Storytelling Matters: Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University

By Christine McLaughlin

Storytelling has long been an important aspect of the historian’s craft.  The move beyond exploring traditional archival material, which privileges the voices of the literate and often the powerful, towards the collection of oral history, has been an exciting development in historical scholarship.
On the other hand, the use of oral history has been ripe with paradoxes.  Historians conduct oral interviews, which they then transcribe to written word.  From here, they pick a few, hopefully representative, quotes from multiple interviews to integrate into their work.  The completed academic project may or may not be accessible to the interviewees.
Furthermore, a significant power imbalance exists between researcher and interviewee; the historian holds ultimate authority over the story that eventually emerges from their research.  Traditionally, then, the historian, as mediator between interview material and the information that reaches the public, has been the predominant storyteller in narratives of history.
An innovative project at Concordia University seeks to revolutionize the way that oral history is collected, archived and accessed.  The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/index.html), co-directed by two history professors, Steven High and Elana Razlogova, has been built around the idea that the stories people tell matter.  The Centre not only facilitates the collection of oral histories for researchers, but privileges storytelling in the words and voices of those who lived through historical events by digitising video and audio recordings (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/projects/projects.html), and by seeking alternate ways of presenting research findings that move beyond the written word.
One example of an important project the Centre is engaged in is the Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violations (http://www.lifestoriesmontreal.ca/).  University and community-based researchers are in the process of recording “the experiences and memories of mass violence and displacement” of over 500 migrants to Montreal.  This material is posted on the web, so that anyone with access to an internet connection can hear stories of the experiences of refugees from Cambodia, Haiti, and Europe, to name but a few, in their own voices.
Committed to the idea of “sharing authority,” the site also contains resources for oral history researchers (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/resources/resources.html), including ethical guidelines and training material for the interview process.  Such materials include a list of sample interview questions (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/resources/tips/Documents/Sample_Questions.pdf).  While questions posed by an interviewer can signficantly impact the content of the life stories recorded, the transparency of this process as it is featured on the site is admirable.   Affiliates are also welcome to use the Centre’s state of the art facilities, which provide access to technologies and equipment that aid in the collection and digitisation of life stories.
The Centre has also developed Stories Matter (http://storytelling.concordia.ca/storiesmatter/), free software that allows for “the archiving of digital video and audio materials, enabling users to annotate, analyze, evaluate and export materials, as well as tag, index, search, and browse within interviews, sessions, and clips or across entire collections.”  Currently in its second phase, they are developing “an online platform for the software, which will allow multiple users to collaborate on the creation of a single database through an online server.”
The site also includes blog updates, access to articles and databases of oral histories, among many other features.
The Centre has done an incredible amount of work since the doors were first opened by Steven High on 10 September 2007.  Those interested in oral history would do well to monitor its future developments as it continues to probe how digital technologies can highlight the power of the spoken word.  It is also an excellent resource for educators and interested community members.  In “breaching the divide between the ivory tower and the street,” as Steven High aptly puts it, this massive project serves as an excellent example of how technology can be harnessed to make history more accessible and relevant to a public audience.

Storytelling has long been an important aspect of the historian’s craft.  The move beyond exploring traditional archival material, which privileges the voices of the literate and often the powerful, towards the collection of oral history, has been an exciting development in historical scholarship.

On the other hand, the use of oral history has been ripe with paradoxes.  Historians conduct oral interviews, which they then transcribe to written word.  From here, they pick a few, hopefully representative, quotes from multiple interviews to integrate into their work.  The completed academic project may or may not be accessible to the interviewees.

Furthermore, a significant power imbalance exists between researcher and interviewee; the historian holds ultimate authority over the story that eventually emerges from their research.  Traditionally, then, the historian, as mediator between interview material and the information that reaches the public, has been the predominant storyteller in narratives of history.

An innovative project at Concordia University seeks to revolutionize the way that oral history is collected, archived and accessed.  The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, co-directed by two history professors, Steven High and Elana Razlogova, has been built around the idea that the stories people tell matter.  The Centre not only facilitates the collection of oral histories for researchers, but privileges storytelling in the words and voices of those who lived through historical events by digitising video and audio recordings, and by seeking alternate ways of presenting research findings that move beyond the written word.

One example of an important project the Centre is engaged in is the Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violations.  University and community-based researchers are in the process of recording “the experiences and memories of mass violence and displacement” of over 500 migrants to Montreal.  This material is posted on the web, so that anyone with access to an internet connection can hear stories of the experiences of refugees from Cambodia, Haiti, and Europe, to name but a few, in their own voices.

Committed to the idea of “sharing authority,” the site also contains resources for oral history researchers, including ethical guidelines and training material for the interview process.  Such materials include a list of sample interview questions.  While questions posed by an interviewer can signficantly impact the content of the life stories recorded, the transparency of this process as it is featured on the site is admirable.   Affiliates are also welcome to use the Centre’s state of the art facilities, which provide access to technologies and equipment that aid in the collection and digitisation of life stories.

The Centre has also developed Stories Matter, free software that allows for “the archiving of digital video and audio materials, enabling users to annotate, analyze, evaluate and export materials, as well as tag, index, search, and browse within interviews, sessions, and clips or across entire collections.”  Currently in its second phase, they are developing “an online platform for the software, which will allow multiple users to collaborate on the creation of a single database through an online server.”

The site also includes blog updates, access to articles and databases of oral histories, among many other features.

The Centre has done an incredible amount of work since the doors were first opened by Steven High on 10 September 2007.  Those interested in oral history would do well to monitor its future developments as it continues to probe how digital technologies can highlight the power of the spoken word.  It is also an excellent resource for educators and interested community members.  In “breaching the divide between the ivory tower and the street,” as Steven High aptly puts it, this massive project serves as an excellent example of how technology can be harnessed to make history more accessible and relevant to a public audience.

3 thoughts on “Storytelling Matters: Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University

  1. Steve Gammill

    I am privileged to have discovered your blog. I, too, am an advocate of story telling. In my practice and in my life I have found that focused interviews, those asking for stories pertaining to a particular value or set, make it easier for the person to recall the events and experiences I am seeking. As an example, my recent book, Success…Swimming in a Sea of, focuses on the meaning of success in life. This method sometimes allows for questions that are more open ended. You can see the book at http://www.stevegammill.com/book. I have about 25 different, focused interview sets in my inventory. Storytelling, as any of us collect them, provides the true legacy of people.

  2. Steve Gammill

    I neglected to mention that in my practice, I give a copy of the digital recording to the interviewee, attractively packaged, so they may gift it to their children and loved ones. In the years ahead, those children and grandchildren will have the stories of their ancestor preserved, not in written form, but in their own voice.

  3. Christine Post author

    Thank you very much for your comments. Storytelling is definitely an important part of history, and it’s great to hear from others committed to the same idea. I think it’s wonderful that you share your recordings with interviewees – it’s important to give something back to the people who share their life stories.
    There certainly is a delicate balance between preparing a list of questions, thus influencing the interview process, or allowing for a free flow discussion. The former can unduly influence the interview process, while the latter can result in a very unorganized piece of work. Thanks very much for sharing how you deal with this balance.

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