How Digital Technology Has Changed Oral History

[This is a guest post by Sarah McLennan, a PhD candidate in the History Department at the College of William & Mary and a 2012-2013 W&M Lemon Project fellow.]

35 mm camera

Image of camera courtesy of  the Western History/Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library.

When I conducted my first oral history project back in 1999, I used a cassette recorder to tape the interviews, and a 35 mm camera to take images on slide film. The materials were deposited in a library archive, only available to users on-site. Advances in technology over the past decade, particularly with digital audio recorders and video cameras, have reshaped the options and opportunities for collecting, archiving, and providing access to oral histories. Oral History in the Digital Age is an excellent resource on developments in digital technology and oral history. This site collates a wide variety of information, from technical advice on choosing equipment, to strategies for indexing and making content available online, to considerations of the impact of digital technology on the field.

Making Oral History More Accessible

One major effect of digital technology has been making oral history more accessible, in terms of both collection and use. Digital recorders and cameras are compact, portable, relatively simple to use, and can produce high quality recordings. They are also becoming increasingly affordable, enabling more people to undertake oral history projects, and making it easier to carry equipment into the field. Editing software, online archiving and databases, and websites that host video and audio media offer ways to make content available more quickly and to a wider audience than ever before. Users are able to hear and/or see the interviews themselves, rather than relying on transcripts. Projects like the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), developed by the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and Digital Library Services, are making it easier to search multiple interviews by subject, and pinpoint relevant passages in each recording for use in research.

Increased access also raises issues of intellectual property and authorization. As Doug Boyd noted in a recent essay, “Informed consent takes on a new connotation when considering global distribution, and serious privacy concerns arise.” It is critical to make intended uses of oral histories clear in consent forms and project descriptions, and inform interviewees of their options to restrict use of the material.

My Work with W&M’s Lemon Project

My current work conducting oral histories with Dr. Jody Allen for the Lemon Project at the College of William & Mary has provided first-hand experience with many of these new technologies. The Lemon Project Oral History Collection is a large-scale project designed to provide a fuller picture of the experiences of African Americans at the College of William & Mary. Through interviews with alumni, faculty, staff, and community members, the collection chronicles the history of integration and race relations at the college, as well as its relationship with the surrounding community from the era of Jim Crow to the present. We have been filming the interviews using a high definition digital camera, and making scans or digital photos of related documents. The Swem Media Center is a major campus resource for this type of project; it has provided us with studio space, cameras, lights, microphones, digital recorders, editing, and technical assistance.

One of the goals of the Lemon Project is to link historical research with community outreach, using the documentation and recognition of the College’s history as a platform to further improve community relations and communications. The availability of digital technology has allowed the Lemon Project to collect high quality filmed interviews that can easily be made available online, used in documentaries or presentations, and also be housed for researchers in the University Archives at Swem Library. These interviews offer perspectives and information not available in other sources. The current technology not only facilitates collecting and preserving these sources, but connecting them to the historical record and to the public in ways I never imagined back in the days of slides and audio cassettes.