Presenting oral history online – on the importance of choosing a visual interface

This is Part 1 of a 4 part series.

Oral history has embraced the digital age, with the primary document of oral history, the recorded interview, now almost exclusively born digital. However, oral history is more than just the practice of recording interviews, it is also the process of interpreting and disseminating that work.i

The primary “document” in a work of oral history is the recorded interview (and not a transcript).

“Meaning is carried and expressed in context and setting, in gesture, in tone, in body language, in pauses, in performed skills and movements.”ii

By its nature, oral history is a primarily aural medium, one that offers insights into the past that go beyond those of text and image.iii However, it has traditionally been difficult to access oral history collections, resulting in limited consultation of the primary sources of oral history (the methodically recorded and archived interviews).iv Practitioners have generally welcomed the potentials for dissemination that are offered by digital (and particularly online) media and have acknowledged the improvements digitization have made to the accessibility of oral history archives.v

Despite this, there are persistent issues associated with digital oral history collections that impinge on its use. Not least of these is the “cumbersome” nature of the raw materials of the oral history archive, the audio and video files.vi One problem of dissemination is the choice of interface or online display, with limited options beyond the traditional forms of archive and database. While many such displays are straightforward to use, it is unlikely that these formats serve a wide audience but instead cater to researchers who are already engaged with this type of content.

This suggests that the audience is primarily made up of users who would look at (or listen to) the material irrespective of presentation methods (for example, users would likely include oral or local history researchers who have already cultivated a deep engagement with the kind of information that is discussed in the interviews). This means that the research archive format of display, while usually an effective means of presenting information, is perhaps unlikely to be an impelling means of drawing a new audience to the material. We know that the design of the interface correlates to “the discovery and effectiveness of user experience”.vii

In a medium such as the web, which is highly dependent on text and visuals, it can be challenging to present and display audio content (such as oral history interviews) in a manner that will attract new audiences to the material.

For online cultural heritage projects that are actively seeking public engagement, it helps if their web-based content is visual, and consequently more appealing, than a simple database/archival interface. Many oral history projects now try to present interviews in association with images. In some cases this involves pictures of the interviewees (both recent or old), or of an activity that is described in the audio. For projects that are associated with a locality or a specific place, it is now quite common to use maps as a means of visualisation.

Part 2 continues here.

Notes

i Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge. (See page 2.)
ii Frisch, M. (2008). Three dimensions and more: oral history beyond the paradoxes of method. In S. N. Hesse- Biber & P. Leavy (Eds.), Handbook of Emergent Methods. Guildford Press. (See page 223). For an alternative view, see

Cohen, S. (2013). Shifting Questions: New Paradigms for Oral History in a Digital World. Oral History Review, 40(1), 154–167. doi:10.1093/ohr/oht036
iii Tebeau, M. (2013). Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era. Oral History Review, 40(1), 25–35. doi:10.1093/ohr/oht037 (See page 27.)
iv Frisch, M. (2008). Three dimensions and more: oral history beyond the paradoxes of method. In S. N. Hesse- Biber & P. Leavy (Eds.), Handbook of Emergent Methods. Guildford Press. (See page 223).
v For an example, see High, S. (2010). Telling Stories: A Reflection on Oral History and New Media. Oral History Society, 38(1). Retrieved from http://www.sciencessociales.uottawa.ca/crfpp/fra/documents/TellingStoriesdeStevenHigh.pdf
vi Boyd, D. (2013). OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free. Oral History Review, 40(1), 95–106. doi:10.1093/ohr/oht031 (See page 95.)
vii Boyd, D. (2013). OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free. Oral History Review, 40(1), 95–106. doi:10.1093/ohr/oht031 (See page 96.)