Interview by Jacqueline Brunet
I recently had the opportunity to visit The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, located on the tenth floor of the Library building. It was interesting to continue to look at spaces in Concordia that not only incorporate technology in their work but recognize it as part of the human relationships that are essential to their research. I was also interested in how much of the work that is done at the Centre expands beyond it, into the many community projects that the Centre is involved in, and how this research space is really constitutive of innumerable, unexpected spaces in Montreal.
AML: My name is Aude Maltais-Landry, I’m the associate director here at COHDS since this August, so I’ve been an affiliate for quite a few years, as a student, and I’m new at the position of Associate Director.
JB : Hi Aude, I was wondering if you could give me some background information for those who may not be familiar with the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. How did it come about and what is the goal of the oral history centre?
AML: The centre was created in 2006; we’re actually going to celebrate our 10th anniversary next year. The Centre was part of an initiative to build research units at Concordia University, so the idea was to have research-based projects, using oral history as a tool to tell alternative stories, I’d say, counter-narratives, to speak broadly, and using digital media to record, collect, and disseminate those stories.
The centre has always had a very community-based practice, as well, so of course it’s a research unit within an academic context, but we have a structure by affiliation, and we welcome affiliates who are independent researchers, community affiliates, or artists who are also doing work that connects with oral history or digital storytelling. One of the big projects that happened here was CURA, which is Community-University Research Alliance, that ran from 2006 to 2013, that was called Montreal Life Stories, and we collected interviews from Montrealers who were displaced by genocide or war, or other persecutions that were violations of human rights.
That big project really set up the basis of what we do, working closely with communicates using what we call shared authority, so the idea of researchers and interviewers, interviewees, working together, collaborating closely in how to record the stories and how to disseminate them. This is really the core of our methodology of our ethics; I would say, as well, this idea of the close connection with the people that we’re interviewing.
JB : I was wondering , what kind of technology does the centre use in their research? Is it only audio, or is it visual as well?
AML: It really depends. Often, we will ask the person if they want to be video-taped or not. Some projects do video-tape, some won’t, and some interviewees don’t even want to be audio-recorded, so then it’s only handwritten transcriptions. That’s for the collection, let’s say, for the interview. For the dissemination part, then we use a multitude. There’s a strong connection because of our arts-based affiliates and to the fine arts faculty as well, so in the course of that big project, the Montreal Life Stories, there were theatre performances and playback theatre, using those stories. We also did an exhibition at the Centre D’Histoire de Montréal, so really bringing the stories into the public space, into the museum.
Other digital tools are the audio walks from the Canal Lachine and Pointe-Saint-Charles, so the stories are edited into a piece, and you put it on your headphones, and walk through the neighbourhood, following a little map, and then you hear those stories about how the neighbourhood changed. It’s really using both digital and non-digital tools to try to go further and touch a variety of people. The digital aspect is not always predominant.
JB : It seems like there is a strong interdisciplinary prerogative at the Centre, for example, would a communications or film student work with the oral history centre, using their own techniques to make different representations of history?
AML: Yes, there’s really a variety of students from a variety of disciplines, and faculty members, there are actually from some from the English department, doing translation studies. We have a recent affiliate from medicine. It’s not a field that you would expect to find oral history within, but if you’re thinking about questions of health, how people perceive their health, their stories about health and healing, and things like that, it can touch a variety of disciplines.
People are encouraged to bring in their own tools, and I think that what we share is this methodology of collaboration and always based on the interview, and based on the subjectivity. Both the interviewer’s subjectivity, but also the interviewees, and being conscious that, with those two subjectivities, we’re trying to build a story, and finding common ground between those two.
JB : Do you find that there’s any challenge in that kind of relationship with an interviewee, because it is on a personal level, do you think that there are challenges in balancing the work with the personal aspect of the relationship? Because you mentioned ethics, I was wondering if researchers try to stay objective or is there a perceived need to be objective?
AML: I think that there are two parts to the question. This idea of subjectivity … and I think oral history is contested by some historians, who find it too subjective, in a way. I think we view ourselves as part of a current trend which is to be transparent, so, stating who you are, what position you’re talking from, doesn’t make your work less valuable, but then it’s just more honest. In a way, I think that we’re not looking for objectivity. Broadly. I hope nobody gets frustrated when they hear me say that, but I really think that there is also a commitment from the people here to a broader goal of social justice, I would say, of hearing the voices that are not heard otherwise, so I think that we don’t view objectivity as being a core value. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a strict methodology, or that we don’t follow guidelines and principles and research ethics. It’s a different take on that.
Regarding the relationship with the interviewee, this is the object of many debates and many questions. Can you be too close to a person? How would that influence the interview? I think there are, again, a lot of reflections around those questions, and the fact of being very close, for example, interviewing a member of your family, brings in some things, and then also prevents you from accessing other things, because of the previous relationship that exists. Again, there is the question of transparency and being honest.
JB : In some ways I think you could argue that it’s impossible to be entirely objective anyways, and kind of working under the assumption that you are might lead you to just be biased in another way.
AML: Exactly. So I think we kind of take the stance that we are coming in with our own subjectivity, and how do we go from there? How do we still make something meaningful? How do we still take into account different points of view and divergent perspectives? Still keeping in mind that we are listening to those stories and we are affected by those stories as well, so it’s really building on this relationship.
JB : I just wanted to ask about the space itself. What kind of things go on in this space? Because I wrote to Stephen High and he said that a lot of the actual interviews go on outside the centre.
AML: So we have two main spaces, one with the main lobby, with different work stations, so people come there to work on one of the computers. We also have a small archive room. There’s another room where we have the equipment, and another few computers where people can work more quietly. There’s a room with two projectors that was our main seminar room, let’s say, up until last year. The other part, on the other side of the corridor, we have this big room that we’re in that was just renovated into this kind of conference space. And then a small interview room, where people, affiliates, can come in and do video or audio interviews.
Again, most of the interviews will take place at the person’s house, or another location that they prefer. Very often we will leave to the interviewee the choice of the location.
JB: What are some of the challenges with working with oral history? Or working with digital mediums as well?
AML: I would say that some of the challenges are the archiving of those materials, because working towards a digital archive raises a lot of questions about confidentiality, of access to the interviews, security questions … so, this is something that we’re moving towards, because we have a huge collection here, but it’s not that accessible to the wider public. People can come here and ask us to listen to whatever interview they want, and then we go through a process and see if that interview is open to the public, and most of them are, so in fact there is a huge collection here that everybody could come and consult, but it’s not that well-known yet, so how do we make that public?
JB : Are there any challenges specific to using digital technologies?
AML: Somehow we have this feeling that digital is easy to manage and to access, but then with interviews, with sensitive issues, you cannot just drop it online … there are other issues to keep in mind. I would say that that is one of the big challenges, and also, the speed to which the technology changes, the feeling of having to adapt, always, to things like websites or platforms that are not necessarily meant to be long-term depositories, so how do we reconcile these outcomes, these works, let’s say, with longer-term preservation of the content and the stories?
JB : That’s something we discussed, actually, in our class, because we were saying how digital technology does create a greater sense of accessibility, but at the same time, when you want to preserve something, it’s not as good as text, which you would think would be transient and easily destroyed.
AML: Paper is actually the easiest way to preserve, and I remember we had this discussion about archiving for all historians, and hard drives have a lifespan of like 5 to 10 years, so if you have everything on hard drives, every 10 years you have to transfer everything. This is just insane, you don’t want to think about that. I think that the digital aspect is full of challenges. Full of possibilities, but it also brings in a lot of challenges.
JB : What do you think that the centre itself gains from the community interaction, in terms of your work?
AML: I would say that the community has goals and objectives, and working with the community allows the research work or the academic work to be more connected with priorities. I think there is a very easy tendency within the academic world to kind of self-suffice ourselves with very intellectual theories, things that are very interesting, but that can be a little disconnected to what’s actually going on. Again, if I think back to that big project of Montreal Life Stories, it was really the ideas of; who are these people, living in Montreal, that we don’t know, and we don’t know their stories, and they’re part of our community, and how can we make their voice heard? Somehow? Working just within the University circle … you never access that, as a researcher. You’re kind of, in a way, restricted. I think that in very broad terms, I would say that that’s where we benefit, in building a research that’s more meaningful, for society, for communities, in general.
JB : It’s a chance to also apply the very things that you’re studying instead of just studying them?
AML: Exactly. What happened through the Montreal Life Stories project is that we integrated people who were not from the academic world and who are now doing PhDs so that they really became part of our community of research, and so that’s very strong, because they come in with a different point of view or a different perspective, and they bring that into the research, and that’s really enriching, I would say.
JB : That’s great. Thanks for your time.
NB: Aude informed me that there are many interesting workshops and events offered by the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. For details and how to sign up, visit the centre’s website here.