Connecting the Virtual and the Actual: Making a Digital Oral History Project

New York University graduate student Yu-Shih Huang discusses her oral history StoryMap project which maps the life of one of Taiwan’s Lo-Sheng Sanatorium patients, Báu Bān-Ki.

By Yu-Shih Huang

According to an estimated statistic of International Telecommunication Union, “at the end of 2018, 51.2 per cent of the global population, or 3.9 billion people, was using the Internet.” In other words, nearly half of the world’s population is not online. What might happen once this significant amount of people eventually have access to the Internet? Although, as a history student, I cannot predict the future, I can still provide some observations from my digital oral history project in collaboration with an eighty-year-old former patient with leprosy.

An overview of this project must start with an understanding of leprosy. Since some symptoms of leprosy—deformed faces or shortened finders—are visible, patients have been stigmatized throughout human history. Japanese colonial authorities instituted a compulsory segregation policy in Taiwan creating the first official leprosy sanatorium on the island in 1930, Lo-Sheng Sanatorium, designed to separate patients from society for the duration of their life-times.

The suffering of these people didn’t end with that segregation regulation in 1962 or fade through time. In 1994, the land of Lo-Sheng Sanatorium was sold to Taipei Metro to build a new depot. Some former patients with leprosy decided to fight against the eviction with students and activists joining them. These young supporters founded the Lo-Sheng Youth League in 2004, and the senior residents united as the Lo-Sheng Preservation Self-Help Group during the next year.

During the fall semester in 2016, I joined the Lo-Sheng Youth League to advocate for the rights of former patients and preserve this historical sanatorium. The team has also been interviewing former patients with leprosy for years to create a narrative distinct from the official discourse. In the summer of 2017, when the activists and I were discussing the interviews we had conducted, Mr. Báu, a former patient with leprosy, rushed into the room, announcing that he was going to make a great timeline about his life story. However, Báu could hardly complete that mission on his own because he is illiterate. Therefore, I started an oral history project with him.

Through a series of interviews, I learned that Báu’s life can be divided into before and after he lived at the Lo-Sheng Sanatorium. Báu Bān-Ki (茆萬枝) was born in 1935 to a farm family in Suann-Siōng (山上) in the countryside in Southern Taiwan. Báu farmed, peddled foods in the market, and worked in the factories. However, with more symptoms of leprosy appearing, Báu was hospitalized in Lo-Sheng Sanatorium in 1973. In 2003, his life once again took another direction, as the sanatorium’s demolition initiated his political participation. He followed the Lo-Sheng Preservation Self-Help Group to protest on the street, sing in fundraising events, and support public programs to recruit supporters. Báu also tried to recreate the sanatorium by drawing the demolished buildings and making models of destroyed building out of the wreckage of the sanatorium. These artifacts were then displayed in his small museum in Lo-Sheng Sanatorium.

With an abundance of content gleaned from the interviews, I believed that we could do more than just the timeline Báu initially imagined. I decided to use the online tool, StoryMapJS, to tell a story that conveyed both change over time and geographical movement. I selected several important moments in Báu’s life and pinned the clips of the transcriptions onto the map. To verify the locations, during Tomb-Sweeping Day in 2018, a group of activists and I traveled with Báu to his hometown to visit his home, farm, and the factory where he had worked.

A slide of Huang’s StoryMap project mapping Báu’s life in 1945

During the summer in 2018, fellow activists and I curated a temporary exhibit about the residents of Lo-Sheng Sanatorium. The exhibit, Walking with Sickness: Stories, Items, and Documents of Lo-Sheng Sanatorium, also featured Báu’s story map. Since the exhibition was held in an abandoned dormitory, there was no electricity, so a QR code took visitors to the map through a digital device.

I also designed a set of postcards to sell as a way to promote the project and fundraise for the organization. On one postcard, I drew Báu drawing the dormitories and shared the QR code. By selling the postcard, the project became tangible and actual, rather than only virtual. Some supporters also mentioned that they would give the postcards as a gift to their friends, by which the digital oral history project was spread via an actual connection—a real life social network—between individuals.

The story map has also been disseminated through Báu’s network. At first, because he had no experience using online tools, Báu could not interact with or share the map himself, which depressed him. Eventually, I stuck the QR code of the story map on the wall of his museum displaying his sketches and miniature buildings. Recently, one of the activists notified me that Báu constantly said, “Use Line (a communication app)!” to encourage his visitors to pull out smart phones and scan the code to read his story. Even though he does not fully understand how apps function, Báu accepted that that the story map was an efficient means to introduce himself.

Although the project was promoted through this online tool, it was supported through an actual social network. Even though Báu seemed not to completely understand how the cyber world functions, he could still sense the power of digital display. While the project depends on in-person interactions, its digital format still creates a chance for broader audiences to discover Báu’s story. This is what those who are offline can never achieve, and here is also where the boundary of the Internet stands. If we really appreciate the Internet for breaking through the hierarchy, we should bridge the gap and really democratize the Internet. Once people worldwide can get online, they won’t abandon their actual real-life social networks, but open new doors to connect with the world.

Yu-Shih Huang is a current graduate student in the Archives and Public History Program at NYU and received her BA degree in history from National Taiwan University. With a strong interest in community history, she and her classmates have created a demo role-playing video game and a website about the lives of patients with leprosy at Taiwan Lo-Sheng Sanatorium in 1962.

The first draft of this article was presented in Systems: NYU Gallatin MA Student Conference in 2019. Thanks to the comments and feedback from the conference attendees.

Featured image depicts Mr. Báu in front of his home, courtesy of the author.