Studying history through sound(s) is interesting, and challenging. For any historical place, time, or activity, there would be many sounds: human, environment, and mechanical. However, sound is an ephemeral medium, disappearing soon after its creation. Unless recorded in some way, sound is no longer available for study, or difficult to study.
Before the development of technologies for preserving them for later listening, speech and ambient sounds were described in writing by authors, travelers, and journalists. These writings are often the only source materials we have for understanding the sounds of speeches, battles, environments, and social and cultural change heralded by new technologies. With the advent of recording technologies, these sounds could be preserved for repeated listenings.
Because it is a common trait of all humans, the study of speech—patterns as well as content and composition—has long been important for historical and linguistic understanding of events and peoples in different contexts. For example, studying speech can help us mark or define the boundaries between particular contexts, between national, class, gender, or race relations.
Not as much attention has been paid to the environmental and mechanical sounds surrounding human life. More than a backdrop for speech, these ambient sounds are worthy of study in their own right as they contribute to the history and evolution of human culture.
For this reason, I suggest two approaches for studying history through sound(s): oral history and aural history. Oral history is a method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews with participants of past events and ways of life. Generally, the primary emphasis is human speech, a person telling about an historical event or life experience in her own voice. With the advent of affordable video recording technologies, gesture and para-language could be included as part of the spoken communication, thus expanding oral history beyond verbal form, and moving its presentation to a visual context.
Aural history speaks to gathering and preserving historical information about ambient sounds, either through writing, or recording. Aural histories focus primarily on ambient environmental or mechanical sounds. Understanding and appreciating these sounds provides context, background, and deeper, richer information about a place, time, or activity.
Aural and oral histories do not have to be kept separate. Sometimes they cannot. For example, The Sonic Memorial Project, begun shortly after the 11 September 2011 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, collects and provides access to stories, ambient sounds, life events, voice mails, and archival recordings associated with the twin towers. Today, this archive and online audio installation of personal and historic sonic traces, artifacts, interviews, and oral histories is valuable to family, friends, historians, archivists, and producers.
Many resources for both oral and aural history follow.
Oral History > collections / archives
Talking History: Aural History Productions
A production, distribution, and instructional center for all forms of "aural" history based at the University at Albany, New York. Its weekly radio show is broadcast over the air and via the internet.
Works with people to document their own lives for [national] public radio; teenagers, seniors, workers, prison inmates and others whose voices are rarely heard. We help people share their stories—and their lives—in their own words, creating documentaries that are powerful, surprising, intimate and timeless.
Race with History
Seeks oral histories, music, dance, poetry and all forms of cultural expression that can help tell the untold stories of people whose roots are in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and all parts of the globe. Many such stories remain to be told, discussed, turned over in our minds for their meaning, like cave drawings or trail maps of broken twigs, like moss on the side of a tree or the drinking gourd in the sky.
Whole World Was Watching: Oral History of 1968
A joint project between South Kingstown High School and Brown University's Scholarly Technology Group, this archive provides access to transcripts, audio recordings, and interviews made in 1998 but focusing on events in 1968.
Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World
Following the end of the Civil War, mill towns were developed throughout the Piedmont areas of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Northern Georgia, and Northern Alabama. By the mid-1920s, this region had surpassed New England as the nation's leading producer of yarn and cloth. The economy and life in these mill towns began to change in the 1930s. The story is preserved in the oral histories of former mill hands.
Oral History > examples
Studs Terkel: Conversations with America
Studs Terkel is noted for his books of oral history that examine working class America. This website provides access to his works through a wide selection of streaming audio.
Working Then and Now
Behind radio host and oral historian Studs Terkel's bestselling book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, were more than 130 interviews recorded on cassette tapes. Radio Diaries and Project& were granted access to the original interviews. This story focuses on the ordinary parts of the daily lives of Helen Moog, a taxi driver in Youngstown, Ohio and grandmother of five, and Lovin' Al Pommier, a car hiker in Chicago, Illinois.
Flint Sit-Down Strike
The focus here is on diversified, nonlinear access to digital audio content regarding the strikes in Flint, Michigan, in 1936-1937 that forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers union. Users can choose multiple forms of media in order to learn about the strike in slightly different perspectives.
Oyez: Supreme Court Media
Provides Supreme Court case audio tied to transcripts and shows well the possibilities of combining audio and texts for online presentation.
Oral History > recording equipment recommendations
MATRIX Equipment Recommendations
Provided by MATRIX, the Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University. These are their recommendations for audio recording equipment. Lots of downloads for further information as well.
Digital Audio Field Recording Equipment Guide
Provided by the Vermont Folklife Center. Features links to information about digital recording, field recording, editing recorded audio, and resources for preserving materials in ethnographic and oral history collections.
Digital Omnium: Oral History, Archives and Digital Technology
A website maintained by Doug Boyd, Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries. Reviews digital audio and video equipment useful for creating oral histories. Provides tutorials and archives. Follow the link to Boyd's book Oral History and Digital Humanities.
Oral History > tutorials / techniques / learning resources
Archiving Digital Oral History
Provided by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History.
Designing an Oral History Project
Questions to ask before beginning an oral history project.
Essays: Oral History in the Digital Age
Micro-essays written by experts provide information on best practices in collecting, curating, and disseminating oral histories. The Oral History in the Digital Age website is a product of Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership project in collaboration with the Michigan State University Museum; Michigan State University Digital Humanities Center, Matrix; the American Folklife Center (AFC/LOC), the Library of Congress; the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH); the American Folklore Society (AFS); the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries; and the Oral History Association. Lots of great resources here!
The Heart of Oral History: How to Interview
Chapter 3 from Thomas L. Charlton's classic text, Oral History for Texans, provides practical instruction in oral history interviewing. Provided by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History.
Introduction to Oral History Manual
An introductory workshop manual provided by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History.
Oral History Tutorial
A very helpful web resource provided by MATRIX, the Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University. Provides information on multiple aspects of audio technology associated with recording and producing oral histories.
Organizing Oral History Projects
Chapter 4 from Thomas L. Charlton's classic text Oral History for Texans, instructs community organizations and individuals doing community history in planning and executing a successful oral history project. Provided by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History.
Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide
Basic guidelines for collecting folklife and oral history from family and community members.
Transcribing Style Guide
Oral history recordings are traditionally transcribed into textual documents. No transcript captures the whole essence of a recorded exchange between interviewer and interviewee. You often have to listen to the audio recordings to experience a closer approximation of what transpired in the interview. Still, a transcript provides a useful format to access information of historical interest covered in an interview, and this style guide is helpful in converting speech to written text. Provided by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History.
Where can I find oral history on the Internet?
Information and links about web-based oral history resources. Primary focus is United Kingdom, but also provides some resources around the world. Provided by East Midlands Oral History Archive.
Corbin, Alain. Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, Martin Thom, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Erlmann, Veit, ed. Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity (Oxford, UK: 2004).
Hoffer, Peter Charles. Sensory Worlds in Early America (Baltimore, 2003).
Miller, Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Rath, Richard Cullen. "Hearing American History," Journal of American History Vol. 95, No. 2 (September 2008).
Rath, Richard Cullen. How Early America Sounded (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).
Focuses on how people heard their worlds in early America and provides a step toward understanding what is meant by aural history.
Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory (New York, 1995).
Smith, Bruce R. "Tuning into London c. 1600," The Auditory Culture Reader , Michael Bull and Les Beck, eds., (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2003), 127-135.
". . . most of us live immersed in a world of sound" (127). "Sound is at once the most forceful stimulus that human beings experience, and the most evanescent" (128). Three principles of studying sound
- Sound, as an object of study, has been neglected
- Knowing the world through sound is fundamentally different from knowing the world through vision
- Most academic disciplines are vision-based, not only in the materials they study, but in the theoretical models they deploy to interpret those materials (129)
Smith, Mark M., Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 2001).
Smith, Mark M., ed. Hearing History: A Reader (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).
The Sonic Memorial Project
SonicMemorial.org is an open archive and an online audio installation begun shortly after the 11 September 2011 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. The project collects stories, ambient sounds, voicemails, and archival recordings to tell the rich history of the twin towers, the neighborhood and the events of 9/11. This archive and online audio installation of personal and historic sonic traces, artifacts, interviews, and oral histories is valuable to family, friends, historians, archivists, and producers.
Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
Talking History: Aural History Productions A production, distribution, and instructional center for all forms of "aural" history based at the University at Albany, New York. Its weekly radio show is broadcast over the air and via the internet.
White, Shane and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech (Boston, 2005).