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Oral history, research, and technology

A month ago, the Oral History Association (OHA) hosted their 2012 annual conference, “Sing It Out, Shout It Out, Say It Out Loud: Giving Voice through Oral History” in Cleveland, Ohio. Through papers, performances, exhibits and roundtables, conference attendees examined “the ways many people express themselves within oral histories, and also the ways in which people craft existing oral histories into other means of expression.” Unsurprisingly, one topic that came up in both formal presentations and casual conversation was the field’s use of the latest tech. Below are two reports from conference by Jeff Corrigan and Melanie Morse that speak to technology’s increasingly importance to the collection and dissemination of oral history research.


Quick Response Codes

By Jeff D. Corrigan


One of the most interesting sessions at this year’s OHA Conference came from Juliana Nykolaiszyn of Oklahoma State University, who talked about the use of QR (Quick Response) codes and how they can connect scholars to new audiences. QR codes are seen on many print documents now-a-days, working in conjunction with smartphones to direct users to additional content, like websites or coupons. As Nykolaiszyn explained in her presentation, today, 45 percent of adults own smartphones, suggesting that a much wider audience has immediate access to digital content than we might generally assume. Therefore, QR codes could be one of the many ways to provide value-added content to one’s research; for example, by linking readers to the interview clips in discussion.

Although Juliana mainly discussed exposing people to oral history via QR codes printed on text and photo panels, this technology has all sorts of implications for how scholars share information. Often times today, you see these codes printed on posters, bookmarks, business cards, or any type of text panel. However, QR codes could also be used to help create an interactive historic walking tour, where QR codes would appear on signs outside of historic buildings, display cabinets, or street signs. With QR codes, access to oral histories is no longer limited to individuals with permission to enter the brick and mortar archive or the savvy researcher able to navigate online collections.

As with most new technology, one might ask “At what cost though?” Fortunately, as Nykolaiszyn pointed out, the cost to incorporate this technology into current publications is minimal, especially since there are several QR Code generators available online for free. For example, Oklahoma State University uses the Zxing Project to generate their codes, a .jpeg file that they can copy and paste into any document before printing. OSU can even track the number of hits on a particular QR code by incorporating code by the free URL shortener Bitly.

As easy and great as QR codes sound, individuals and institutions traveling down this new technology path should remember two things. First, to follow the footsteps of Oklahoma State and include an instructive text panel that explains what the QR symbol is, and how to use it. Second, that although QR codes are quickly gaining acceptance, it is important to remember that a majority of the population does not have the appropriate technology to access the information available via QR codes. Therefore, be sure to include all necessary information in your original document, so that it is easily accessible to all, regardless of what tech they possess.

“Scenes from the Exhibits Hall”

By Melanie Morse


In addition to OHA’s sessions, workshops, plenaries, and keynotes, there is another space where conference participants of any stripe can talk about their work, ask questions, and generate great discussions. The exhibits hall is where folks can meander their way through booksellers, businesses, community projects, and organizations showcasing their wares. These exhibitor tables often facilitate as much interesting debate as any presentation, if one takes the time to engage.

One topic that bubbled up in our part of the hall was how to provide access to digital oral history content. This should resonate with all 2012 OHA attendees, be they student, oral historian, commercial vendor, etc. Specifically, we discussed:

  • What types of programs are available for creating access to oral history collections online?
  • Who do I need on my team to make these programs work?
  • How do I gain and allow greater access to oral history collections?
  • How do we get oral history collections accessible for people to explore, experience, and use?
  • What is Apache, Java, MySQL, Oracle, XML…?


Of course, more questions came up as we dove deeper into these challenges of access:

  • What is your goal?
  • Who is the audience?
  • How do you envision them using these online oral histories?
  • Is it geared to kids? Veterans? Academics? Researchers? Teachers?
  • How do you want folks to use it?
  • What does “access” mean to you? Define it.


One key conclusion that arose is that we need creative programmers to help us get access, however we define it, in place — there is simply no way around that. And that is ok! Do not fear the programmer. You need a real live programmer on your team that doesn’t just know “some stuff about style sheets,” but programs for a living. Once again, further exhibit hall discussion only raised more questions. Once we have programming capacity on our teams, then what? Putting oral histories up online is like planting a tree in the forest: you plant a tree and it grows, but how do you let everyone know its there? Are there even people out there who want your content? How will they use it?

So, now it seems there is a need for a major marketing or business plan to make sure all the hard work put into designing a beautiful site full of rich, accessible content is used, explored, and enjoyed to the fullest extent. Having a plan in place before programming begins will help to ensure that your site has longevity and sustainability. Your plan should contain room for growth, too, with creative ideas ready to integrate technology that we know is coming but isn’t quite here yet. Think George Lucas pre-shooting the scene with Han Solo meeting Jabba the Hut for Star Wars 1977 because he knew he would be able to add computer-generated effects eventually. 20 years later, he did!

This is one of many scenes I witnessed in the exhibits hall. Lots of great questions, and lots of creative thinking leading towards innovative solutions. And yet, while these discussions were plentiful, none trumped the burning question of the conference: “Where is Doug Boyd?”

Jeff D. Corrigan has been the oral historian for the State Historical Society of Missouri at the University of Missouri since April 2008. Prior to that, he taught U.S. History and Western Civilization at Illinois Valley Community College. He holds a B.S. in Agricultural Communications and Advertising from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a M.A. in U.S. and World History from Eastern Illinois University.

Melanie Morse works with The Randforce Associates in Buffalo, NY, where she designs custom solutions for content management in the field of oral history.

The Oral History Review, published by the Oral History Association, is the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history. Its primary mission is to explore the nature and significance of oral history and advance understanding of the field among scholars, educators, practitioners, and the general public. Follow them on Twitter at @oralhistreview and like them on Facebook to preview the latest from the Review, learn about other oral history projects, connect with oral history centers across the world, and discover topics that you may have thought were even remotely connected to the study of oral history. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on the OUPblog for addendum to past articles, interviews with scholars in oral history and related fields, and fieldnotes on conferences, workshops, etc.

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2 Responses to “Oral history, research, and technology”
  1. [...] and dissemination of oral history research (including QR Codes).  For full story click here.  Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged Oral History Association, QR [...]

  2. [...] New media provides both challenges and opportunities for us all. Technology has shifted the collection and dissemination of oral history. Oral historians must decide on how to address fellow historians and the general public. We could [...]

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