Oral Histories and the World Wide Web

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?

K. Yockey

Works Cited
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.

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7 Responses to Oral Histories and the World Wide Web

  1. Allie B. says:

    Having not worked professionally in a library since college, I don’t feel equipped to answer the question of whether library collections that become electronic pose new challenges for librarians, but my hunch is that this is true. Lack of control is something Katie addresses in terms of archival materials and the Internet, and I think this is an issue for the Internet in general.

    Again, the questions that come up here have to do with balancing access and privacy. The Internet is an incredible boon for information professionals in that it allows access to a much wider audience than has ever been possible. But when information becomes electronic and no longer tangible, control over the material becomes tenuous. And we’re left again with the question of whether access is so important that we’re willing to sacrifice certain levels of authority over the information. I have a feeling that this question will remain unresolved for some time as we continue to adjust to the new realities of digital information.

  2. I think there are definitely similar concerns in the library world, in regard to copyright laws, etc. However, I wonder if this problem will continue to grow or just peter out, since a new generation of librarians and archivists, raised on Web 2.0 and filesharing and Creative Commons, are now coming into the profession. Will this clash in values change things, or create more conflict?

  3. I think that this is an issue for every type of online collection, not just libraries and archives, but company records and family websites. Access and rights are big issues, but, as pointed out in the above comment, the new generations raised with the idea of access to everything may not consider ownership as important as we do. I think the biggest concern is integrity. What happens if someone decides to edit a document and call it the real thing? Tracing the real creator or owner is very hard in a digital environment and even harder if the digital object is something as intangible as an oral history.

    – J. Cox

  4. One hears everywhere things such as, there is no privacy on the internet, and once something is out there it’s there to stay. I think it is very true. The safest an object can be is if it is one-of-a-kind and kept in some sort of repository. I think Katie’s brings to light an interesting juxtaposition in the archival (or library world): so much of what archives are made of are personal histories; this is where the most valuable information on societies come from. The SAA code of ethics has a bullet point on access to this kind of information. it is also the role of the archive to respect the rights of privacy that people have. In the same SAA code the archivists is instructed to deny access based on this right. The internet, whether used by a library or other institution, follows in this vein; this is an open access resource, but also an area for e-mediums and storage that may not be open to the public. Any institution that implements digital collections must be wary that what is out there, is indeed out there.

    -Lucie B.

  5. I think we can count on the generations raised with Web 2.0 to have a very different expectation when it comes to privacy in general. However, I do not think that it will cause them to accept inaccuracies in data. On an individual level I believe that everyone is concerned with how he or she will be perceived. We have already heard tales of those who have exposed too much on the intranet and paid for it with the loss of a job or a bad reputation. I think generations used to the idea of having part of their lives take place on the web are very savvy to its pitfalls and will only become more aware. Consider your relationship to television, for instance. I assume all of us have been raised with access to TV all of our lives, how has it changed us individually and as a society? Dramatically for sure, but not necessarily all for the worse. Certainly there should be concerns about privacy and quality of information, however I firmly believe that we, as librarians and archivists, can help shape our societies’ relationship to both of those issues.

    J. A. Lee

  6. One thing that needs to be addressed in this matter is how one discerns what is inaccurate or not, or what a reliable source is. Given that there is sooo much information available on the Internet today, one needs to be able to sift through all of the trash that is out there in order to obtain valid information. How is one to know if a record has been faltered with, or who the “real” author is? We as information professionals not only need to be able to navigate the Internet efficiently ourselves, but also need to be able to educate our patrons on how to procure authentic information as well.

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