Doug Boyd and the Power of Digital Oral History in the 21st Century

By Mike Ashenfelder | January 22, 2013

Digital preservation and Internet access are not only transforming the way we record and convey history, they are also restoring the importance of humankind’s oldest means of storytelling: the oral tradition.

One of the most influential leaders in this modern oral-history movement is Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries. Boyd (who blogs at is pioneering the use of digital technology to preserve and distribute oral histories. When I asked him what’s so special about oral histories, he said that a historian uses detective work and guess work to piece together resources and draw conclusions, while a recorded interview is a first-hand account told by a witness to history. It is living source material.

Some of the interviewee’s details might be fuzzy –- memory is far from perfect –- but the recording captures something that eludes the historian: how a person felt or what he or she thought about a certain event, place or time that they experienced. Boyd said, “A recorded oral history is more than just a quote on a page in a book. It is a meaningful story expressed by the person who owns that story.” And digital technology makes it possible to hear these stories anytime, just about anywhere.

Until recently, the work of oral historians resulted in a taped audio or video recording stored in box on a shelf in a repository where a researcher may or may not dig it up eventually to listen to it. But modern expectations of immediate access are changing that practice; anyone on the Internet can listen to them on demand. And low-cost, high-quality consumer equipment enables average people to contribute many more oral histories to the historical record. You can use the “C” word and dub it “citizen oral history.”

Boyd tells of a visitor to the Nunn Center who borrowed recording equipment to interview a World War II veteran. Within four days,  the visitor had conducted the interview, dropped it into his computer, added images that he found on the web, created a documentary and put it online. Boyd said, “This guy had about 700 Facebook friends. That quickly, he not only created this thing, he also distributed this interview to more people than we used to brag about serving at the Nunn Center in an entire year.”

Not only is digital technology enabling widespread distribution of recordings, it is also shifting interest to the recording itself and away from where oral historians’ interest had been for years: the transcription.

Read full post here. (Originally posted January 4, 2013)