Quick Links

Overview | Background | Aural History | Oral History

Overview

This inquiry considers our interactions with aural and oral sound(s) through aurality and orality as different but related ways of using sound(s) for studying history and telling stories.

Background

Aural/Oral, Aurality/Orality

The terms aural and oral and aurality and orality can be confusing. They are interrelated but represent different concepts. But, both refer to sound and that is a good place to start.

Aural

Sound(s), often ambient, that surround, or provide background to, human speech and spoken communication. These sounds might be either natural (environmental) or mechanical (resulting from some human activity or created object).

Oral

Sound(s) produced by humans, primarily spoken speech, for the purpose of communicating abstract ideas, thoughts, messages, etc.

Aurality

Related to the ear or the sense of hearing, sound that we experience, sound that, according to radio historian Susan Douglas "envelops us, pouring into us, whether we want it to or not, including us, involving us" (Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. University of Minnesota Press, 2004, p. 30). Aurality is a way to conceptualize the acoustic environment in which we are immersed, and the many acoustic landscapes we may experience.

Orality

Refers to the fact and practice of oral/verbal/spoken communication. Orality is a subset of aurality, and the defining aspect of oral history.

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.

Oral History

A method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews with participants speaking of past events and ways of life. Generally, the primary emphasis is spoken voice, 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-Oral Continuum

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.

So What?

So what? What does this mean? Several things. First, studying history through sound(s) is interesting, and challenging. For any historical place, time, or activity, there would be many sounds: human, environmental, 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, 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.

Many resources for both oral and aural history follow.

Aural History

Readings

Corbin, Alain. Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside. Translated by Martin Thom, Columbia University Press, 1998.

Erlmann, Veit, editor. Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity, Berg Publishers, 2004.
The ear, hearing, listening, sound offers a new way to examine cultural experience and complex social issues.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. Sensory Worlds in Early America. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Presents a "sensory history" of early North America to consider the role that sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch played in shaping the lives of Europeans, Indians, and Africans in the New World. Explores the impact of sensuous experiences on human thought and action. Traces the effect sensation and perception had on the cause and course of events conventionally attributed to deeper cultural and material circumstances.

Millard, Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Recorded sound in movies and records played a major role in the diffusion of American culture around the world. This book examines the history of recording technology and its application in entertainment and history.

Rath, Richard Cullen. "Hearing American History," Journal of American History, vol. 95, no. 2, Sep. 2008, pp. 417-431.

Rath, Richard Cullen. How Early America Sounded. Cornell University Press, 2003.
Focuses on how people heard their worlds in early America and offers literary and anthropological evidence that the past placed greater importance on the aural than the visual, focusing on the significance of non-verbal noises in colonial North America from 1607 to 1770.

Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History. 3d edition. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Ritchie, Donald A., editor. The Oxford Handbook of Oral History. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. Vintage, 1995.
The landscape, more than a view, is a work of the mind, built from strata of materials including memory and sound.

Smith, Bruce R. "Tuning into London c. 1600," The Auditory Culture Reader, edited by Michael Bull and Les Beck, Berg, 2003, pp. 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: (1). Sound, as an object of study, has been neglected, (2). Knowing the world through sound is fundamentally different from knowing the world through vision, and (3). 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 Michael. Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Examines soundscapes of colonial America. Aural values helped determine antebellum sectional identities. "Sectional awareness shaped by what elites heard at the everyday level of social, economic, and politcal interaction" (13). Sounds helped determine what peoples in different sections of the country knew of each other, and felt about themselves. Sounds helped determine what it meant to be northern or southern, slave or free.

Smith, Mark Michael, editor. Hearing History: A Reader. University of Georgia Press, 2004.
Addresses questions like, What is aural history? Why has vision tended to triumph over hearing in historical accounts? How might we begin to reclaim the sounds of the past?

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Duke University Press, 2003.
Explores the evolution of sound recording and reproduction technology. "Provides a kind of sonic map of the origins of the way we listen to things around us," says Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky).

White, Shane and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech, Beacon Press, 2005.
Collects songs, speeches, and sermons that provide a revealing window into the sufferings of slaves.

Websites

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.

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.

Oral History

Oral History > associations

Oral History Association
International association for oral historians and others interested in oral history.

Oral History > collections / archives

The BBC and World War Two: 100 Voices that Made the BBC
Drawing from extensive oral history archives, this program sheds new light on how the BBC shaped the experience of war, and how war transformed the BBC in return. Part of the Connected Histories of the BBC research project based at University of Sussex, England.

British Library Oral History Collection
Interviews on a wide range of subjects relating to British life, work, culture, and experience. See also Sound and Vision Blog for weekly insights into the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and access to thousands of moving images.

British Library Sound and Vision Blog
Daily posts providing interesting listening and viewing opportunities.Many examples of oral history.

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.

Radio Diaries
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 > conceptual framework

The Affective Power of Sound: Oral History on Radio
by Siobhán McHugh
This essay was first published in Oral History Review, vol. 39, no. 22, Oct. 2012, pp. 187-206. DOI: 10.2307/41811718 READ online or DOWNLOAD a PDF copy of the essay.
This article offers insights into the historical symbiosis between oral history and radio and the relationship between orality, aurality, and affect that makes radio such a powerful medium for the spoken word. It does so through a discussion of the concept of affect as it applies to oral history on radio and through a description and analysis of crafting oral history for the radio documentary form. Features audio excerpts from radio documentaries produced by the author. Instructions for accessing these sound files are included. Republished in The Oral History Reader, third edition, pp. 49-507. See below.

Perks, Robert & Alistair Thomson, editors. The Oral History Reader. Second edition, Routledge, 2006. Third edition, Routledge, 2015.
The foremost anthology of international oral history scholarship. Illustrates similarities and differences in oral history around the world. Reviews key debates and literature.

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.

Vermont Folklife Center Archive: Field Research Guides

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.

Audio Recording Equipment Guide: Retired Equipment List

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.

Field Recording in the Digital Age

Digital Editing of Field Audio

Resources on the Preservation of Materials in Ethnographic and Oral History Collections

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.