How to Do Oral History in the Digital Age

Oral History

By: Sarah McCabe, OHS Reach Project Manager  

August 3, 2015

Would you like to hear first-hand stories about Ontario history, on topics ranging from immigration, First Nations culture, education, and hockey, to selling bananas in Toronto’s Kensington Market? Oral histories on these subjects and many more have been recorded by Ontario historical societies and are now available online.

Oral history as a method of collecting historical information continues to grow in popularity, partly due to advances in recording technology. For instance, most smartphones (iPhones, Android phones) may be used to make voice recordings which can be shared over the internet.

OHS members have asked for advice about compiling personal histories using newer technology. How to choose the right equipment? How can one transfer (decaying) audio tapes into digital formats? What are some hints on interview techniques? Though not an exhaustive list, this post shares some selected current resources to help the Ontario heritage community tackle these questions.

Workshops

The Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO) offers Collecting Voices: Oral History Workshop. MHSO notes that this workshop is intended as an introduction and “how-to” for community groups undertaking local history projects.

The MHSO Collecting Voices workshop provides participants with a foundational understanding of oral history and an introduction to the process of undertaking oral history interviews. The workshop addresses practical and ethical standards for the creation and use of oral histories, and it offers advice based on the Society’s extensive experience. Participants listen to interview clips from the MHSO’s oral testimony collection and then apply what they have learned by conducting interviews, with other workshop participants, using digital voice recorders. All participants receive a copy of the MHSO’s publication, Oral Testimony and Community History: A Guide.

Source: MHSO website http://mhso.ca/wp/workshops/

MHSO’s Collecting Voices Oral History Workshop, which is also available as a webinar,will be available again in fall 2015. Please contact the MHSO for details at (416)-979-2973 or  info@mhso.ca.

 Equipment

The Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg has an introduction to recording interviews with iPhones, smartphones, and tablets: www.oralhistorycentre.ca/introduction-recording-interviews-ios-devices-smartphones-and-tablets.

Which voice recorder to choose? The US Institute of Museum and Library Services has produced a helpful series of online questions to help find the right recording device for your needs, by complexity, weight, size, cost, etc.: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/askdoug/.

How to transfer cassette tapes to digital formats?

  • There are many commercial companies who can convert taped audio recordings into MP3 files and/or onto CDs. An internet search on “transfer cassette to digital” and your location (ex. “Kingston”), or something similar, should produce a list.
  • Alternatively, you can do it yourself, using a cassette player, a laptop computer, a cable to connect them, and special software. Many YouTube videos (such as this one) explain the process.

 Further Resources

Here are some further resources:

For fundamental information, the OHS has published Approaching Ontario’s Past: Conducting an Oral History Interview (1988, reprinted 2003, 28 pages, by Celia Hitch and Jay Norris). To purchase this booklet, please contact the OHS at (416) 226-9011 or ohs@ontariohistoricalsociety.ca. (Note: As part of OHS Reach project, the OHS also plans to digitize this and other publications to make them available online.)

Featured Projects

Examples of Ontario oral history projects to explore online include:

1.     Niagara Historical Society & Museum

https://memoriesofniagara.wordpress.com/

The Niagara Historical Society & Museum and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library have collaborated on this project. You may listen to reminiscences on culture (including The Shaw Festival), agriculture and farming, the military and Camp Niagara, and more.  The website notes that over 130 hours of digital recordings have been collected so far, and more are being added.

2.     Kensington Market Historical Society

www.kmhs.ca/general-eclectic/

The Kensington Market Historical Society, founded in 2012, started an oral history project in 2013 to document and preserve stories about the market. Themes include shopping in the market, food (such as bananas), language, earning a living, and having fun.

Other groups, among many, that are doing or have done oral history projects include the Ontario Black History SocietyNorth York Historical SocietyBrant Historical Society, and King Township Historical Society.

Best wishes for your oral history projects! Please visit the OHS website again for the next OHS Reach project post.


As part of OHS Reach project (please see media release), The Ontario Historical Society is pleased to launch a series of educational posts to benefit Ontario’s heritage community. Focusing on digital issues, over the next year the OHS will share lessons learned and resources found as we explore online delivery methods for Ontario History, the Society’s scholarly journal.

Possible topics include:

  • Digital preservation
  • Information technology (IT) project management
  • Small-scale publications management
  • Copyright law
  • Open access for journal publishing
  • Content management systems vs. digital asset management systems
  • Blogging

What online issues are of interest to you or your group? Is your society working on a digital project? Let us know! Please email Sarah McCabe at smccabe@ontariohistoricalsociety.ca.

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