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