Still Waters Run Deep. Including Minority Voices in the Oral History Archive Through Digital Practice

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Norah Karrouche

    Erasmus University Rotterdam

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While digital archiving practices in the Netherlands in the past two decades have provided better access to oral history collections (Heeren et al. 2009, Kemman et al., 2013, Ordelman & de Jong 2011, de Jong et al. 2014), the effort has also demonstrated that the voices heard in those oral history projects are predominantly white. This paper argues that the composition of the Dutch oral history archive is in dire need of revision and seeks to generate a dialogue on how to remedy this silence. In a discipline that has traditionally prided itself on its emancipatory potential, ethnic minorities and formerly colonized peoples in particular have received relatively little attention. The reasons for this silence are manifold.

First, oral history projects in the Netherlands have mostly dealt with WWII memories, atrocities and trauma victims in particular (Karrouche 2018). Few of these WWII-related oral history collections and research projects have concentrated on events in the colonies and the participation of colonial troops on the battlefield (van den Berg et al. 2010). Others have investigated their interactions with Dutch citizens during the war (Hondius 2010) or the ways in which WWII and its aftermath were experienced in the era of decolonization. Some examples of oral history projects that have successfully honed in on these silences in the Netherlands and the former Dutch colonies are ‘Papua’s in diaspora’ and ‘Het Molukse perspectief in oorlogstijd’, two collections that deal exclusively with the Dutch Indies. Although oral histories of WWII have demonstrably become more sensitive to diversity and multiperspectivity, other historical events that may be relevant to the collective memory and mnemonic practices of minority groups with which the Netherlands have no immediate colonial tie (e.g. guest worker migrants and refugees from southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and their offspring), are underrepresented in oral history projects.

Second, oral historians in academic settings often struggle with the perception that their method and sub-discipline is highly subjective and thus, untrustworthy as a historical source (Dudley 2009). As a primary source, an oral testimony of a specific event or a life story is oftentimes attributed a lower status. Two, more recent developments deserve our attention in this regard. Oral history is increasingly being used as a method to gain insight into the ways in which individuals remember, how they selectively engage with the past, and give meaning to their present and future selves. Most oral historians will nowadays not so much regard their method as a means to reconstruct the past through memory. They are far more interested in the construction of identities, their representations and performances. Moreover, scholars acknowledge that the status of original recordings as more ‘truthful’ sources is changing rapidly (Scagliola & de Jong 2014, compare Dudley 2009).                           

Third, individual researchers who
collect oral histories of post-colonial ethnic minorities in the Netherlands (as elsewhere, see Berger Gluck 2014) are often reluctant to deposit and share their archives in scientific repositories, for instance because they have particular ethical and legal concerns and feel unprepared to tackle these. Oral historians are often unaware of the vast array of choices they have within the ruling European privacy legislation (GDPR). Researchers are reluctant to deposit their oral history data.  

But oral history’s roots are not only to be found in trauma studies and war history. Oral history also emerged in the 1960s in urban spaces where the voices of women, working classes and racial minorities had gone unheard (Ritchie 2014). Historians criticized the dominant top-down approaches to history, as histories that centered on the states and men who governed them. Oral history gave voice to the historically disenfranchised, and was practiced first and foremost at a local, not national level. While in the Netherlands these voices may not be heard through scholarly collecting practices, as listed and explained above, they are certainly available through community archives, which operate at a local level but have neither the means nor the expertise to store and disclose their collections. In many cases, oral history is the only way to gain insight into the specific historical experiences of ethnic minorities in the Netherlands, as these are groups that have been underrepresented in the traditional archive. Sources from less privileged groups in society should be added to our archive as a way to address topics and experiences that are underrepresented in national histories due to a lack of documentary sources. Community archives collect oral histories primarily among underrepresented groups, and first and foremost in order to share them with an audience.

In this short paper I therefore advocate a return to oral history’s urban roots and focus on identity construction and minority subjectivity. I will do so by elaborating my insights and preliminary analysis of an experimental cooperation between CLARIAH (Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities), a large-scale digital humanities research infrastructure project in the Netherlands, and the small community archive
Verhalenhuis Belvédère
in Rotterdam. This particular initiative aims at connecting local citizens through storytelling, including oral history. The one-year pilot is centered around a collection which voices a diverse group of local citizens and ethnic minorities’ memories of the era of reconstruction in the city of Rotterdam, and its aftermath. To this end, representatives of the community archive, digital repositories and the digital research infrastructure project closely collaborate. Can we design an oral history collection integration workflow that would help community collection owners to integrate their data in digital repositories and research infrastructures? How can ASR and annotation tools support this process? Which sustainable strategies can we develop in order for these collections to be used and re-used in research?

My aim is to generate a dialogue with digital humanities scholars and offer ideas on a template for the further inclusion of community oral history archives in scholarly repositories and digital research infrastructures. In a world rife with issues of diversity and representation, I propose this community-based strategy as a means to navigate these muddied waters, and achieve a more inclusive approach to oral history research in both academic and non-academic contexts through digital practices.


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van den Berg, H., Scagliola, S., and Wester (2010).
Wat veteranen vertellen; different perspectives on biographical interviews about experiences during military operations
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Dudley, K.M. (2009). In the Archive, in the Field. What Kind of Document is “an Oral History”?. In Chamberlain, M., Thompson P. (eds.),
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de Jong, F.M.G., van Hessen, A., Petrovic, T., Scagliola, S. (2014).
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Kemman M., Scagliola S., de Jong F.M.G., and Ordelman. R.J.F. (2013).
Talking with scholars: Developing a research environment for oral history collections. International Conference on Theory and Practice of Digital Libraries, 197–201.

Karrouche, N. (2018). Leren digitaliseren. Mogelijkheden van de digitalisering voor geschiedenisonderwijs met oral history.
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Ordelman R.J.F., de Jong F.M.G. (2011).
Distributed access to oral history collections: Fitting access technology to the needs of collection owners and researchers. Digital Humanities 2011: Conference Abstracts. Stanford University Library.

Ritchie, D. (2014).
Doing Oral History,
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Scagliola, S., de Jong F.M.G. (2014). Clio’s Talkative Daughter Goes Digital. The Interplay between Technology and Oral Accounts as Historical Data. Bod R., Maat J., Weststeijn T. (eds.)
The Making of the Humanities, Volume III: The Modern Humanities
. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 511-526.

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