Oral History going digital

Crystal PalaceFor today’s class the assigned reading included:

Before I begin my thoughts about the readings, I would just like to note that because of our experiment with writing html last week, I was able to remove the ‘x-large’ font command from the html that I copied over from the syllabus. I was very proud of myself, and feel somewhat more comfortable about learning the computer language.

Oral history seems to be a subject that is recent in the process of archiving material, but perhaps its not. “The Oral History” article touches upon this fact, by stating the oral traditions have been around for thousands of years. Examples of this would be the Native American stories told through generations. I believe what stopped historians from taking oral histories seriously is that many of these oral traditions were considered myths. Much of what had been handed down through the ages was thought not worth much in value or study. It is only recently that we have given a place to Oral History, because it is told by a living person, not a piece of stone or old parchment. The digital age has certainly helped this along with the invention of recording tape and other devices. Law has established precedent for historians too, as in the 1997 court ruling of the Supreme Court case in Canada of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, whereby the judges concurred that oral histories are just as important as written history.

The transformation of Oral History has led historians to see that history can be a “live subject.” As stated in “Oral History online,” the fact that an individual can hear along with reading a narrative adds a three-dimensional feeling to what is accessed. This brings to mind the re-make of the Orson Well’s movie “The Time Machine,” in the 1990s. In this particular movie, the doctor stops his time machine in the not-to-distant-future where TV screens dot all corners of the streets and we’ve established a base on the moon. The doctor wanders into the New York Library where a three-dimensional hologram man greets people at the door and gives many different oral histories to questions that patrons ask it. It is this same computer hologram that the doctor finds in a cave 800,000 years into the future when he finally is able to stop his time machine. It is this same computer hologram who is able to tell the doctor all that transpired upon Earth during his journey. Could this be where we are headed with digital humanities and oral history? It is certainly a mind stopping concept, and not unthinkable. With all the stories and interviews loaded on the internet, a self thinking computer could one day have access to all of this. If we have taken ourselves out of the equation by some manmade virus or nuclear war, visitors to our planet in the future may be able to access the archives we’ve left behind and actually hear voices of those in the past. It is something to ponder.

Kirk Savage’s article on memory seems to end this thought appropriately. He stated: “It is no surprise that much of the literature on commemoration in the U.S. deals with war and its aftermath.” Will those in the future see our collection of oral interviews and history just as a commemoration to death and destruction? If the doctor traveled in his time machine 800,000 years into the future, what would our computer hologram have to say about us today? I think it imperative that we collect more oral histories about us, not just that of war or commemoration. We need more collections like the Federal Writer’s Projects so that more voices are heard throughout history, and a complete picture can be developed about our past and who we are.

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2 thoughts on “Oral History going digital

  1. Think a little more carefully about what are the different aspects of the topic. I see at least oral history as a source, oral history as a primary source available to all, and using speech rather than writing to communicate history.

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