• Orality and libraries

    Hi folks. Here’s what I’d like to talk about at THATcamp.

    I’m working on a paper for a (traditional) conference this summer on how folk literature in the oral tradition can be used as a model for describing the contemporary activity of writing fan fiction. Along the way, I’ve been thinking about Robin Lakoff’s observations about modern society’s shift from literacy to orality as the ideal model for communication.

    This trend began decades before the Internet, but is certainly being hastened by it. An unconference is a perfect example of a communicative form morphing from a “written” model to an oral model: even though a traditional conference involves the spoken word, its nature is more like written communication: the presentations are prepared beforehand (“reading a paper”) and often intended to be disseminated in print afterward.

    Poetry slams are another possible example. Poetry readings have traditionally been constructed as events where an author reads from work already published, or perhaps work intended for future publication. That’s not a given at poetry slams, and although there are a few published anthologies of poetry composed for slams, I suspect they’re only a tiny fraction of what has actually been performed. The live performance is what counts.

    How can libraries collect primary source material, like fanfiction and blogosphere discussions, which exist not in a single digital space but in diffuse locations? Is there any meaningful way to preserve forms of scholarly interaction and popular culture, like unconferences and poetry slams, which define themselves through in-person attendance? There are technical challenges, and the copyright questions are also very complex. Substantive material, which scholars might find valuable in the future, is being produced outside of the publication & dissemination arenas where intellectual property issues are at least somewhat settled.

    So the resurgence of orality has significant implications for research libraries, which collectively are responsible for gathering primary source material (while it’s still available!) and building comprehensive collections for current and future scholars. There are several other librarians attending THATcamp, but most of you represent the scholars whose future needs librarians try to anticipate as we develop collections. I look forward to exchanging ideas with you.

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3 Comments


  1. greenshade says:

    Hello. 🙂 This topic is definitely of interest to me. At the National September 11 Memorial Museum we are collecting oral histories recorded by our museum staff as well as remembrances and survivor stories recorded through our partner, StoryCorps. We’ve had a lot of internal discussion about the comparative merits of transcription and simple “time-stamping” using our CollectiveAccess collections management software. Transcriptions are generally easier to search through traditional means and potentially less subjective than keyword “tags” created by catalogers, but it’s tough to get at the essential orality of transcribed material. Oral history (and testimony) are primary sources sited by teachers as being of high interest to them and their students in coming to appreciate the multiple perspectives that make up the historical record. I’m very interested in how these and other oral or ephemeral perspectives can best be recorded and preserved for future researchers and students.

  2. Wow, I’d never heard of StoryCorps but I just spent an hour at the website listening to excerpts. What a fabulous project!

    Is there a controlled vocabulary for the keyword tags you mention? How was it developed? This sounds really interesting.

    • greenshade says:

      I’m honestly not sure how controlled the vocabulary is that is used by StoryCorps staff to tag their oral histories before they are imported into our collection. We generally receive a description and list of tags something like this:
      “Cherilyn remembers her father who died in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th, 2001.

      “family members in history money birth death singing anecdotes (humorous but true stories) personal experiences historical events/people traumatic memories memories of former times memories of growing up school day memories earliest memories social beliefs and practices identity urban life community organizations community history schools teachers students siblings parents children gifts gift giving tall tales memorials September 11 World Trade Center terrorism bombings horseback riding running 9-11 New York City Ground Zero Graden City America’s Camp”

      Most of these tags are too general to be of much use to our institution, but we leave them in the object records anyway. For remembrance interviews, our staff will then in turn link the oral history to a victim entity record (we have a controlled list of the 2982 victims in our collections management database).

      I think the kinds of tags prioritized by different institutions have a lot to do with their respective missions. At this point, the 9/11 Memorial Museum is more interested in preparing content for our developing exhibitions. I anticipate that when we become a true research institution with a database open to the public, we’ll want to reevaluate the systems we use for tagging objects for potential researchers. (Although this does come up repeatedly in internal conversations…)

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