Oral histories and You Tube

Taking a break from writing my chapter and thanks to an article on BBC Online, earlier today I came across a video weblog by 79 year old Peter Oakley from good old Leicester who, going by the name 'geriatric1927', regularly uploads videos of himself reminiscing about his life, to the video-sharing website 'You Tube'.

At Viv's research seminar today she mentioned something that Cynthia Brown had talked about at the Oral History training a few weeks ago: how when George Ewart Evans was doing his pioneering work with agricultural workers, he would be quite stern with his subjects if they went 'off-topic'. What strikes me about Peter Oakley's weblog (which is well worth a look, if you get a chance) is that it is essentially unmediated. He gets to talk about what he wants, to remember what he wants, to present the viewpoint or perspective that he wants. Oral history is something which is often talked about in relation to democratising history, but, of course, as the tale about Evans reminds us, there's usually somebody 'pulling the strings' in the background, i.e. the person choosing the subject, the questions they ask, the editing process, the interpretative slant they put on the result, the way the recording or transcript is then used. You Tube, seems to me, especially where the output is controlled entirely by the subject - as is the case with 'geriatric1927' - is the ulimate in oral history. At the very least it's the natural successor, perhaps even the death knell, to the oral historian armed with a digital recorder and a notebook of questions. Which begs the question, who's going to collect and preserve online recordings for posterity? Will Peter Oakley's efforts be for nothing, if ultimately his remembrances are forgotten? Is the pace of technology leaving museums and archives behind? perhaps some of the Digital Heritage people in the Department would like to comment?!


Ceri said…
Very interesting particularly as we are at a time when we 'know' our place in history far more perhaps than ever we used to. One thing about all this technology is that it enables those who never had access to wider networks to infiltrate them and we have immediate access to the raw material that creates our history. But will we end up having too much? Consider for example the historian when they want to write about attitudes and experiences during the 21st century. All they could do is look at the Internet and a whole host of blogs, videos, and musings will be revealed. Is there an issue that there will be too much? Will it be impossible to gain a sense of coherence because there are so many diverse and conflicting voices? What about those experiences that are not captured through technology is there a danger that they will be forgotten or excluded? Will it prevent people from researching because they have so much material to draw on without leaving the comfort of their computer?

For me oral history, as with any interview, is as much about the interaction between the individual and the researcher. This might reflect an imbalance of power but some people are less confident and might not feel that their experiences are worth capturing. However with a sympathetic and interested researcher this might help to draw out stories that they might never reveal elsewhere. So whilst I think it is fantastic that some people are choosing to record their history themselves I don't think oral history will die out completely as not everyone will be brave enough to put themselves on the web. Its great though that people have a forum to do so - don't get me wrong!

Attic said…
Good point. Will new technologies supplant the old tried and tested ways of collecting and interpreting material, thereby excluding those without access to the Internet (or provide institutions and funding agencies with the perfect excuse to curb financial support for museums and archives - that's cynical old me, for you! ;))? Will we end up with more information that could ever possibly know what to do with? Do we collect it all regardless, or do we employ some sort of quality control. And if so, who takes the decisions? We could end up full-circle with a situation where a few speak for the majority. (Yet more questions than answers...sorry!)

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