Conference report: OHS 2016 Conference: 'Beyond Text in the Digital Age?'
Writing about web page http://www.ohs.org.uk/beyond-text-in-the-digital-age-conference-report/
Angela Davis, University of Warwick
On the 8-9 July this year’s Oral History Society conference took place at the University of Roehampton on the theme of ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age: Oral History, Images and the Written Word’.
The conference encouraged us to rethink what we mean by doing oral history in the 21st century. Many new issues are coming to the fore. Does the fact that oral history can now be presented in new ways mean we need to rethink our practice? How do we navigate the many new ethical issues involved? What are the consequences of increased accessibility?
The conference opened with an excellent keynote by Mary Larson entitled ‘What Media Really Means: Implications of the Move from Analog to Digital’, which introduced many of these central themes. As well as providing a history of the technical developments oral history has witnessed in recent decades she explored their consequences for oral history theory and practice. A key concern is how we can provide easily accessible oral history interviews online while ensuring their audience is aware of the wider historical context of what is discussed, and is given information about the interview itself.
The particular issues when dealing with marginalised and vulnerable participants was a theme in many papers. For example in a session on ‘Ethics’, which looked at ‘Representation and Marginalised Identities’, Janet Traies discussed the challenges she faced in gathering the testimonies of older lesbian women in Britain, a group she described as being thrice marginalised, because they are lesbians, because they are women, and because they are older. She talked about the importance to her interviewees, many of whom having lived a lifetime of secrecy, that the anonymity of the testimonies were preserved. This posed particular problems when she tried to gather testimonies for a radio show. However she also found some of her participants were pleased that their voices were now being heard and for these women it was important that their own names were used.
From a different perspective, but reflecting upon some of the similar ethical issues, was a paper in a session on ‘Accessibility’ by Paul Hunt and Sara Pickard from Mencap Cymru about their project ‘Hidden now Heard’. For the project they have been interviewing patients and staff of Wales’ former long-stay hospitals. They discussed the challenges of interviewing people with learning disabilities, and analysing and presenting their testimonies. Paul and Sara also showed us some of the wonderful ways they displayed the interviews they have gathered in a travelling exhibition, with recordings being played in beds, radios, and even toilets.
Overall, the conference showed there are really exciting opportunities for oral historians, and indeed all those making use of oral history, in the digital age, but also many challenges.