Oral History on
the Web: a Primer

Copyright (2002) Matt Mullenix,
the LSU Libraries and the
T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History


Oral histories, like the people they represent, are more than just voices. They exist in a wider context, busy with images and artifacts and the intersection of other stories. Human lives are the ultimate in interactive multi-media presentations. And in this sense, the Internet can be an effective and natural showcase for them.

How best apply the tools and opportunities of the Web to oral history is (like everything about the Web) debatable. There is a danger of bogging down in the technical details of the medium, or in questions of content and design. But the value and wide appeal of oral history makes these concerns worth some effort to overcome.

What follows is an illustration of simple principles by which oral histories can be transformed into effective Web presentations. These principles are based on the combined experience of the staff at the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History (at LSU in Baton Rouge, LA), on a review of contemporary websites and to a large degree on common sense. Though some of the tools and techniques may be new to those who are new to the Internet, it is otherwise a sort of meditation on the obvious.


International Oral History Association
Oral History Association (US)
T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History (Louisiana)


After collecting tapes and transcripts of oral history from which to create your Web presentation, selecting portions of each to feature is a logical next step. You may decide that the entire record (audio and textual) of each interview should be presented, and if so, this simplifies your work considerably. However, providing full-text transcripts and complete audio recordings is more akin to an online archive than a Web presentation: it can be vital to researchers but is unlikely to be utilized by the general public.

What adds popular appeal to a Web presentation – to any presentation – is story. Story provides structure and pace and context to what is otherwise the more or less chaotic series of events that comprise human lives. Stories feature themes and elements, characters and actions, beginnings, middles and ends. Thinking about the structure of a Web presentation in these terms may help you decide which portions of your transcripts to present and in what order.


Baton Rouge Bus Boycott
Kellytown Oral Histories
Sevier County Remembers...
Social Security Administration
Acadian Handicraft Project


Most oral history collections come already bound to a theme. They may explore the human experience of an event or a place or a period in history. They may illustrate the history of an organization or institution. Or they may seek to record for posterity the nature of a disappearing art or cultural activity. In any event, a logical structure for a Web presentation will likely be evident in the theme of the collection.

If the oral history revolves around a place (a building, a town, a river, a region) then a “guided tour” of that place as described by interviewees may provide a good framework for the story. If your oral history includes various experiences of a single event, then a chronological rendering of that event may be most suitable. Think first of the broad context in which each speaker's personal story relates to the others', and proceed from that when selecting which passages, events or elements to feature in your presentation.


Bradley Broadcast Equipment*
Paint Shop Pro
Sound Forge
Visioneer Desktop Imaging

* The appearance of commercial website URLs on this page does not constitute the endorsement of any product or service by Louisiana State University or its employees. They appear only as examples of available resources.


Sample sound clip Essential to Web presentations are digitized texts, images and sounds. It is possible now to conduct oral history interviews in an all-digital format, using digital audio tape (DAT), digital cameras or video, even automated dictation and transcription machines. Available also are sophisticated software packages that combine text, video and audio clips seamlessly into Web-ready presentations.

But to date, the lion's share of archival oral history recordings and supporting documentation exists in magnetic tape and on paper; similarly, most small-scale oral history projects will be conducted with tape recorders and film cameras, and later transcribed by the hands and ears of actual people. Thankfully, these days most researchers transcribe directly into the computer, saving at least one step.

An example of a flatbed scanner Digitizing printed images will require an optical scanner, a flatbed desktop model being the most common. Basic image editing software accompanies most scanning hardware to allow for cropping and various imaging effects. Sound clips, isolated from the original recordings can be imported directly into all modern personal computers via a microphone jack and then digitized with sound editing software (e.g., the Sound Recorder feature in Find Sound Recorder at: Start/Programs/Accessories/EntertainmentMicrosoft Windows Accessories). Text excerpts are easily cut and pasted into Web presentations if the transcript is already saved in word-processing software – otherwise a scanner and optical character recognition (OCR) software may be necessary to digitize it.


HTMLGoodies Primer


With all the digital elements collected and an outline of story as your guide, you are ready to produce your “feature presentation.” As a product for the Web, your creation will likely conform to one of the standard mark-up languages, Hyper Text Mark-up Language (HTML) being a basic but serviceable common denominator. HTML allows Internet browsers (e.g., Netscape Navigator) to display your text, images and sound files in more or less the manner you intend. But it is not the only option: a variety of popular software packages will allow precise control over the look and content of websites, to include animations, icons and images, myriad backgrounds and text fonts, etc., all through intuitive graphical user interfaces (GUIs). Just point and click -- no foreign language skills necessary.

The options for “manual” production of websites, for writing the code from scratch, are equally diverse, ranging from the simple use of some dozen basic HTML commands to more sophisticated techniques including Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Extensible Mark-up Language (XML), Common Gateway Interface scripts (CGI), and many others. Beware the dangers of bogging down…

For the information technology non-professional, webpage editing software and simple HTML scripts are probably the most practical choices for presenting oral histories on the Web. Neither will require a large investment in time to master, and both can produce attractive, functional results.


Yahoo! Geocities
Spaceports (allows cgi access)


Once your website is built and working, it will need a home. Space on web servers (the large computers designed to “serve” data through the Internet) can be expensive or free, but always comes at a price. Even having your site hosted at no cost by a local university or independent center for oral history may come at the cost of your control over it – reducing your ability to alter and update the information it contains as well as potentially forfeiting copyright protections. “Free space” on commercial servers (e.g., Yahoo!'s Geocities) is paid for with the imposition of pop-up ads that appear on each page as it is viewed; these ads can impact your carefully planned page designs, and you will have no control over what they chose to sell. Server space that is free of advertising and allows full user control is available from numerous vendors but typically at some monthly fee.


Google Registry
Altavista Registry
Lycos Registry


Attracting viewers to your website is the sine qua non and the $64,000 question of the virtual world. Commercial sites have obvious reasons to obsess over the number (and age and gender and location and income) of the people they reach. As the producer of an oral history site, you will have few such pressing concerns, but obviously you'll want to share what you have with someone.

Search engines (e.g., Google, Altavista, Lycos) are private software products made available to the public for locating information on the World Wide Web. These services regularly scour the Web for new sites to list. In theory, anyone should be able to find any page on the Net by entering sufficiently precise keywords to one of these automated indexers. In practice, hundreds of thousands of pages fall through the cracks. Your chances of scoring a hit with your page through a search engine can be greatly increased by registering it with the company who provides the service. But this can take time, and often some money as well.

Alternately, you may send the address of your webpage (its Universal Resource Locator, or URL) to the administrator of a site or sites with similar content and ask them to provide a link from their page to yours. Sites hosted by universities or large companies will have a greater chance of being indexed by a commercial search engine, and will likely have the added benefit of an internal key-word search, making your page available to anyone browsing the institution's main page.


Creating effective presentations of oral history on the Internet is not fundamentally different from composing any good website, or for that matter, any slide show, lecture, exhibition or feature article. All will incorporate elements of story, human interest, information and a general respect for the attention of the audience.

What is unique to oral history is its ability to reflect so well the general human experience through the spoken word of the individual. Providing a forum for the spoken word that expands its reach while preserving its integrity is the goal of oral history on the Web.