Communication and Media Studies, e-Research, Historical Studies, Humanities

Participating in the Past

25.03.08 | Comment?

The profile of oral history research has grown dramatically over the past two decades. One of the reasons for this is that there has been a diversification of modes of public access and delivery. The increasing use of digital media means that oral histories are now reaching far greater audiences, and these histories are being presented in more direct, more stimulating and richer ways than have before been possible. In fact, the digital revolution is rapidly transforming history as a genre and set of practices, and oral history is a key player in this process.[1] Because oral histories lend themselves to digital forms of delivery much more readily than conventional, text-only, representations of history, oral history has come to be a central focus for digital history researchers. While it is clear that historical representation is undergoing changes as a result of the new challenges and opportunities presented by the digital environment, as yet it is less clear what the implications are for history as a discipline and as a set of practices.

This essay begins to address some of these issues by focusing on oral history projects and drawing upon specific examples to provide a basis for reflecting on how the digital domain is enabling a remarkable transformation in this field of history, not only in terms of its practices, but also in terms of its reception and its power. I suggest that the new digital media are liberating oral history (once only available in the form of audio tapes or text transcriptions and accessible only to specialists or persistent enthusiasts) by bringing it into the everyday world where it can be heard, questioned, freely interpreted and freely shared. Most importantly, in what amounts to an unprecedented democratisation of history, the digital media have begun to release history from the controlling hand of the single authorial point of view and have made everyone a potential contributor to an ongoing process of shaping and reshaping history. At the heart of this digitally driven shift is a change in the role and status of the individual story and, alongside it, of the personal things (photos, mementos, fragments, ephemera), the little things, that make up a life. This is, one could say, a multiple shift across many facets: from objective narrative to subjective story, from big to small, from wholeness to fragmentariness, from the printed word to voice and image, from linearity to rupture, and all this implies—a shift from closure to openness.[2]

This is not to say that historians have not valued these facets as much in the past. There were simply not the means, nor the space, in the pre-digital world to accommodate and organise the wealth of material that can now be stored so easily and accessed instantly from almost anywhere on the planet. However welcome and positive this development may be, there are many new skills to learn and practical and technical issues to confront and manage. In addition, the digital environment brings its own constraints and dangers. The following discussion will touch on matters such as the provision of funding for oral history research, the problems of maintaining and updating digital histories, and the special demands of interdisciplinary collaboration in Australia, especially between historians (as content providers) and multimedia designers and producers.


Arthur, Paul Longley. “Participating in the Past: Recording Lives in Digital Environments,” in “History Experiments,” ed. John Frow and Katrina Schlunke, special issue, Cultural Studies Review 14, no. 1 (2008): 187–202.

[1] Michael Frisch refers to this change in terms of the emergence of a ‘post-documentary sensibility’ and comments that the ‘new digital tools and the rich landscapes of practice they define may become powerful resources … to open new dimensions for understanding and engagement through the broadly inclusive sharing and interrogation of memory’, Michael Frisch, ‘Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Towards a Post-Documentary Sensibility’, in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds), The Oral History Reader, second edn, Routledge, London and New York, 2006, p. 8.

[2] This constitutes a belated shift to postmodern and postcolonial principles, facilitated by the new technologies.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity