Oral History and Clio: Connecting Oral History, Sense of Place, and a Public Audience

Digital technologies have created the opportunity to share oral history interviews in new ways, as evidenced by the many projects we discuss here on the blog and in the journal’s media reviews. The educational nonprofit, Clio, offers a place-based website and mobile interface to experience history where it happened. A recent update allows integration of audio files into the app, and our guest authors discuss ways oral historians can connect their interviews to the physical environment. 

By Kathleen Thompson and David Trowbridge

The twenty-first century is a digital age when vast amounts of information is at our fingertips. For better and for worse, most people carry a device that allows them to access location-based information at nearly every moment of the day. This presents an incredible opportunity for oral historians, as it is now possible to embed oral histories into the physical landscape. Not only would this vastly increase the reach for oral history collections, this approach has the potential to connect our sense of place with the work of historians. Recognizing this potential, and with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and West Virginia Humanities, enhancements to the digital history platform Clio now make it possible to embed oral histories into the landscape.   

Our hope is to share this free and open technology with as many historians as possible. We also hope that a free tool like this might support past and future projects. Historians in all branches of the field have adapted to technological changes to enhance the work of researching, archiving, and communicating the past. In oral history, new technology has helped with the recording, editing, and preservation of interviews and narrations. Technology in museums, historical sites, and other cultural spaces has greatly enhanced the ability of historians to connect the public to history through scholarship and the tangible connections created through artifacts, images, and sounds. Clio is just one of many digital interpretive spaces that can provide opportunities to reach the public. The platform is designed to support individual entries for landmarks, walking tours, virtual tours of museums and sites, driving tours, digital story maps, and even hiking trails that can work with or without a cell signal. Recent updates to Clio that allow the inclusion of audio files open vast possibilities for oral historians to use the platform to make more interviews available, create digital exhibits or additions to exhibits, and educate students on the methodology of oral history.

Thanks to a recent grant and partnership with the American Foundation for the Blind, Clio offers text-to-speech and also has the capacity to include narration and oral histories within individual entries and tours. In each entry, there is space to include two audio clips; these can be a narration of the written content for ease of access and accessibility or audio files of interviews and oral histories. If copyright issues are a concern or if a historian would preferably include a link to an existing repository, there are multiple places to include links to archival sources. In practice, oral historians have found that including short clips from more extensive projects and a link to the full project archive has been a great way to “use” Clio to spread awareness of their work. Since that entails driving web traffic from our project to other websites and projects, part of our goal in writing this short piece is to reassure historians that this is precisely our intent. Clio was built to connect the public to the work of historians, so if someone discovers an oral history collection while they are using Clio, our project has been a success.  

While most oral historians are likely thinking of examples of how they might utilize location-based technology to share oral history, we thought it might be helpful to include a few examples of how this has been used by others. For example, the authors of the West Virginia Women’s History Trail mixed a narrator’s voiceover with oral history clips and interviews with scholars. There is the option to embed additional audio tracks along the route of a tour. This example from the Marshall University Campus Tour shows how a historian can embed stories of retired faculty and alumni along the walk between campus buildings and landmarks, and the same approach could work well for a neighborhood tour to create a sort of “if these walls could talk” feel. Including oral histories within a Clio entry allows the visitor to connect to the physical space around them and connect to the people in that history by listening to their words at the same time. This allows history to come alive in a sense, connecting the public with the lived experiences of other people.

For those who teach courses in oral history or public history, this technology might offer an opportunity to engage students in creating a real product based on historical research and writing. Perhaps a class project could have students choose local topics to research and write entries on, with interviews conducted with local residents featured in the entry or tour. An instructor might also use existing interviews to teach students how to choose and edit audio clips for use in interpretation. Clio began as a project to allow students to do the work of historians. Examples of this student work include the entry for the Julian Bond Memorial Bench in Washington, DC, where a student interviewed Freedom Rider Joan C. Browning and Bond’s widow, Pam Horowitz. Another student interviewed a former “Rosie the Riveter” about her experiences working at the Sylvania Plant in Huntington, WV.

As a platform, Clio offers oral historians and oral history repositories a variety of ways to connect their work and collections to broader public audiences. In addition to the critical work of capturing and preserving oral histories for information and perspectives of past events, making oral histories available to the public in some form can significantly enhance a listener’s understanding and connection to history. We hope that Clio can provide a digital space to preserve oral histories and use them to interpret historical and cultural spaces. Museums and historical sites that have oral histories preserved within their archives and digital files can make those available to the public or create museum tours to add to their physical exhibits using audio recordings. For historians or organizations interested in creating oral histories or other resources in Clio, other groups have had success in applying for grant funding from various local, state, and national organizations for these projects. Because Clio is a free platform, we hope this could help historians make full use of any funding, by focusing funds on stipends for colleagues, recent graduates, and students.  

Dr. Kathleen Thompson is serving as a Preserve West Virginia AmeriCorps 2020-2021 member working with the Clio Foundation. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

Dr. David Trowbridge (Ph.D. Kansas, 2008) is an associate professor of history at Marshall University. In 2013, he began work on Clio, a website and mobile application that connects people to nearby history and culture.