Software helps share stories 

Oral History researchers help develop application to manage digital interviews

By Karen Herland

Stacey Zembrzycki presented the potential of Stories Matter at a recent workshop. Magnifying glass

Stacey Zembrzycki presented the potential of Stories Matter at a recent workshop.

A team of researchers with the Montreal Life Stories project and the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) have been able to turn a wish list of possibilities into a software program capable of organizing, classifying and eventually sharing recordings of memories and experiences.

Stories Matter is a free, adaptable software program capable of working with Macs or PCs. The program reflects a process “directed and inspired by oral historians,” according to Stacey Zembrzycki, a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at COHDS. Zembrzycki and PhD candidate Erin Jessee spoke about their participation in the development of the software, and its capabilities, at a recent workshop.

The project was possible thanks to a CFI grant that Steve High (history professor and principal researcher for the Montreal Life Stories Project) received. The year-long process, including successes and challenges, was documented in a blog by the researchers who worked with software developer Jacques Langlois.

According to Zembrzycki, certain elements were important from the outset. The software had to be free, open source, intuitively easy to operate, bilingual and capable of incorporating audio and video material. “We’re not techies, but we use technology as a means to an end.” Expectations had to be adjusted to find technical solutions for concerns raised by the researchers.

Over five years, the Montreal Life Stories project will collect 500 interviews with people who arrived here from conflict zones. These interviews can be very emotional, painful or politically sensitive recollections of experiences of violence, displacement and loss. While the interviewer may be conducting research on, for instance, childhood, a future researcher may want to return to those same interviews to study education or some other theme. The ability to seek out connections from different aspects of the project will be invaluable.

Since many of the people whose stories are being recorded have left dangerous situations, balancing the desire to share information with the privacy and security of the people being interviewed led to discussions on accessiblity. “We did not want the interviews sitting on shelves in a closet,” said Zembrzycki. “But some material might require password protection.”

The possibility of networking the material for public (or restricted) access remains for a later version of the software. The current version of Stories Matter is available for individuals, who can work with it at their own computers.

Jessee walked those in attendance through the different elements of the program. Researchers can upload material, from consent forms to scans of mementos, along with their interviews. They can also establish keywords related to their research interests to tag their interviews, or include extensive notes to help keep their material organized. However, a thumbnail profile of the interview subject remains fixed in the top right of the work screen, a reminder of the life and context of the person being discussed.

Zembrzycki said the profile was incorporated as a check against straying too far away from a holistic view of the person. So, although the software can search material based on a common theme for shorter presentations, the integrity of the material is structured right into the program. The software was built on a framework provided through Adobe Air specifically because other options were more expensive and made it too easy to decontextualize the interviews.
Those listening to the presentation raised their own questions about the methodological constraints of working so directly with the digital material. Traditionally, oral historians have painstakingly transcribed their interviews. The process, usually requiring 8 to 10 hours for each hour of interview time, is extraordinarily time-consuming, but allows the researcher to develop a close, intimate affinity with the work.

Others argued that although the extensive note-taking and tagging required to make the digital material searchable and useful cuts that time in half, the additional richness of maintaining tone and body language adds more than a written transcript can convey.

The software is available online as is the blog.


Concordia University