reasons to engage in an active awareness-raising campaign and programme of outreach activities (http://www.dpconline.org/advice/preservationhandbook/institutional-strategies/outreach)
We use digital methods to try to make our archive more active. This draws on Aleida Assman’s (2008) theories about cultural working memory, & the dynamic nature of canon & archive. To expand this further: Aleida Assman (2008) says that our cultural memory is made up of “canon” on the one hand, and “archive” on the other. Canon is seen as the cultural working memory – items in canon, endure, they are selected and active. This contrasts with archive, which is seen as passive. But the boundary between canon and archive is dynamic: active cultural memory may recede (be forgotten about) and become passive. On the other hand, the material in a historical archive can be accessed, reinterpreted, framed in a new context that gives it more active meaning. So the archive is passive but it holds the potential to become active through (re)interpretation, (re)negotiation and new meaning-making.
This is a good reason to mine the archive, to re-contextualise archival material, reinterpret it, and to create more active meaning.
5. Preservation and organisational structure
Innovative digital practice makes it easier for us to demonstrate the value of our work & our archive to others. By showing “value” we help to maintain & sustain support for our organisation. Sustaining the Cork Folklore Project means that we can continue to collect, curate & preserve oral histories for the future. This notion of value is one that I want to explore in depth in the coming months.
Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.
Assman, A. (2008). “Canon and Archive”, pp. 97–107 in Erll, A., Nünning, A., & Young, S. B. Cultural memory studies. New York: Walter de Gruyter.
Desplanques, M. (2015). “Reflections on the Poetics of Fieldwork in a Living Archive”, Béascna 9, 20-43.