Clio’s talkative daughter goes digital
The introduction of the recording device at the beginning of the twentieth century not only marked a major transition in communication technology, but also paved the way for a revaluation of the oral account in Western historiography. With the rise of early civilizations and the introduction of writing tools it had lost its central role in the transfer of meaning and identity. Centuries later, the spread of literacy and the invention of the printing press stimulated the consolidation and appreciation of historical sources in textual form. Given the weight of this strong focus on text, the invention of a device that could capture and reproduce the human voice directly can be truly regarded as revolutionary. Most important, in the context of historical sources, is that accounts could now be stored and preserved in their original form: as sound. This development laid the ground for the practice that is referred to as ‘oral history’. Another series of transitions, decisive for the accessibility and contextualization of oral narratives, set in with the ‘digital turn’ at the end of the twentieth century. The purpose of this paper is to offer an overview of these transitions by showing how the interplay between technology and social-cultural change influenced the creation and appreciation of oral history interviews as sources of knowledge. What can be observed is a shift in appreciation of what is regarded as the most truthful and characteristic representation of the oral account: the original sound recording or the transcribed interview. Although the term ‘oral history’ has various meanings, most scholars agree that its purpose is to create spoken accounts on personal history in an interview setting. A distinction can be made between collecting interviews to answer a specific research question, and documenting the experiences of a person as an archival effort with future listeners in mind.1 The first approach, with strong roots in Europe, bears a strong resemblance to academic practices in the social sciences, and draws on a long tradition of investigative journalism. The second places oral history in the archival realm, and is strongly rooted in a tradition of nation-building, in which the state initiates projects that stimulate public involvement in the creation of shared cultural heritage. Researchers in the United States were the pioneers in using the method of oral history for this purpose.2 The paper starts off with a description of the change in status of oral sources in the late nineteenth century and the parallel technological innovation. The next stage presented is the early evolution of the practice of interviewing in relation to bearing witness to crises and conflict in the first half of the twentieth century. Then the emergence of the postwar social movement is described and its central role in developing a pluralist perspective on history by giving voice to minority groups through collecting life stories and making them public. The following section discusses the impact of the digital turn and the introduction of the Internet on historical culture in general and on oral history in particular. The final section deals with the potential of information and communications technology (ICT) for the accessibility and analysis of digital oral history.