Podcasting our personal history together

UPDATE: EducateWandie had the idea for a new site called “Yesterday.sg” in which we collect oral histories of Singaporeans around the world. I personally think that ROCKS! ­čÖé

A fury of ideas sparked after La Idler posted on Tomorrow.sg about bloggers wishing for an expanded use of podcasts. Essentially Mr. Brown’s article on collecting oral histories of Singaporean located in geographically distant places made sense as it coincided with recent events I encountered I’ve seen in my travels and studies.

I had two encounters with activities that involved oral history
I remember while walking around the New York’s Grand Central Station there was this exhibit in the shape of a box called StoryBooths. Within this booth was where people could have their “life stories” recorded. People on the outside could go to different “speaker ports” on the outside where they could hear different stories that were recorded prior. This was sorta like “real-time” oral history archiving… it was cool because it was had such a real presence. I soon found out that this was by StoryCorps and it was a public art project on the Oral History of Americans.

On a similar note, at the Educational Technology Center where I work, I’ve helped the two professors on their Uncrowned Queens web site which features an ongoing collection of oral histories from African American Women of Western American. At a showcase presentation yesterday, one of the professors explained her motivation very well by saying that we often hear about autobiographies of famous & popular people but fail to realize that everyone else also had a part to play in shaping America the way it is today. By hearing the smaller yet significant stories from the rest of the people, we can have a better view of what went on in history, and thus have a better appreciation of our roots and our future.

These events made me think about now the technology we possess now (e.g. podcasting, blogging), already allows everyone to leave personal histories behind for posterity. Perhaps what could be done to further this would be to define the “do it yourself” elements that would make for an ideal recording for such oral history.

Firstly, What is oral history?
According to DoHistory.org, oral history is the systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences. Oral history is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumor. Oral historians attempt to verify their findings, analyze them, and place them in an accurate historical context. Oral historians are also concerned with storage of their findings for use by later scholars.

In oral history projects, an interviewee recalls an event for an interviewer who records the recollections and creates a historical record.

event -> interviewee -> interviewer -> historical record

Oral history depends upon human memory and the spoken word. The means of collection can vary from taking notes by hand to elaborate electronic aural and video recordings.

How does podcasting fit into the oral history picture?
So far all the examples mentioned were before the time podcasts became popular. Perhaps now is a good time for bloggers to engage in recording the oral history of people around them and putting them up as podcasts on their blogs. Our current technology can certainly fill this need.

How can we start?
Academic oral history projects can be quite elaborate, with lots of planning and budgeting involved. For our own oral history podcasts, we can forego some of the complexities so that we can just do it and have fun at the same time. With that, here my quick start guide for starting your own oral history for podcasting (References StoryCorp and the DoHistory.org at Harvard university):

    What you need:

  1. Figure out who you’d like to interview (e.g. family, friends, pets)
  2. Pick an event to talk about (e.g. 1970s, Tea-time dances in the hey days, 9/11, etc)
  3. Figure out a rough set of questions to ask (try this if you need ideas)
  4. Choose your Recording device (best if on iPod’s iTalk or equivalent mp3 recorder)
  5. Edit for podcast (put it on your own blog where people can find it)
    For the Interview

  • Find the quietest place possible to record.
  • Make sure you and your storyteller are comfortable.
  • Do a test recording, holding the microphone about one hand’s distance from your storyteller’s mouth. If anything sounds strange, stop and figure out what the problem is before starting the interview.
  • Double check that the recorder is actually recording (not on pause).
  • Start each tape with an ID: State your name, your age, the date, and the location of the interview. For example, “Hi, my name is Kevin. I’m twenty-seven years old. The date is April 30, 2005, and we’re sitting here on my ship called “Tomorrow never dies” in the freezing lakes of Ontario.” Ask your storyteller to state the same information: “Hello my name is Ah Beng, I’m fifty-four years old and I’m presently a retired dance instructor”.
  • Stay quiet when your subject is talking. Don’t say, “Uh, huh.” Instead, nod your head.
  • Feel free to re-record. If your storyteller makes a mistake or if a noisy truck passes by, feel free to ask hiim/her to repeat the story.
  • Ask emotional questions like “How did this make you feel?”
  • Look your storyteller in the eyes and stay engaged.
  • Stick with amazing moments in the interview. Follow-up questions often yield the best material.
  • Be curious and keep an open heart. Great things will happen.

This would be a great way to get to know your grandpa or friends even better. Hope you have fun trying it!

4 thoughts on “Podcasting our personal history together

  1. The idea is brilliantly simple… though I’m wondering what’s going to stop people from taking up this idea? I’m definitely giving this serious thought. Something that the library can do with schools, or hook up with National Archives. I think what’s important is also for people to know how to tag their podcasts as well.

  2. I’d bought it earlier, but $50+ for a .sg domain name is expensive! I only pay less than $10 per year for a .com!!

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