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