Communicating Life Stories – Digital Storytelling

Oral History Publishing in a Digital Age

Technology is moving so fast that sometimes it’s tough to stay in tune with the latest trends. A high school history program teacher at Ridge High School in Bernards Township brought up the opportunity to discuss new technologies around presenting a new oral history project. While there were certainly challenges around the capture of the history, there’s an even greater issue what to do with the recordings once they’ve been captured. Ah…..the presentation. Welcome to the age of media aggregation.

Oral history programs have two technological opportunities. First is the recording, and the second is the presenting of the effort. There should be more than just audio. Think about how powerful an oral history project would be for the presentation if there were transcripts, photos, documents, commentary, and even video.  If you’re starting a new project, the mission should be to present stories using rich media that presents itself to the broadest audience possible.

This discussion targets creating a new oral history programs. Migrating older analog collections is a topic that can leverage some of this information, but it has added challenges that we’re not going to cover here.

The Presentation

OK, how many of you out there have a cassette player? 8 track? 8mm projector? Exactly, no one. And today, how many of you are interested in trekking over to your local library or historical society to sit in some booth with headphones on listening to a few hours of unedited audio? Not me that’s for sure. With the invention of the web, that’s all changed, and so has the dynamic on how to get oral history archived and available to the masses in the comfort of their wherever.

On the presentation front, two objectives should be met. The program should be web capable and should be based on an overall content management design. Content management is where each piece of the oral history is a unique piece, tagged appropriately so the items can be searchable. For every recording, there might also be still images, text, audio, video, and supporting documents, all tied to that individual recording. This is why a database driven content management systems best suit the overall presentation effort. Design your collection for the web! Remember, you need an archive, so there should always be a bunch of combined “pieces” combined that tell the story.

With all great ideas, the delivery and the technology have  got to be right (So says The Far Side)

There are all kinds of rules to follow for setting up a proper interview, as well as the recording itself, so make sure that you have the proper background on how to conduct an effective oral history interview.  See the post “How to conduct an oral history interview” .

Students Know more about the web than we do!

Don’t forget, while technology is something that technologists follow, sometimes professors and teachers of history aren’t that “tuned in” to the latest fads, trends, and know about around technology. So don’t put it past to get the students involved in the discussion. Just the other day there was a discussion around iPods and iPhones paired with voice recognition software used to record conversations and digitize. These Gen M’ers (Mobile) as we refer to them spend lots of time online and certainly have the ability to figure something out if given the chance. Most of the information you’ll search for and find online are older concepts and methods. Technology has advanced so quickly that search results that show information older than two years old might not be appropriate for the discussion today.

So remember – you’re digital storytellers and you need a web based, archiving system that can store all that stuff, present it in various ways based on a particular search or presentation criteria (e.g. Discussions on the 1950’s or WWII stories) or whatever your users want to hear about. Lastly, it needs to be stored, backed up, and portable (for when the project needs to be exported from your current solution  to the NEXT best solution).

Where to Start

Here’s a tip – don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s tons of information online. Never underestimate the term “Google it”!

A great university resource to recommend is the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA – . The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has used digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past. One of the projects we’ve engaged is their open source software presentation package called Omeka ( .

Omeka is a web publishing content management system for cataloging and archiving records and collections that can be used to present collections online. Best of all, it’s totally free and growing in capability every day. Take a look at one of their recent projects on the History of the Gulag at: . It’s a great example because it integrates video, audio, text, documents and all the other pieces that completes the story, which is really what you’re trying to do….tell a story in a rich media environment.

For pure oral history, check out , an oral history project dedicated to preserving the Bracero History Archive that collects and makes available the oral histories and artifacts pertaining to the Bracero program, a guest worker initiative that spanned the years 1942-1964. Millions of Mexican agricultural workers crossed the border under the program to work in more than half of the states in America.

George Mason University also has a whole list of software tools and digital resources to research, educate, and present oral histories. Take a look

Web 2.0 for digital storytelling – Oral History and New Social Networking Media


How great would it be for someone to post a digital story, and then have others get to comment on that digital story. Voice Thread provides that type of interactive two way digital storytelling (supporting that Web. 2.0 two way web conversation).  Voice Thread is a new great idea for digital storytelling.  There are various versions to test out, there are costs associate with the hosted service (schools -$60/year).

The application, developed at the University of North Carolina, makes it easy for users to add voice annotation to an artifact, which might be a document, a slide presentation, a video, or a collection of photos. Commentators can add remarks by means of microphone, webcam, keyboard, or telephone. The resulting Flash-based animation contains the original artifact and the commentary on it.

Then again, you could just upload and voila – it’s public. But then what do you do? How do you control your assets?


Also take a look at Prezi – While it’s a presentation online software solution – it can work.

The Columbia University Oral History Research Office is the oldest and largest organized oral history program in the world. Founded in 1948 by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Allan Nevins, the oral history collection now contains nearly 8,000 taped memoirs, and nearly 1,000,000 pages of transcript. These memoirs include interviews with a wide variety of historical figures. The Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) in Berkeley, California is another great resource for research and insight. The CDS is an international non-profit training, project development, and research organization dedicated to assisting people in using digital media to tell meaningful stories from their lives.

Research and Pilot

Don’t just jump on any one bandwagon or technology. Make sure your assets are secure and stored properly. Then get out there and find your options. Start with 3-5 records only. Load them, test them, solicit feedback from users. Ask the kids. Ask the adults. Run two or three pilots (or at least find someone that has!). There is nothing worse than doing all kinds of work, only to find out that two years later you’ve got to do it all over again!

And remember – YOU WILL HAVE TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN – so make sure your assets are portable and transferable to the next platform.

Other Resources

Here’s a new way to search. It’s called Blinkx. I typed in “How to Digital Oral History Project” and out come the videos available on the topic. You then select the video you want to watch by mousing over it and seeing what it discusses. Then just click to play it. Pretty cool aggregation.

It might not be perfect, but think about how the technology can be used for an effort like yours.

Two universities specific to oral history studies, programs, and methodologies are Baylor University’s Digital Oral History program and Concordia University, Montreal – The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling Both have very deep programs and advice, but we noticed little research available on the final stages of presenting and preservation.

Don’t forget H-Net, the longstanding History Liserv where you can post and find relevant information. H-Oralhist is a member of the H-Net, Humanities & Social Sciences On-Line initiative. It is a network for scholars and professionals active in studies related to oral history. It is affiliated with the Oral History Association. It’s funny though. H-Oralhist and it’s offset website has little or no information on digital resources or new media digital strategies online yet (better hand it over to a 15 year old)!

There’s also the Oral History Association , established in 1966, seeks to bring together all persons interested in oral history as a way of collecting and interpreting human memories to foster knowledge and human dignity. With an international membership, the OHA serves a broad and diverse audience. Local historians, librarians and archivists, students, journalists, teachers, and academic scholars from many fields have found that the OHA provides.

Center for Social Media – – Check out the Densho Archive –

Source Forge is another resource to research open source software that’s created, designed, and supported by global communities for free.

Words to Google:

Universities and scholars like the term oral history so beware. Get creative – think outside the box. Facebook can be oral history right? Web 2.0? Social Networking media right?

Tags/Search keywords:

Digital archiving, digital storytelling, media aggregators, presenting digital records, online digital history efforts, digital multimedia presentation software, archive software, free digital content management software, free oral history software, open source collection software, transcription software , oral history software, voice recognition software, audio preservation software, digital recorders, museum software, digital preservation software web platforms


Digital Video Recorders, digital voice recorders, and digital cameras

There are plenty of digital recorders on the market today that’ll do the job. Some are lower than $50.

Take a look at for videos on a few models available today.

Equipment used at the Oral History lab at Concordia University can be found here –

Additional reading:

Is oral history doomed? Read a great piece on the topic – ‘Times of Crisis, Times of Change: Human Stories on the Edge of Transformation’. The theme as such is highly relevant, also for historians of science, technology.

What else have you got? Spread the word and let’s share!

2 thoughts on “Communicating Life Stories – Digital Storytelling Oral History

  1. If you are doing an oral history project or are thinking about doing one, you should apply to attend this year’s Oral History Institute, June 8-10 on the beautiful campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. The program trains participants in planning and conducting successful oral history projects. Emphasizing hands-on experience, topics covered in the two-and-a-half-day schedule include interviewing techniques, transcribing and archiving, and devising public programs based on oral history. To develop these skills, participants will work on a practice project that encompasses all stages of oral history and will also have time to consult with experts about planned projects. Sessions will also be available on using technology in oral history and on fundraising.

    The faculty consists of professors from the fields of History, Sociology, Archiving, and Journalism who all have extensive experience with Oral History.

    We encourage volunteers or paid staff from local historical organizations, libraries, schools, and colleges and universities to apply. Admission to the institute is limited to thirty and is competitive. The cost of the institute is $275, which includes two nights stay, six meals, and all other workshop materials. The Ohio Humanities Council is making available partial scholarships for Ohio residents to subsidize the cost of the institute. You can download an application from, or contact the Ohio Humanities Council at (800) 293-9774 or The application deadline is May 3.

    The Oral History Institute is co-sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council and The Rural Life Center at Kenyon College, in cooperation with Ohio Association of Historical Societies and Museums and the Ohio Historical Society.

    Frank Dunkle
    Ohio Humanities Council
    471 E. Broad St. #1620
    Columbus, Ohio 43215
    (614) 461-7802

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