In the past 50 years, oral histories have gone through many changes. Two factors played significant roles in the beginning of their evolution. The first and most pragmatic factor was the availability of the first portable tape recorders in 1963 (Sharpless, 2008). This enabled oral historians to go out into the world instead of being tethered to the recorders in their offices. The second factor was that the social historians in America began to study the lives of the under-represented masses. Libraries and archives, however, did not have such histories in their collections; so social historians and activist archivists, armed with portable tape recorders, went out into the world to record oral histories “from the bottom up” (Baum, 2007).
Since those early years of the portable tape recorder, oral histories have come a long way, all the way to the internet. In this new venue, audio recordings of oral histories be can supplemented with transcriptions, background information about the narrator and the interviewer along with relevant materials such as photographs, music, maps, and other primary documents. Archivists refer to this material as the provenance of an oral history because they refer “to the what, when, where, how, and why of its creation” (Fogerty, 2007). Provenance establishes a frame of reference that aids the user of the oral history in understanding the interview’s full significance. This fuller presentation of oral histories is much richer than the simple transcriptions of mid-century tape recorded interviews.
Despite these improvements, many concerns have been raised regarding oral histories and the internet. While one of the tenets of SAA’s Code of Ethics, access, is supported by the World Wide Web, the Web also raises concerns regarding four other tenets: privacy, authenticity/integrity, security/protection, and legality.
Along with wanting to protect the interviewees’ privacy, there is a “danger of misuse and manipulation of sound recordings and transcripts, and the ‘unmonitored access’ of the Internet which could result in the loss of archival control over the interviews” (Ritchie, 1999, p. 13). There are legal concerns as well. Deeds of gift, consents and copyrights for the majority of existing oral history collections do not address publication via the World Wide Web.
Indeed, “[t]he spread of digital technology is forcing archives to rethink their role and function, and to confront difficult questions of security, protection and accessibility” (Eynon, 1999, p. 24). Is this true for libraries as well? Are there items/collections that once available on the internet raise the same types of concerns?
Baum, W. (2007). The Other Uses of Oral History. The Oral History Review, 34 (1), 13-24.
Eynon, B. (1999). Oral History and the New Century. The Oral History Review, 26 (2), 16-27.
Fogerty, J. E. (2007). Oral History and Archives: Documenting Context. In T. L. Charlton, L. E. Myers, & R. Sharpless (Eds.), History of oral history: foundations and methodology (pp. 197-226). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Ritchie, D. A. (1999). http://www.oralhistory.infinity. Oral History Review, 26 (2), 9-16.
Sharpless, R. (2008). The History of Oral History. In T. L. Charlton, L. E. Myers, & R. Sharpless (Eds.), Thinking About Oral History (pp. 7-30). AltaMira Press.