Penny Johnston : Responsible or free? Curating oral histories for online dissemination

UCC Digital Arts & Humanities Research Colloquium 25th October 2017 

About the Speaker

Penny Johnston is a digital humanist, an oral historian, and an archaeologist. Her Doctoral research project is titled “Local voices, worldwide conversations: generating a meaningful assessment for the online dissemination of cultural heritage projects.”   Penny Johnston’s research engaged with the Cork Folklore Project (CFP)to look at the way this small cultural group interacted and participated in the digital world. The Cork Folklore Project is a community-based project group trained in ethnographic research and fieldwork.  The focus of this group is collecting Oral history from Community members.

Map of Corks North & South Main Streets, by Penny Johnston
Screenshot of Penny Johnston exhibit; Map of Main streets, Cork.

My thoughts on today’s Colloquium:

In discussing the methodology of her doctoral project, Penny Johnston outlined that she collected Oral history from the community for both the North and South Main street. She carried out the research as a participant observer, carrying out and transcribing interviews. She gathered qualitative data and wrote her observation of the CFP group daily in her Ethnographic diary.  This was my first introduction to the term Ethnography and (Auto)Ethnography and in a previous colloquium titled The Elf in My Thesis, Penny outlines in words I can relate to,” It is about the researcher and their participation and interactions with the research subjects, and how this forms part of the research process.”

Image of Book Cover titled The Ethnographic by Carolyn Ellis
The Ethnographic by Carolyn Ellis


Penny Johnston’s  digital practice during her Doctoral research involved building Digital oral history maps using CFP archival material. Digital dissemination for the CFP was an added bonus, not part of every day their activities.

The speaker identified common hurdles/barriers to the progress of many DH projects when working in the community, outlining that the barriers are mainly human and not technological. She did highlight the challenge encountered in getting CFP to buy into her idea, to participate and take on board what she wanted to do.

Another hurdle she was faced with an outlined involved an editorial issue. During audio recordings there proved to be an issue regarding the use of language, she was very aware of this and found that on reflection she was Self Editing in not allowing free everyday conversation. In drawing our attention to Borland’s oral narrative research (1991) “That’s not what I said” the speaker highlights that not allowing free spontaneous conversation is a big problem in oral history studies.

The speaker questions, Who Controls the Text? Is it the Historian as they have control over what goes out into the world? The researcher must think and be thoughtful of how they present other people to the world. People have an idea of how they present themselves, the interviewer must be sensitive to this and ensure the interviewee is comfortable with the interview and are going to be happy with the results. This leads to a conflict between the Curated approach and the repository approach to the way that oral history projects are disseminated to others as a digital object. The most common approach is the curated or exhibited approach, taking short excerpts of oral history and displaying with pictures and/or maps (people prefer to listen to something short). Johnston wonders here if we act as gatekeepers. There is tension for the author here as Digital Humanities is against the gatekeeper approach, Open access is at the center core of DH,  “Digital Humanities have a utopian core shaped by its genealogical descent from the counterculture-cyberculture intertwinglings of the 60s and 70s. This is why it affirms the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/museum/archive/library without walls, the democratization of culture and scholarship…” But the presentations expected of oral histories is the curated or exhibit approach.

Image of Open Access Themes
Open Access Themes

This is the central argument of Johnston’s talk, Responsible or Free? Should the oral historian be responsible and be thoughtful of the narrator’s story or should be open access and free? To me the author is defined as interviewer and interviewee, oral histories is a co-authored piece built by the interviewer and narrator and the final way in which it is disseminated must be mindful of that.

Image of Mukurtu project web page
ScreenShot of Mukurtu Project Website.

I outlined above that Penny Johnston is a Digital Humanist, an Oral Historian, and Archaeologist. Johnston’s research project highlighted the tension for her in being caught between disciplines, she questions, will DH work if the researcher cannot remain true to their original discipline? She draws on the example of the “Mukurtu Project”, Christen here was working on a repatriation project with an Aboriginal community. Here tensions arose between open access and the ethics of the researcher. There are protocols to follow when dealing with an indigenous community, that digitizing on the world wide web just did not serve.

But I agree with Johnston’s feeling that the approach to openness in DH as a discipline works with other disciplines, work can happen in DH with different accents.

James O’Sullivan following the talk outlined his thoughts in that DH should move from Open concept to that of FAIR, “a set of guiding principles to make data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable.”

Image of Slide for Term FAIR, Findable, Accessable, Interoperable and ReUseable
Courtesy of

I am just beginning my journey in DH and am still trying to understand What is DH? What defines the Digital Humanities now? But for all of this, I have to say Digital Humanities for me will begin with being FAIR, ownership at a personal level is important.


Slides for Penny Johnston’s talk.


Borland, K. (1991). ‘That’s not what I said’: Interpretive conflict in oral narrative research. In S. B. Gluck & D. Patai (Eds.), Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (pp. 63–75). New York and London: Routledge.

A Digital Humanities Manifesto » The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0. Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

Ellis, Carolyn, et al. “Autoethnography: An Overview.” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1, Nov. 2010.,

Johnston-UCC.Pdf. Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

Notes_The-Elf-in-My-Thesis.Pdf. Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.

Responsible-or-Free_ONLINE.Pdf. Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.

Stories-of-Place-Johnston-in-Landscape-Values-Place-and-Praxis-Proceedings.Pdf. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.



For more on this event, see: