When you are finding participants to contribute to any project, you can use online resources and engagement to make the process easier. This approach can be especially useful when developing an oral history project as you can have direct access to your contributors and participants. You should bear in mind though that marginalised people in society might still have no regular access to the internet.
Social media is a highly effective way of drawing attention to your projects. This can be supported with online text and videos that explain the projects aims and the rights of participants (such as confidentiality, anonymity if requested, and the right to withdraw at any time). These resources support more personal ways of informing participants so they can consider their response to the project in their own time before deciding whether to give consent. Making sure your website has up-to-date contact details provides a simple way for participants to view their data (if they have consented to it being uploaded online) and, if necessary, withdraw it.
In the digital era, digital projects have found new means of presenting oral histories, including simple approaches such as keyword and metadata-searchable repositories. However, some well-resourced projects with the necessary expertise have combined oral histories with supporting media to create interactive websites.
If geography is important to the project, the origins of interviewees can be plotted on interactive maps. Taken further, websites can provide interactive functionality that enables users to analyse and comment on transcripts, developing a community of interpretation.
Our expert, Dr Patrick Glen, University of Leeds, explains how to approach collecting oral histories using digital tools.
Oral history is based on close collaboration between a researcher, participants and their community. These relationships require care and forethought but can be rewarding for all involved in the process. When planning oral history projects consider the following aspects carefully:
- The social position of the interviewer and organisation in relation to participants (discrepancies in power)
- In-depth research into the subject(s) studies
- Time to develop a relationship with interviewees.
Taking time to think each of these points through can help you ensure that you protect participants when collecting oral histories.
These resources from the Oral History Society and the Oral History in the Digital Age Project can be an invaluable starting point for you.
The advantages of digital
Digital technologies have opened opportunities for the collection, preservation and sharing of oral histories. This is despite reservations of oral historians, who fear that online interviewing may not be ideal as it puts physical distance between the interviewer and interviewee. They believe that this may prevent the interviewer from noticing physical cues from the interviewee. Such cues might help in understanding their verbal responses and avoid causing unnecessary discomfort or distress.
However, this concern can be overcome with a sensitive interviewing technique and ensuring that the interviewer continues to check in throughout the process with the interviewee. If face-to-face interviews are not possible, an argument can be made for online interviewing using tools such as Zoom, Skype or Teams or by asking participants to upload self-recorded testimonies. These could be followed by a conventional oral history interview conducted face-to-face at a later time.
The secure digital storage and preservation of correspondence, consent documents, audio files, videos, and transcripts has made oral history interviews more convenient. They enable project workers, interviewers and curators to work remotely to ethically collect, analyse and share interviewee data. Just as you would monitor your physical collections, it’s important to do the same with your digital collections. Digital file formats change, and holdings may need to be adapted in order to remain useable indefinitely.
The following questions act as a starting point for scoping an oral history project and for ensuring your organisation has the resources available to collect oral histories ethically. Before you begin your project, answer the questions and consider what gaps you may need to address.
- What does your oral history project want to recover or preserve?
- Which communities can you access? And how might you find them online?
- Do you have the means to securely handle participants’ consent forms, personal information and private data digitally in a way that conforms to GDPR regulations?
- What equipment might you need to record, transcribe and preserve testimonies?
- Can your organisation employ in-person interviewing or do you need to find digital alternatives?
- How can you best present testimonies alongside existing heritage collections in a way which will enrich your audiences understanding and enjoyment?
The National Lottery Heritage Fund have produced a really useful guide to setting up an oral history project. You may find it helpful to refer to as you consider how digital tools can help to make your project a success.
Please attribute as: "Using online resources to improve collaboration and contributions (2022) by Dr Patrick Glen supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0