Connecting Past, Present and Future: A Website Review of Stacey Zembrycki’s “Sharing Authority With Baba”

Internet sources can present challenges in the university classroom, but they also offer many new, exciting, creative learning opportunities. Rather than barring internet sources altogether, we should be teaching our students to engage critically with a range of sources, including the many great digital projects available online.

One such example is Stacey Zembrycki’s website, “Sharing Authority With Baba: A Collaborative History of Sudbury’s Ukrainian Community, 1901-1939.” Produced through Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS), this site serves as an exemplary model of the innovative ways that scholarly work can be shared in a digital format.

The site opens with a brief description of its contents, along with an invitation to download a historical walking tour of the Donovan, including a guide and audio files of Sudbury’s Ukrainian community. From here, web surfers can navigate a range of options in a highly interactive learning process.

A project tab leads to a more detailed description of the work, outlining her guiding theory and methodology. Exploring the ongoing process of community, Zembrycki uses this space to engage readers with some of philosophical pillars of oral history, concisely blending her personal research experience with the broader politics of oral history. More information about the interviews is located under a social network tab, which offers both visual and written descriptions of people and place in Sudbury. Central here is Baba, who played a pivotal role in facilitating the research project.

Following this is a web of stories where written historical sketches are enhanced by an intricate web of oral interviews, allowing for the voices of interview participants to be heard. This is further supplemented by an interactive memoryscape that locates photographs on a map of Sudbury. A photo gallery serving as a community photo album brings the past much more vividly to life in the wide array of historical photographs on display. A list of credits and a site index top off this inventive work, providing further information about those involved in the production of the research and site, and links to further publications.

This format does not easily fit into traditional modes of scholarship, but herein is also its greatest strength. In written form, an author has a great deal of control in determining the path of the narrative and the flow of information. Digital history does not easily lend itself to long explanatory arguments or in-depth discussions of complex phenomena. Images, maps and audio files can easily lure attention away from the text, and visitors have greater freedom to pick and choose their flow of information.

Yet it is precisely this multi-sensory stimulation that can greatly enhance the learning experience. It becomes possible to not only read about, but to see, hear and locate a diversity of historical experiences. Digital history can bring the past to life in new, exciting and vivid ways.

Digital history offers an added benefit for oral historians who grapple with difficult questions around “sharing authority”, power relations in the research and writing process, and the complexities of transferring the spoken word to written form. Including audio files provides space for people to speak for themselves, capturing cadence, tone and inflection, which in turn can greatly affect the meaning and intention of what is being said. Sound editing, selecting clips and design can still impede a perfect balance of power, but it certainly is a big step towards allowing people to speak for themselves.

Zembrycki’s work, like much digital history, is also a project of public history. Its accessibility leaves her accountable to a much wider audience than peer reviewers, including the people from the community she has undertaken to study. But its value certainly doesn’t end in the realm of public history – it also has much to contribute to professional historical studies.

Zembrycki contributes to a growing body of historical work which engages studies of the past with new technology, adding to an increasingly impressive body of scholarly work that is available online. It serves as another striking reminder of the many benefits of remaining open to new technologies both in the classroom and within academic research. As Zembrycki illustrates, the end results can be the beginning of boundless possibilities for a future that more deeply connects with its past.

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