Beyond text in the digital age: conference report







More than 140 people gathered at Roehampton University on 8th and 9th July for the Oral History Society’s annual conference, this year titled Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral history, Images and the Written Word.

The conference explored innovative and exciting uses of oral history and how media such as images, film and digital technologies are interacting with text.

As ever, this was a truly multidisciplinary and international gathering with speakers coming from as far afield as Finland, India and the United States. The broad scope of the conference theme was also reflected in the range of sessions on topics including: social media; ethics; archiving; materiality; space and place; and the marriage of words and images.

For the first time the conference included a strand focusing on teaching and learning oral history in higher education, as well as sessions focusing on the society’s six new special interest groups. The society hopes to develop both of these in coming conferences.

Tour of old recording formats

The conference started with some disappointment when it was announced that oral history pioneer Alessandro Portelli was unable to deliver his keynote because of illness. Mary Larson (pictured left), associate dean for special collections at the Oklahoma State University Library, who was due to speak on the second day of the conference took over Portelli’s slot.mary_larson_002-283x300

Larson’s talk was an ideal introduction to a conference focusing on oral history in the digital age as she took the audience on what she described as a “tour of an old media warehouse, where we can see the old formats of our misspent youth”.

She began by discussing the dominance of the oral history interview transcript, which, she said, “may have been the most accepted medium in the early days of oral history because it was academically respectable.”

Some practitioners tried to make the transcript more connected to the spoken word by presenting it as poetry or a script but the expense of transcripts meant that by the 1970s and 1980s there was a return to the orality of oral history, with the advent of the more accessible cassette recorder and then, later, the video recorder.

Academic David Dunaway saw each oral history interview as a “specific situated performance”, said Larson. “This is the closest we have come to foretelling what people would start trying to do with digital media later on,” she said.

One of the problems with video and audio in the early days was access, with tapes gathering dust on the shelves of archives. Larson described a tension between context and access. The interview transcript is easy to access but provides little context. Audio and video interviews provide good context, but are hard to access.

However, the advent of mobile technology and the smartphone has signalled “a huge sea change from the academic to the public sphere”, said Larson. She cited the work of Toby Butler and his soundscape walks along the Thames path and that of Annie Valk and Holly Ewald, who worked on an oral history and arts project on a pond in Rhode Island in the United States. Work such as this are beginning to open up the oral history interview to the wider public and offer interesting new ways of interpretation and presentation.

Larson said that new technologies were making practitioners question how to present oral history. A transcript is an accurate record of words spoken; video is good for capturing the interplay between two people.

“But if we going to understand that oral history is an interactive thing which is specifically situated in a time and space, that’s another thing entirely. And it’s going to require us to think differently about how to portray oral histories,” she said.

To listen to a recording of Larson’s speech click on the ‘play’ button below.


Calais “Jungle” refugee camp

The first day of the conference closed with a special event hosted by Aura Lounasmaa of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London, alongside Jan Wheatley, an artist and Katrine Moller Hansen, a student at the centre.

The event focused on the life story course the centre is running in the Calais “Jungle” refugee camp. The course, which runs about once a month , focuses on writing, photography and the study of texts by a range of writers from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama to Plato. Staff from the film studies department have also run film workshops.

The course, which has official accreditation from the university, was the brainchild of Professor Corinne Squire, co-director of the Centre for Narrative Research.

Before going to the camp the course leaders try to get in touch with students to tell them a course is planned. They also contact other organisations in the camp to let them know they’re coming and hand out leaflets once in the camp to drum up interest for the day’s events.

The students are producing a book, published by Pluto Press, which will come out next year and will feature writing, art and photography.

Jan Wheatley, an artist from Margate, Kent, talked about how she became increasingly frustrated at the plight of refugees just 40 miles from her home. She visited the camp and took photographs of its residents which she then turned into artwork.

Ali Ahmed








Because EU law states that refugees must claim asylum in the first European country they arrive in residents in the camp are wary of being identified. Wheatley destroyed her photographs and her artwork focuses on details such as a hand or a pair of boots (see above).

Lounasmaa showed photographs by Gideon Mendel and excerpts from a film made by two asylum seekers, which is being shown at film festivals over the summer. Lounasmaa told the conference how the centre constantly questions the work it is doing in the camp.

“There’s this idea of poverty tourism or aid tourism where we go and rescue someone and it makes us feel better – but it further risks victimising the person we’re trying to rescue,” she said.

She said bearing witness to the situation was a positive motivation.

However, she added, “While we’re being a witness we’re also being a voyeur. What good is a university education when people have no roof, no identity, no shoes and have little future. This is a conversation we keep having. Why are we doing this? And should we do it?”

She added, “For me, one of the main motivations and the way we can struggle against the dehumanisation done by the media is by having a human contact. We look someone in the eye and have a conversation.”

Annual general meeting

On the second day of the conference the society held its annual general meeting. Two new trustees were welcomed to the OHS committee, Amy Tooth Murphy, organiser of this year’s conference, and Julian Simpson from Manchester University.

Delegates discussed freelance pay and OHS secretary Rob Perks highlighted the society’s suggested freelance rates. However, one unintended consequence of the rates is that “the lowest rate is the rate that gets paid”, said Perks.

The society refuses to advertise jobs where the rate is too low and it is in discussion with the Heritage Lottery Fund about freelance pay.

In conversation with…

The society wishes to give a huge thanks to Anne Heimo (pictured below left), chair of the Finnish Oral History Network, and Don Ritchie (below right), historian emeritus of the United States Senate, for stepping in at the last minute to take part in a discussion session on archives.

Anne Heimo, Rob Perks and Don RitchieRob Perks (centre), who chaired the discussion, lamented the sorry state of archives in the UK which he said had been “pretty poor” at looking after oral history material. But he also said that in the push to get new recordings online “we’re in danger of overlooking lots of analogue material that needs to be digitised. We have 10 to 15 years to digitise all the extant analogue recordings”.

Ritchie warned of an over-reliance on the web. “The internet is not an archive. If you’re relying on Google as your archive there’s a problem,” he said.

Ritchie revealed how in the early days oral history recordings in the US archivists would reuse the tape as soon as the transcript was finished so he only record was a written one.

Heimo talked about the Finnish tradition of life writing and how oral history in Finland also encompasses written records.

Closing remarks

At the end of the two days Amy Tooth Murphy, one of the conference organisers, thanked everyone who attended for the “energy and attention” they brought with them. And she summed up the joy of attending an oral history conference.

“They’re great because they’re full of people who like talking to other people,” she said

  • The Oral History Society would like to thank all conference attendees and speakers. A special thanks to: Mary Larson, Aura Lounasmaa, Jan Wheatley, Katrine Hansen Moller, Anne Heimo and Don Ritchie. Thanks also to Vanessa Yu and Julia Noyce from Roehampton University and the conference organisers, Amy Tooth Murphy, Hilary Young, Padmini Broomfield, Sarah Pyke, Emily Mercer, Daliany Kerch and Anne Gulland.