Oral History: Online Resources

Concordia University Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling

For people interested in starting their own oral history projects, or who are considering an oral history component in their secondary or post-secondary curriculum, the internet offers a variety of helpful resources.  For the JP Metras Sports Museum oral history project this summer a number of these resources have so far proved invaluable, and I want to direct readers to a few of them in this post.

Concordia University:  Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling

Director:  Dr. Steven High (Currently on sabbatical)
Interim Director:  Dr. Julie Norman

Description:  According to their homepage,  “Digital technologies are opening up new ways of working directly and easily with audio and video interviews. This is welcome news. Analogue audio or video recordings are so ponderous and inaccessible that historians have come to rely on transcriptions. Much is lost in translation. Whereas spoken language is lively; effective prose is systematic, relevant and spare.  For Michael Frisch, the more we “completely strive to make the voice audible on the page, the more we risk making it illegible.” Ultimately, digitization has the potential to put the “oral” back into “oral history” by keeping the focus on the original audio-visual record.

Resources:  Concordia’s Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) collaborated with Michael Frisch at the University of Buffalo to develop “Interclipper software” that allows researchers to index audio and video files and upload them into a searchable database.  In addition to state of the art facilities and equipmentthe COHDS provides a ton of online tips for oral historians embarking on their own projects.  Here are some of the resources I have used from Concordia in establishing the oral history project for the Metras Museum.

A. Interviewing Resources  (Note: Descriptions are from COHDS)

The Oral Historians Digital Toolbox
This is perhaps the most useful and user friendly display of digital tools available for historians to create their projects.  In the words of COHDS, “The Oral Historian’s Digital Toolbox” is website that contains a listing of existing and emergent digital tools. The digital revolution is transforming our practice as oral historians, placing new emphasis on the research process “after the interview,” and this resource provides access to the various tools that are enabling us to re-envision our work.”  

Interview Guidelines
“This document provides the general interview guidelines for the CURA Life Stories Project. Included are details on the interview structure and procedures, and guiding principles for conducting an ethical and successful interview.” 

Sample Interview Questions
“Included is a listing of sample life-story interview questions including questions related to biographical information, family heritage, childhood, youth/schooling, work/community, and marriage and children.” 

Ethics Guidelines
“Ethics Guide Summary for CURA Life Stories Project; including a discussion on mitigating harm, obtaining informed consent, the participants’ rights and options throughout interview process, researchers responsibility concerning matters of confidentiality, accessibility of the recordings and or transcripts, sharing authority” as the project’s central principle, and the recruitment of interviewees.”

Sample Consent Form
The new model of consent form is the formal consent form for participants in an oral history interview being conducted by students enrolled in History 398: Oral History and Urban Change at Concordia University.

Transcription Guidelines
“Transcription guidelines for all the audio/video taped interviews completed for the Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and other Human Right Violations project.”

Oral History Ethic Tips
A brief document that provides ethic tips related to oral history projects. Includes are guiding principles, consent forms, guides and useful book resources.

B. Video and Post Production Resources

Post Production Guide
“The document provides information on the post-production steps for the CURA Life Stories Project.”  This is an excellent resource for thinking through all the phases of the project after the interview is recorded.

Digital Technologies:  Intro and Concepts
“This document provides an overview of digital technologies related to oral history projects. Provided is an overview of equipment and general considerations, process, and publishing.”

Projects:  The COHDS is one of the few oral history facilities in the world which has employed digital technologies for the creation searchable interview databases.  Between 2006 and 2010 the Center utilized a $1.2 million dollar grant to create an open-source oral history database called “Stories Matter,” where users can upload, archive, organize, and index their oral history interviews, both as audio and as video files.

According to their website: “Stories Matter is a new oral history database tool built for oral historians by oral historians, as an alternative to transcription. This free, open source software allows for the archiving of digital video and audio materials, enabling oral historians to annotate, analyze, and evaluate materials in their collections.  Stories Matter is intended to allow oral historians and other interested communities to interact with audio and video recordings of interviews in a way that emphasizes individual interviewees as central to stories being narrated. In addition to interacting with whole sessions, users will be able to create clips according to personal criteria, and then create personalized playlists of clips that speak to specific themes.”

What I enjoy about this software is that the orality of the interview remains central in the database.  On the peripheries of each interview the researcher can embed relevant information such as the biographical details of the interviewee, the notes taken into the interview, the meta-narrative where notes about non-verbal body language can be entered, and your initial thoughts on the interview process as a whole.  The entire database is layered, allowing the researcher to enter a lot of useful information for each interview without getting bogged down in complexity.  Another feature I really enjoy is the database uses Google Earth so that each interview can be “pinned” to its specific geographic location.

Project Example:  The Sturgeon Falls Mills Closing Project

One of Concordia’s many projects that utilizes their digital savvy is the Sturgeon Falls Mills Closing Project.  The project developed through 2006 and 2009 with the idea of capturing the oral testimonies of residents from Sturgeon Falls, Ontario who worked at a mine that had closed in the aftermath of the economic recession.  The testimonies capture the meaning of this place as they are related in living memories.  In addition to collecting and archiving these memories, the COHDS used digital mapping software to create a “memoryscape.”  This memoryscape provides the visual image of the place and embeds into this landscape the oral narratives of residents.  There is only so much that my description can do, so I’d recommend you visit their project online, and check out their other memoryscapes while you’re at it.

Stay Tuned:  In the next posts on Online Resources I will highlight the work being done at Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History and the University of Kentucky’s Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History.


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