Oral History: Opportunities and Obstacles

As with many genres of digital humanities, data management is a complex issue at the heart of oral history repositories.  On one hand the ability to collect and to disseminate digitized oral histories make the field of oral history ripe for growth as a means of understanding and preserving the past.  On the other, managing that process in a way that makes oral history usable is an entirely different matter. Similar to Mitchell Whitelaw’s observation in “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections,”  Doug Boyd recognizes that designing a usable interface is critical to the user experience.  According to Boyd digitization without well-planned design is not any more useful than “boxes of tapes and stacks of printed transcripts.”

This is certainly a key issue for the the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. While the archive houses over 7,000 interviews of WW II veterans, it is not possible to efficiently search outside of the topics curated by the museum or to filter by multiple topics.  According to the museum’s website, the oral history collection was originally designed to preserver the legacy of the World War II generation; however, the museum is currently “re-envision[ing] its educational mission and reach through digitizing these collections and making them more accessible online.”

As with other oral history collections, having a usable interface is largely dependent on transcribing and/or annotating each item and creating an platform that allows for efficient search within the transcript or video.  Doing so, however, is a costly process, and the museum charges hefty fees in order to cover the costs associated with collecting, transcribing and annotating the histories.  For any public history project involving oral history, it is important to factor the cost of transcription into the cost of the project.  While collecting interviews for preservation before generations pass away is important, the work will go largely unrecognized unless funds are available for making it usable.

Digital tools such as the OHMS plug-in for Omeka help to lessen the costly burden of transcription by providing an open source system for indexing oral history recordings using a system of tags and standard vocabulary.  This allows a recording to be processed more efficiently from a “high level” point of view at a fraction of the cost.  Boyd’s hope is that “smaller historical societies . . . with very limited budgets and almost no IT support can take full advantage of OHMS . . . .”  In my experience a novice user might be able to operate OHMS within Omeka, but it is unlikely that I could take full advantage as Boyd suggests.

Another strategy for reducing the cost of oral history collection and administration involves the process of designing a web interface such as the Occupational Folklore Project that involves designing a system that allows oral history interviewers to process and catalog interviews as they are submitted.  This greatly reduces the cost associated with collecting oral histories and uses a crowd source philosophy to do the work of archiving recordings using a well-designed standard submission format.  Applying this format to other American Folklife Center projects such as the Veteran’s History Project would help the collectors of oral histories to do the important work of making their work usable as well.

In designing any oral history project, it is critical that researchers make sure that a strategy exists for making the interface usable either by securing extensive funding, charging fees for use (which diminishes the public facet of the work) or employing technological tactics that make processing the collection more efficient and cost-effective.

Initially, I had envisioned that Weaving Our Story might exist as an archive for the oral histories themselves.  I imagined that students would look to their own grandparent’s story and find corroborating or contrasting interviews on the same subject from past interviews.  I am glad that I abandoned that plan early on as managing and processing an oral history collection in a tremendous job, one far outside the scope of what I am able to do as a teacher and with the technological resources I have available.

Oral history is an important tool for historians, and one should not abandon plans for collecting oral histories.  However, keeping the collection manageable is critical until such a time that digital technology such as voice recognition progresses to the point that processing oral histories is more cost effective in creating a usable collection.


Boyd, Doug. “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free.” Oral History Review 40.1 (2013): 95-106. Published on March 20, 2013.

Whitelaw, Mitchell. “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 9.1 (2015).

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