Online Oral History

21 Jan
Roy Rosenzweig

Pioneering digital historian Roy Rosenzweig, who died in 2007

In an earlier post I wrote about the value that Zotero offers to scholars working on digital ephemerals like personal web sites or blog posts. I should have realized that this was well-trodden ground and that those who came before me were marvelously eloquent figures like Roy Rosenzweig. I picked up a copy of Rosenzweig’s posthumously published Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age and I was thrilled to see the reasonable approach that he offered on the dangers and benefits of working online. It is all too easy to be a starry-eyed day-dreamer at the possibilities afforded by the Internet, but it is also easy to find a role as a curmudgeonly luddite. I suppose I walked Rosenzweig’s middle road pretty well as I described the advantage of being able to find things on the verge of disappearing as well as the disadvantage at feeling charged with the responsibility to preserve them not just for myself but for others as well.

Now that I’m recovered from my AHA2011 winter cold, I can think more clearly about Rosenzweig’s essay “Collecting History Online.” My dissertation research has identified a vast number of occasions where prayer and place have intersected in public spaces in America in the last 20 years. Of these, only a handful seem to offer my work the necessary mixture of significance, size, documentation, and other factors that will merit their inclusion in my primary study. But what of all the events that I have neither the time nor the resources to address during this project? I can’t expect to do fieldwork on events in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lexington, Atlanta, and a dozen other places, can I? In a starry-eyed day-dream, Roy Rosenzweig has me thinking for a moment that online oral history may be a way to answer yes—even if the results of the project are not all going to go directly into my dissertation.

There are significant hurdles, many of which are outlined in the essay, but several are particularly germane to me as I think about this academic excursion:

First, I might start this work under the professional auspices of UCSB and its IRB, but it could continue long afterward and would likely exist  well into other professional affiliations and other IRB. To what extent might the project be hampered by changing rules and expectations about the “human subjects” in this oral history?

Second, how would I manage the technological aspects of a growing database? While I have some programming skills, they seem either meager or outdated when facing the challenges of mounting this project online. Rosenzweig suggests that email or email-submitted entry forms require fairly few resources, but suppose you get even just 1% of the 20,000 folks who participated in the 1984 Olympic Outreach in Los Angeles. That’s 200 leads and statements to follow up on, and that event falls squarely into the middle range of sizes when compared with Jesus Marches in the mid-1990s.

Third, to what extent might a successful online oral history project distract from my main objective at this moment (finishing my dissertation)? Tracking down central institutions or figures to solicit contributions to this project could quickly escalate into a significant amount of time on the telephone and writing emails. Nevermind the challenges of managing a growing database of content, how would I manage a growing network of contributors that may be eager to participate?

I’m of two-minds about this project. The “stuff” I’d be collecting are personal accounts of public prayer events by those that marched or prayerwalked or spiritually mapped places for a fairly diverse set of religious motivations. The investment that contributors may have in sharing their experiences—both as testimony and toward preserving a community’s cultural memory—may be very high. If they are eager not only to contribute but to solicit others to contribute, the project could escalate rapidly as I discover more events and more participants. Drowning in data would be a significant risk if the project was successful, and for the most part my interest in these events seems to be an oddity among historians of religion in America, so I can’t count on a pre-existing network of colleagues to pitch in. Precisely because this is specialized area, my other fear is that I would fail (spectacularly) to find and recruit folks to the project. 20 years seems brief, but I can imagine that many of the networks that supported these events have substantially dissolved in the last two decades. If the decline of the frequency and size of the events is any indication, the moment of these practices has moved well outside of the mainstream (where for a brief time it existed in the mid 1990s).

So where do I begin? Do I begin with my dissertation research contacts and gauge their interest in such a project? Do I turn to friends in computer science and oral history to assess the backside challenges in executing the project? Do I seek funding for this in the proposal stage to pay for site hosting and the ability to hire a resourceful undergraduate programmer? Comments and thoughts are welcome on all fronts.

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2 Responses to “Online Oral History”

  1. Annie January 21, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    It sounds like you need a pilot study. That would give you an idea of the % of respondents you could expect; the best format for the database; the logistical costs of setting up, maintaining, and sharing it; and how much interest there was in it. Then you’d have a better idea of what you’re taking on and some concrete needs/ideas to take to potential collaborators?

    • D. McConeghy January 21, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

      Great advice, Annie. I think a smaller pilot would be great for all of those things. For whatever reason calling it a pilot study makes me feel all institutional and social scientific, which I can’t say are necessarily positive feelings for me. I guess I’ll have to go brush up on PHP and MySQL, huh?

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