Oral history as public history

Categories: Exhibits & Projects
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Children playing at Euclid Beach, Cleveland, OH. Photo credit:

Euclid Beach Park conjures fond childhood memories for many participants in the Cleveland Regional Oral History Project. Photo credit: Cleveland State University Special Collections

Many of us have discovered what promised to be an exciting oral history project through a Google search, only to be crestfallen when the linked web page was nothing more than a description of a trove of interviews kept in an ivory tower hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s a given that oral history can’t be public history if it’s a cache of CDs or transcripts squirreled away in a drawer.  Is it any less clear that an interview collection—no matter how voluminous, historically significant, or methodologically rigorous—also falls short of the mark when it rests in a library? A project’s outcomes should be publicly visible and audible.

The measure of whether oral history is public history should not dwell on whether a project springs from or is created entirely in the community. A project need not always be built to completion through a single, sustained collaboration with a community partner. A living project that draws on repeated public contributions of time and knowledge and that engages the public embodies the spirit of public history. It also moves beyond the notion of a product. History, after all, is never “finished,” so why should public history be so? Of course, living projects are difficult to maintain. They require not only archival capacity and evolution in tools and techniques but also perennial investment, either in sustaining existing collaborations or seeking new ones.

To sustain broader public engagement, an oral history project can:

  1. Make collected content easily discoverable. This may be accomplished through timely processing and online dissemination of raw interviews. It may also occur through the sharing of clipped highlight stories featured either in stand-alone form or as part of a curated web/mobile exhibition alongside other media.
  2. Invite interaction. In addition to arranging public programs, a project might engage the public by enabling social media sharing, viewer comments and replies, or other “calls to action” that encourage user contributions of additional items, like family photographs or home movies or (self-)nominations for future interviews.
  3. Make the collection reusable. Doing so entails not only sharing it online but also doing so on terms that invite myriad uses, such as with a Creative Commons license.

Oral history becomes public history when it is shaped into living, public-facing projects. At the same time, oral history recordings and transcripts will likely outlast even a “living project” and therefore promise future opportunities for public histories that we cannot yet imagine. How do you view the intersection of oral history and public history? How have you balanced your own programmatic goals with listening to the aspirations of collaborators?

~ Mark Souther is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University. History @ Work will feature a Project Showcase post on CPHDH in the near future.

One thought on “Oral history as public history

  1. Check out our testimony-app on Nazi Forced Labour in Berlin, Germany.

    Based on oral history testimonies from former forced labours, we have developed a multimedia guide, which offers five tours through Berlin. More than 30 Witnesses tell of factories and forced labourers camps. You can follow their path with either on foot, by bike or with the Berlin S-Bahn.

    “Forced labour. The testimony app is free of charge and available on Android and IOS:
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mobile.melting.forcedlabour
    https://itunes.apple.com/en/app/zwangsarbeit.-die-zeitzeugen/id645930289?mt=8

    It was developed by a team of “Berliner Geschichtswerkstatt” ( Berlin History woerkshop). an oral hisotry orientated, non-profit hisotrical society ín Berlin.

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