Alternatives to transcription for the oral historian?

This is Part 3 of a series of blog posts about transcription in oral history. Part 1 dealt with Transcription and oral history in general and Part 2 dealt with the use of TEI when carrying out transcription (Considering TEI and oral history transcripts).

Continue reading “Alternatives to transcription for the oral historian?”

A critical cartography of online oral history maps?

This is Part 4 of a 4 part series.

This post follows Part 1 (Presenting oral history online), Part 2 (Maps, and how they are used in oral history) and Part 3 (Narratives, place-making and oral history maps) In Part 3 I argued that oral history maps have a narrative of their own, one that tends to be place-based and created from layers of meaning that are built up over the narrative of the map, and in combination with those of the stories and the images that are pinned to them.

A brief look at critical cartography

Since the 1980s, critical cartography has set about exposing “hidden, and sometimes hideous, narratives embedded in maps”.i Map narratives, both because of their cultural embeddedness and the need for interpretation, can be difficult to trace. Over-familiarity with conventions of mapping can blind us to the nature of some of the narratives they contain, particularly when the conventions have been developed to create an illusion of neutrality (representation based on objective measurement/quantification and devoid of interpretation). Because maps based on quantitative data are now the norm, drawn up using well-established methodologies, and because we operate within established paradigms when we read maps, the narrative of the maps itself is often rendered invisible (or opaque). But maps are never neutral. To create them necessitates decisions about what information to include, and what information to leave out. Examining the decisions made during the process of map-making is a focus of critical cartography, and much of this work has emerged as an important component in the development of post-colonial studies. Here, the choices that have gone into maps as they are created (what is recorded, how it is represented, and what is omitted) tell their own stories of maps as a tool of control, of establishing boundaries, of laying claim to property. Critical cartography suggests that maps in general can be documents that reveal a story, and that they are, therefore, narratives, even if the narrative that they tell is not always apparent to their users.

Critical cartography and map “mash-ups”?

Creating online maps and populating them with personal, commercial or community information is now possible through many online tools that are freely available. It has been suggested that the availability of these tools is a change that could initiate transformative map-making processes and technologies that are “widely distributed, and increasingly democratized”.ii Others have a less positive view of these technologies, noting that the “bottom-up potential” of these tools is not always realised, as the material will reflect the interests of the most active users rather than the public in general.iii This can create a hierarchy of locations, perhaps indicating that some mapping technologies are less potentially transformative than is often suggested.iv

In practice, Google Maps tends to be the most commonly used interface for user-generated map-based content.v Critics have voiced concern that the popularity of the Google Maps API, combined with the fact that Google Maps are based on private code, owned and controlled by for-profit organisation) means that Google has created a privatised representation of digital place that is fast becoming “the de facto digital globe”.vi

Digital maps, such as those created by Google have been developed through a convergence of private (corporate) and personal interests. This is in contrast to the development of nineteenth and twentieth century maps, when maps were largely political products driven by requirements of state:

Just as the specific interests of the nation state have largely shaped the reality produced by paper maps throughout the centuries, the recent convergence of interests between high-tech private companies and a small group of technologically savvy individuals is now shaping the reality produced through geosocial media.vii

Implications for oral history maps?

Does this have implications for how we see the narratives of oral history mapping projects? Google Maps is often the base map used in these projects – of the six oral history maps listed in Part 2, four examples were based on the Google Maps API.

Oral history projects that used the Google Maps API:

The two oral history maps that did not use Google Maps were:

Are there implications for the way these projects might be critically interpreted in the future? What effect does the frequent use of Google Maps associated with online oral history projects have?

It is likely that the typically small, not-for-profit, community and academic research organisations that create these mapping oral history projects are driven by considerations such as affordability, and the fact that map mash-up tools, such as Google Maps, are available at no cost is one of the keys to their popularity.viii Other considerations could include issues of accessibility and usability. The popularity of Google Maps amongst oral historians, and the deliberate choice of other maps by some projects, is surely an issue that merits some further research.


i Caquard, S. (2011). Cartography I: Mapping narrative cartography. Progress in Human Geography, 37(1), 135–144. doi:10.1177/0309132511423796 (see p. 136).

ii Branch, J. (2011). Mapping the sovereign state: technology, authority, and systemic change. International Organization, 65, 1–36 (see p. 32).

iii Elwood, S., Goodchild, M. and Sui. D. (2012). Researching Volunteered Geographic Information: Spatial Data, Geographic Research, and New Social Practice. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102(3), 571–590.(see p. 584).

iv Caquard, S. (2013). Cartography II: Collective cartographies in the social media era. Progress in Human Geography, (OnlineFirst). doi:10.1177/0309132513514005 (see p.6).

v Li, S., & Gong, J. (2008). Mashup: a New Way of Providing Web Mapping and GIS Services. In ISPRS Congress Beijing (pp. 639–649). Retrieved from (see p. 640).

vi Zook, M. A., & Graham, M. (2007). The creative reconstruction of the Internet: Google and the privatization of cyberspace and DigiPlace. Geoforum, 38(6), 1322–1343. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2007.05.004 (see p. 1341).

vii Caquard, S. (2013). Cartography II: Collective cartographies in the social media era. Progress in Human Geography, (OnlineFirst). doi:10.1177/0309132513514005 (see p.6).

viii Li, S., & Gong, J. (2008). Mashup: a New Way of Providing Web Mapping and GIS Services. In ISPRS Congress Beijing (pp. 639–649). Retrieved from (see p. 639).

Narratives, place-making and oral history maps

This is Part 3 of a 4 part series.

Part 1 (Presenting oral history online) and Part 2 (Maps, and how they are used in oral history) discussed some thoughts on digital oral history and the use of maps as visual interfaces for online oral histories. Here, I build on some of the ideas presented in the earlier posts by exploring maps and oral histories as narrative mechanisms used in place-making.

How do we understand the idea of place? For cultural geographers, places are formed and understood through narratives.i While the definitions of a narrative are diverse and discipline-dependant, the crucial feature of a narrative is that it has meaning.ii Narratives make meaning within culturally and socially relevant contexts, they are informed by and embedded in cultural worlds.iii In terms of understanding place, narratives are the meaning-making structures that we use to change space into place.

Within oral history interviews, when a particular narrative style is borrowed or appropriated by an interviewee/narrator, this is probably because the individual sees the narrative style as appropriate to the story that is being told.iv There is no established narrative framework for an oral history interview and, likewise, there is not necessarily a well-established template for the oral historian to follow when preparing to disseminate interviews and the results of research digitally. Traditionally, archives were created. To fully explore the potential of digital oral history, the researcher must draw on other narrative genres in order to create their own narrative with the material they wish to disseminate. The map has been adopted by many oral historians working on place-based projects and within the digital realm as an appropriate format for the development of oral history narratives about place. This use of maps reflects a strong connection within our minds between maps and places, how they are visualised and understood in an explicit way (using a map) and in more subtle ways in stories.

To Massey, places are configurations of space that have a temporary meaning and purpose, and can mean different things to different people, and at different times.v These meanings can be re-purposed by others, and thus, while “places seem durable to the people who recognise and experience them……they are nonetheless constantly being recreated and subtly changing”.vi Because of this, places and the meanings associated with them are in a constant state of negotiation. Places are born out of this negotiation of meaning.vii Thus the creation of place is about the creation of meaning.

Linking place-based stories together in online oral history maps is a powerful means of creating narratives of place that incorporate visuals and memories. The process of creating these maps is a process of doing research.viii As the oral historian creates a digital map with oral histories and excerpts, the map becomes more than a simple visualisation on which interviews are pinned. Instead, the process of creating an oral history map is one in which a new narrative is created, one that stands separate to the map on its own, or to the oral histories on their own.

In terms of the aims of oral history mapping projects, the collection of narratives, about today and about the past, is a collection of memories. These projects are a collaborative attempt to put together material where individual memories combine to form a collective and public memory bank. People turn to this memory bank when they seek to form group identifies, collective narratives (perhaps local, perhaps national, or group-orientated) in order to identify and locate their own place in the world.ix This interpretation of the role of maps ties in with ideas of the process of mapping as both an attempt at representing space as it is, as well as a tool to use when imagining what that space might become.x When looked at in this way, an oral history map of memories can be seen as more than simply a record of the past and the people of today, but also an attempt to formulate, map-out and imagine a community identity for the future.

Part 4 continues here.


i Price, P. (2010). Cultural geography and the stories we tell ourselves. Cultural Geographies, 17(2), 203–210. doi:10.1177/1474474010363851. See page 203.

ii Reissman, C. (1993). Narrative Analysis. Newbury Park, London and New Delhi: SAGE Publications Ltd. See pages 17–19.

iii Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge. See page 107.

iv Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge. See page 114.

v Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. See page 141.

vi Pierce, J., Martin, D. G., & Murphy, J. T. (2011). Relational place-making: the networked politics of place. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36(1), 54–70. See page 58.

vii Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. See page 140–141.

viii White, R. (2010). What is spatial history? Retrieved December 27, 2013, from

ix Hoelscher, S., & Alderman, D. (2004). Memory and place: geographies of a critical relationship. Social and Cultural Geography, 5(3), 347–355. See page 348–349.

x White, R. (2010). What is spatial history? Retrieved December 27, 2013, from

Maps, and how are they used in oral history

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series.

Part 1 (Presenting oral history online) discussed issues associated with presenting oral history online, primarily the difficulty of presenting audio in the medium of the web, with its focus on text and visuals. For stories associated with place, maps are becoming an increasingly popular means of presenting the results of oral history research online. This series of blog posts sets out to explore underlying reasons for this trend, and to link theories of stories (narratives), maps and place.

What are maps? Are they representations of carefully quantified space, perfectly to scale? A useful tool, used to negotiate unknown spaces without getting lost? While maps are attempts at objective representations and quantification of space, they nevertheless (and of necessity) include interpretation. They are a “form of power-knowledge”i and part of “a social discourse about the world”.ii All maps are an interpretation, a narrative of the space and place they seek to represent.

Linking recorded excerpts from oral history interviews with points on a map has only been possible in the digital era, and this is an emerging aspect of oral history practice and presentation. Maps draw people in: as Massey says, maps “carry you away; they set you dreaming”.iii They have become a powerful means of attracting new people to digital oral history collections and the use of maps for disseminating oral history is based on the idea of linking stories and places:

“maps situate our stories, tie them to specific places, and are among the most useful tools to aid in our ability to understand the world around us”.iv

A list of some examples of oral history projects that use maps include:

  • Storymap (A Dublin oral history project.)

  • Cleveland Historical (A website and a mobile app that allows users to explore the history of Cleveland, Ohio.)

  • City of Memory (A New York City online collection of personal stories, crowdsourced and uploaded by users, but curated.)

  • StoryMapper (An Elkton Historical Society and Humanities Tennessee project about land and place that presents a “driving tour through the communities of southern Giles County”.)

  • [murmur] (A project where users in a particular location can call a mobile phone number to hear recorded oral histories; there is also an online oral history map. This project began in Toronto, with sister projects now in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver in Canada, San Jose in the United States and Geelong in Australia. In Europe, there are [murmur] maps for Edinburgh and Galway.)

  • Cork Memory Map (online project of the Cork Folklore Project.)

A spatial turn in oral history?

Does the use of maps in these projects reflect a “spatial turn” (the inclination to analyse spatial aspects of human existence) in oral history? Within the humanities in general, this is not a recent phenomenon: the questions of land use and agency were pertinent at the time when many modern academic disciplines were developing, leading them to explore issues around landscape, such as “worldview, palimpsest, the commons and community, panopticism and territoriality”.v

Oral history comes to this trend more recently, and specifically through the agency of digital maps. But is there a good reason why maps are a visualisation of choice for many online oral history projects, or is it more akin to what Denis Cosgrove called a “cartographic trope”, a “fashionable fascination with the map” that now appears to be ubiquitous within the humanities?vi

The act of creating an oral history map is, like all scholarship, an act of remediation (one of the fundamental aspects of digital dissemination, along with participation and bricolage).vii When oral history maps are put together for dissemination online, they are remediated in a format that the oral historian(s) considers a suitable one for the narrative that s/he (or they) have put together out of the original contributions. As this is the case, the question of why this is a suitable type of narrative for oral history dissemination arises. Maps are generally static and therefore cannot represent movement (which is dynamic, and can characterises representation of space), meaning that maps can always represent only a limited aspect of space.viii An oral history map, however, is not necessarily static, particularly if stories are being added on an ongoing basis: although the spatial aspect of the representation may remain unchanged, the stories associated with it do not. While the spatial layer is static, the narrative interpretation of that space is constantly changing as more stories are added. As oral histories/narratives accumulate, the more static representation of space is altered, and narratives emerge that give meaning to space, turning it from neutral space to meaningful place.

This interpretation suggests that the use of maps in oral history is not simply a “cartographic trope”, but nor is this use of maps part of a “spatial turn”, instead oral history maps are place-making projects, representing a turn towards the idea of place as meaning-invested space.

Part 3 continues here.


i Harley, J. B. (1992). Deconstructing the map. In T. Barnes & J. Duncan (Eds.), Writing Worlds: discourse, text and metaphor in the representation of landscape (pp. 231–247). London and New York: Routledge. See page 243.

ii Pickles, J. (1992). Texts, hermeneutics and propoganda maps. In T. Barnes & J. Duncan (Eds.), Writing Worlds: discourse, text and metaphor in the representation of landscape (pp. 193–230). London and New York: Routledge. See page 210.

iii Massey, D. (2005).For Space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. See page 106.

iv McCoy, P. (2012). Case study: storymapper – a case study in map-based oral history. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from

v Guldi, J. (n.d.). What is the Spatial Turn? · Spatial Humanities. Retrieved December 16, 2013, from

vi Cosgrove, D. (1999). Mappings. London: Reaktion Books. See page 3.

vii Deuze, M. (2006). Participation, Remediation, Bricolage: Considering Principal Components of a Digital Culture. The Information Society, 22(2), 63–75. doi:10.1080/01972240600567170 See page 67.

viii White, R. (2010). What is spatial history? Retrieved December 27, 2013, from

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 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.


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
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.)