Digital humanities and oral history: Seminar series

The Oral History Collective’s Seminar Series brings scholars to Newcastle so we can learn about their work on a range of interesting project and topics. Primarily, though, the seminar series allows us to explore methodological questions. In June, Anisa Puri visits to talk about Australian Generations: Creating a Digital Oral History Project. It’s got Alison Atkinson-Phillips thinking about the relationship between oral history and digital humanities (and digital culture here at Newcastle). 

Oral historians use digital tools every day, but the human-to-human relationship of the interview, which is at the centre of our practice, sometimes makes us ignore how digital-native we really are. Newcastle University recently hosted a ‘digital humanities’ event, at which Prof Jane Winters talked about a recent survey of UK scholars to find out the state of the DH field. Unsurprisingly (to me) a lot of respondents were historians; also unsurprising, many scholars who used digital tools don’t see themselves as DH scholars. Personally I’ve never thought of myself as a digital humanist, despite using digital mapping to share my PhD research, and experimenting with both Nvivo and Dedoose for data analysis. Maybe it’s because I think about these digital tools as simply that – tools.

One reason I’m really excited about our next Seminar Series visitor Anisa Puri is that, like me, she is excited but not dazzled by the digital. As she has written in a paper with Kevin Bradley:

The use of digital technology to make oral history interviews and research outputs more accessible online intensifies existing ethical issues faced by collection creators, managers and users, and adds further complexity to these dilemmas.*

For us at Newcastle, as we grapple with setting up a new unit, thinking about ways of working that are both interdisciplinary and which move outside of the university settings in collaboration with community partners, these are live issues. Add to that the new data protection laws and Anisa’s visit could not come at a better time!

But alongside the ethical and methodological side of the digital oral history, there’s also the fun side.  The International Oral History Conference earlier this week moved away what I think is a general trend in oral history, which is to center conversations about ‘the digital’ around the use of tools. Projects like the ‘From Glory Box to Grindr‘ online exhibition (which Anisa curated), or the Great Migration digital walking tour bring stories out of the archive in new and exciting ways.

For me, digital tools means to an end, with the end being the two things that are at the core of my oral history practice: working with people to tell stories that wouldn’t otherwise be part of the historical record; and understanding the impact of the past in the present.


The Australian Generation project, led by Alistair Thomson, is a ‘born digital’ oral history project. By that I mean that not only were the 300 interviews captured using digital records, but the research team was geographically dispersed and needed to make full use of digital tools such as Zotero, a reference management system designed to support collaboration.

Outputs have included radio programs, a History Pin map, and a digital oral history archive at the National Library of Australia, where 81 of the interviews are available online. Perhaps most significantly for those who get excited about putting the ‘aural’ back into oral history, the e-version of the book, Australian Lives: An Intimate History (co-authored by Thomson and Puri) includes hyperlinks that connect with the recorded audio.

Kevin Bradley & Anisa Puri (2016) Creating an Oral History Archive: Digital Opportunities and Ethical Issues, Australian Historical Studies, 47:1, 75-91, DOI: 10.1080/1031461X.2015.1122072

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