In the following three reviews, oral history scholars Abby Perkiss, Sharon Leon, and Dan Royles reflect critically and thoughtfully on the comprehensive analysis of digital technology's impact on oral history presented by the authors in Boyd and Larson's 2014 compilation of essays.
- Abby Perkiss
In Oral History and Digital Humanities, editors Doug Boyd and Mary Larson offer a retrospective on the early efforts of oral historians to engage digital technology—the field's "digital revolutionaries," according to Boyd and Larson—in order to chart the evolution of the field. "This collection of stories from the digital revolution," write the editors, "presents a glimpse into oral history's innovative role in shaping and forming digital public history and scholarship, community engagement, archival discovery, and, ultimately, transforming the roles of individual voices in the shaping and construction of our cultural and historical understanding of the past" (14).
The book is organized thematically, with sections on "Orality/Aurality," "Discovery and Discourse," and "Oral History and Digital Humanities Perspectives." In each, contributors use their own digital projects to engage with some of the fundamental issues of oral history work—questions of access and preservation, issues of process versus product, and concerns over informed consent and privacy in this technological age—and then to apply those issues specifically to digital settings. William Schneider, for instance, in his essay, "Oral History in the Age of Digital Possibilities," writes, "We need to be very clear about how we preserve and present oral histories and how that meaning may differ in meaning and intent from what was shared at the time of recording" (20). Sherna Gluck echoes those sentiments, wondering, "What constitutes informed consent when we are talking about a quantum leap in distribution via the World Wide Web" (41)?
These three underlying questions about the digital turn in oral history run through the experiences of each of the authors. These issues evidence a broader concern over how to keep up with the technological rate of change and how to ensure that the technology itself does not become the main driver of the field—the proverbial tail wagging the dog. As Boyd writes in his essay, "I Just Want to Click to Listen," "These projects serve as powerful cautionary tales, imparting lessons learned regarding archival workflows, obsolescence, and sustainability" (90). [End Page 383]
In a sense, these earliest digital oral history projects—Boyd's cautionary tales—were not archival repositories, but rather, as Boyd notes, "complex, elaborate, and beautiful exhibits offering a curated, even guided, user experience, connecting online users to powerful audio-visual context" (89). As the next phase of the field's digital turn, Boyd developed the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), a tool that allows integration of audio and video recordings in full. The creation of OHMS, Boyd implies, brought to fruition some of the earliest impulses toward digital oral history—prioritizing the aural, the listening experience, over the transcript and making sound accessible and searchable, "plac[ing] audio and video out in front of the text" (92).
With eleven contributors whose work spans more than three decades, Oral History and Digital Humanities is as much the story of digital oral histories as it is a historiographical contribution to discussions about the intersections between oral history and digital humanities. In this way, the conversational tenor that the authors adopt sets an ideal tone for the volume, chronicling the development of the various projects and, most important, offering individual reflections on both process and product.
"Like many in our discipline," writes contributor Elinor Mazé, "I am neither an inventor of technology nor a globally informed seer of the future. Most of us are reactors. Today's technology presents challenges and opportunities to which we respond—creatively, we hope, and with some vision of both future and present utility as well as doses of wisdom and caution that help us select what to adopt and what to reject, what to accept as-is and what needs to ripen before picking. We must often...