Hacking Public History
Most of the public history and oral history projects I admire are the result of thousands or even millions of dollars in grant money, multiyear timeframes, and networks of community collaboration. But what if, for whatever reason, that kind of infrastructure or institutional support just is not possible? What if there are no grants available, or not enough time to secure them? What if you are an individual researcher who wants to go out and create a project simply because you believe in it? Is it possible, as a graduate student, to “hack” a public oral history project?
The Haiti Memory Project (HMP), an online archival collection of first-person survivor testimonies about the 2010 earthquake, began as one such “hack.” After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I wanted to respond by recording and sharing survivors’ stories. But I didn’t have formal support, and the project was too urgent to wait around until I did.
This post shares a few of the pragmatic elements of creating the HMP, in the hopes that others interested in “hacking” public history or oral history might draw inspiration—or lessons—from my experience.
I first conceived of the HMP as a way of coping with the incomprehensible level of destruction wrought upon a place I knew, loved, and studied: Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. The earthquake was followed by another disaster: a media storm that flattened the varied experiences of a complex catastrophe into a single dehumanized narrative of black victimization.
Individual survivors’ stories, I realized, would be a potent source of counter-narratives with the power to complicate these mainstream media discourses. Since memories fade and change with time, I felt it was critical for me to get to Haiti as soon as I could. I crafted a project proposal and submitted an IRB application. Although I had never worked with oral history before, it appeared now to be the only methodology powerful enough to do the work that I thought needed to be done
I headed to Haiti as soon as my semester ended in June 2010. The IRB had approved my proposal. Critically, I also had a few thousand dollars in a savings account that would support me through the summer. Equally crucial was the generosity of Haitian friends who welcomed me into their home. I hadn’t had enough time to look for grants, and frankly, I doubt there is one that would have supported a small-scale experimental international oral history project designed and conducted by a neophyte.
The neighborhood I moved into had been badly damaged by the quake, and I started spending time in an encampment home for displaced earthquake survivors down the road. I began my first interviews within a week of arriving. I was fluent in French, which in Haiti is the language of power and education, but struggled in Kreyòl, the language of the vast majority of the population. Haitian friends kindly agreed to work with me free of charge translating between the two when they could. Eventually, in order to regularize the research process, I hired a college student to work with me daily as a fixer and translator.
Not being encumbered by formal methods or equipment other than a small handheld digital recorder allowed for a great deal of spontaneity. My translators and I approached people in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and public spaces. One interview led to another, as curious bystanders volunteered to tell their stories next. We interviewed bus drivers, market women, activists, students, Vodou priests, Christian fundamentalists, mothers, fathers, and camp leaders, who spoke to us in Kreyòl, French, and English. The interviews ranged from twenty minutes to two-and-a-half hours. Each interview testifies to the challenge of creating a fulfilling life under brutal material circumstances. Taken together, the interviews form a collage of the themes and concerns that animated Haitian popular thought and discourse at a critical moment in that nation’s history.
The research was electrifying. I didn’t want to end the project, and my sympathetic advisor helped me arrange to take three independent studies so that I could remain in Port-au-Prince for the fall semester, and continue the interviews while receiving my academic stipend. That financial support was essential to extending the research. I was also picking up Kreyòl through the process of listening to it everyday, and soon I began to conduct interviews without translation.
Initially, my plan was to donate the recordings to a yet-unspecified archive. But over time I decided it would be much more effective to make the interviews directly available to a larger audience online. After receiving approval for an amendment I submitted to my home institution’s IRB, I constructed a website where the interviews would be presented in context, and could be streamed or downloaded. I used Audible, WordPress and SoundCloud to put about two dozen of the interviews online in a matter of weeks, learning the software as I went along. In January 2011, I “launched” the site by promoting it on listservs and social media. Within months, some of the interviews had been downloaded more than 300 times.
Ironically, by creating a website, I found the direct institutional support the HMP had initially lacked, in the emerging field of digital humanities. Later in the spring of 2011, I met Douglas Boyd, director of the Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky. He was interested in the project both for the rare and valuable perspectives the interviews offered, and because it could provide a source base for developing a multilingual interface to an free oral history software he was in the process of designing, known as Oral History Metadata Synchronizer. In exchange for donating the interviews to the Nunn Center, Boyd agreed to oversee a number of transcriptions and translations, maintain the HMP website, and keep the interviews publicly available on UK servers in perpetuity.
Getting institutional support has opened up exciting new possibilities for the project, and with them, new challenges. Translating the interviews has extended the reach of these stories, but it has also been a difficult and complicated process. I personally am not well equipped in the skills or the time to do that work myself, so the Nunn Center has sent a number of the interviews out to be translated professionally. But translation from a rare language such as Kreyòl is extremely expensive, and there are few grant providers willing to help pay for it. After four years, Boyd and I have been able to translate only a few of the Kreyòl language interviews (French and English interviews are a different story).
Yet getting these interviews translated into English will be critical if these interviews are going to be widely available as counter-narratives to the dehumanizing stereotypes about Haitians and Haiti. Merely putting them online is not enough. And an online archive is not necessarily accessible to Haitians themselves, most of whom lack access to computers, much less broadband. This experience has taught me that the “digital” is not necessarily democratic, and “public” does not mean “everyone.” Publics are shaped by technological and linguistic divides, and there are very strong structural issues that make it difficult to transition across them. I have not yet found a “hack” for this.
Nevertheless, the website and those interviews that have been translated have attracted a modest degree of attention. They have been downloaded and listened to by people all over the world, are included on college syllabi and provided a source base for my own peer-reviewed oral history article. Any one interview can call attention to the importance of listening to Haitian perspectives; allowing the people of that country to define or contribute to how they and the world they live in are represented. In this sense, the “hack” has been a success.
Department of History
Image: A graffiti mural by Haitian artist Jerry, seen on the streets of Port-au-Prince.
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