Digital Mapping of Oral Histories

My final project will be a digital mapping project based on the oral history archive of the Leo Baeck Institute’s (LBI) Austrian Heritage Collection (AHC). The collection contains more than 600 oral history Interviews with Jewish émigrés who fled from Austria to the United States shortly before or during World War II. The interviews, most of which were conducted in English, are publicly available online via DigiBaeck, the LBI’s online archive. Most of them are between one and four hours long. The interviewees tell their “life-stories”, starting from their childhood in Austria, reporting about how they escaped the country after the Nazis got to power and how they finally arrived in the United States as well as about the course of their life in the US.

While I listened to some of the interviews, it was striking to me that a lot of the narrators mention street addresses in Vienna, for example the address of the house they lived in, or of their schools, their family businesses etc. It was this insight that gave me the idea to locate the voices of the interviewees within a map of Vienna. In doing so, I hope to encourage a broader (and also a non-academic) audience to listen to these interviews or at least parts of them in order to engage with the experiences of the narrators and with questions and reflections deriving from an encounter with their life stories today, and second, I hope to create more awareness for this still underrepresented part of Vienna’s/Austria’s past.

Over the past decades various but still relatively few memorials for the victims of the Shoa have been established in Vienna. Some of them are referring to personal accounts of those who were killed or managed to escape (e.g. Catrin Bolt’s “Alltagsskultpuren Mahnmahl / Every-day-life-sculptures Memorial” in which the artist installed letterings of individual accounts of the violence that happened in the streets in the sidewalks), and some of them are directly referring to the houses those who were killed used to live in (e.g. the so-called “Stolpersteine / Stumbling Stones”).

The mapping project I will conduct will combine the approaches of these memorials by linking the personal accounts of those who managed to escape and are therefore able to testify about what happened to actual places in the city. The Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance is currently working on a project that looks similar to what I have in mind, called Memento Vienna. It consists of an online map of Vienna that shows “the last-known addresses of those murdered as well as archival documents and photographs of people and buildings in the city.”

My research will first of all consist of establishing an overview of the oral history collection and identifying interviews in which addresses are mentioned. In a second step, I will chose five to fifteen interviews which shall be located in the frame of the project. (I can definitely imagine to continue to work on this project after this semester, but as the time is limited now, I decided to focus on very few stories in order to have more time to figure out the technical and conceptional aspects of the platform I want to create.) As the project is centered around the wish to make people listen to the presented life-stories (rather than “merely” reading (about) them), the audio quality of the interviews will be a central criteria within the decision making process about which interviews will be presented within the map for now.

In a next step, I will create four to six minute long “excerpts” of the interviews using the audio editing software Hindenburg. Depending on the individual interviews, these excerpts may include testimonies about the experiences the narrators made connected to the address the audio-clip will be related to on the map, but also about their lives after they escaped Vienna and emigrated to the United States. Additionally, a link to the complete interview as well as a short, written biography of each represented interviewee will be added to the audio file and located within the map.

The project will be informed by literature from different disciplines and about different topics such as the historical events that have affected the lives of the narrators, the use of digital public history projects in order to engage a broad audience with historical research, oral history as a method, modes and politics of memory and digital storytelling.

I have not yet decided which digital platform I will use in order to create the map. So far I have looked into Google Maps, Neatline and Storymaps/esri.

One thought on “Digital Mapping of Oral Histories

  1. Great start. I feel like I have a clear sense of the project from our earlier emails/chat, but this proposal is helpfully specific. I think the major decision going forward will be what platform to use for hte mapping and how best to configure it for this project. And I think Lisa and Lauren might be particularly helpful there!

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