Week 6 in the Digital History: A Two Part Series
Driving Questions: what is the current relationship between social media platforms and oral histories? What can we learn from the innovative ways oral historians are deploying social media to proliferate knowledge and amplify the voices of their historical subjects? In what ways does social media affect the authenticity and representation of historical subjects?
Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to dive head first into the equally rich, challenging, and rewarding world of oral histories. I initially trained to become an oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). The SFA is an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. The SFA is known for its expansive collection of oral histories, documentaries and other forms of digital scholarship that catalog the rich traditions and changing foodways of the South.
In May of 2011, I made my way up to Oxford, Mississippi on the Amtrak City of New Orleans line to attend a week-long oral history workshop conducted by renowned oral historian, Amy Evans Streeter. The workshop was an intimate setting, attended by 10 scholars and was aptly named, "Gathering the Stories Behind the Food." Through lecture, discussion, collaboration and fieldwork, we acquired a solid foundation in methodologies and best practices to conduct meaningful oral histories. Equipped with my digital audio recorder, Digital SLR camera, field notebook and an undying curiosity of Southern food culture, I was ready to begin fieldwork.
In the late summer and early autumn of 2011, I collaborated with my colleagues Sara Camp Arnold and Kate Medley to interview 20 farmers, customers and long time supporters of the Carrboro Farmers' Market, located just a few blocks from UNC Chapel Hill's bustling campus. This project was dynamic in that, as ethnographers, we explored the network of food spaces that have contributed to the formation and sustainability of the Carrboro Farmers' Market: the market itself, the farms, the restaurants and the neighboring university. The SFA Carrboro Farmers' Market Oral History Project is now accessible through a number of social media platforms including flickr, broadcastr, and YouTube.
I would argue that the most dynamic (and perhaps challenging) aspect of this project was prepping our oral histories to be published on the web. For weeks, we brainstormed unifying themes and ways to coherently and cohesively categorize the interviews. We read and re-read transcripts, and triple checked them once again for accuracy; we wanted to have the most truthful representation of our subjects’ voices as possible. We snipped, clipped, and trimmed our lengthy audio files to create pithy 2-4 minute audio-visual segments for the homepage of each interview. We uploaded our photos from the field to flickr, our edited audio clips to broadcastr, and our audio-visual slideshows to YouTube. Our oral history project is now also available through the SFA Stories app.
The SFA is exemplary of the ways in which we can deploy social media to proliferate knowledge about Southern foodways and feature the voices of the farmers, vendors, chefs and customers who constantly create and re-create farmers’ market culture (arguably, this applies to a wide range of historical inquiry and studies). The SFA is also uncannily successful at creating a digital space where scholars and more general audiences can come together. The availability of full transcripts of each interview enables scholars to conduct serious academic research through the SFA website (although complete audio files are housed at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi). At the same time, the SFA website functions as a major draw to food enthusiasts and food tourists, providing a friendly and engaging digital space to splash around a bit and explore Southern food. The Southern BBQ Trail project is one example of how the SFA is pairing oral histories with interactive digital maps to encourage foodies to hit the road and directly interact and engage with the individuals and cultures that have been highlighted online.
I would argue that historians can take a page or two (or three?) from the SFA’s handbook on oral histories and think about more creative ways in which to make oral histories available, accessible and appealing to wider audiences. Even if reaching a larger general audience is not the primary goal, I think organizing our oral histories spatially (for example, through interactive maps) can help us uncover new connections and form a better understanding of how culture moves across space and time.
I would also like to take a few moments to reflect on the ways that Claire Payton, a fellow Duke History PhD student, is striving to make her oral history work on the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti available to a linguistically diverse audience online. The interviews grouped under the Haiti Memory Project “offer Haitians the opportunity to represent themselves and present their own narrative about what has happened to their country.” I’ve had the privilege of hearing Claire speak about her work both formally and informally. One of her visions for the project is to make transcripts of the oral histories available in English, French and Kreyol. Her work is one of the many examples of scholars striving to make oral histories (and the Internet, in general) increasingly accessible.
Although generally accepted with enthusiasm, the endeavors of oral historians do not go uncriticized. Oral historians must address issues of representation and authenticity—constantly striving to justly represent our interviewees not only in the archive, but on the web as well. In my own transcript editing, I even grapple with editing out “ums” and “uhs” because I believe these pauses give a sense of rhythm to the otherwise 2-dimensional sentences on the page. Oral history projects are also inherently incomplete, in the sense that oral historians cannot capture and preserve every voice. Even those individuals who do give oral histories can only reveal a small part of themselves in an hour- or two-hour long interview. That being said, I would argue that oral histories and oral history projects are playing a key role in digital scholarship, pressing us to consider expanding our target audiences through social media.
As I reflect on the current state of oral history projects and their relationship (or lack thereof) with social media platforms, I cannot help but wonder how the Internet (re)shapes the voices of our historical subjects? What are the implications of amplifying voices through flickr, broadcastr and YouTube?