Oraltestimony.org – First-hand accounts of development past and present

In a world of constant updates of new information, do we have the space and time for first-hand accounts from previous decades?  Are oral testimonies from 1997 relevant today? Is this an archive worth investing in?  Is it worth improving access to these oral testimonies and related materials?  Who will benefit and how? Do first-hand accounts count as knowledge when it comes to international development?  

These are some of the questions and terms circulating around my head at the moment.  I’m right in the midst of thinking, talking, and occasionally dreaming about the development of a global online living archive of Panos’ 20 years of oral testimony: 1300 oral testimonies, from 42 different countries, recorded between 1993 and 2013.  Experiences and perspectives from women and men who have lived with poverty, displacement, HIV/AIDS, environmental change and conflict. The use of “living” to describe this initiative reflects the additional aim for the archive to be a platform for new activities – both new oral testimony collections as well as new ways to reach new audiences, for example commissioning artists to interpret some of the existing testimonies. The use of “global” reflects the objective of connecting with libraries, museums and universities in the countries where the testimony collections originate, to encourage national audiences to engage with this material.

2013-10-22 12.18.26

Some of the archive lives in books, some online, some in my friend’s garage and some under my desk

In addition to the questions there are the doubts. It can feel too big an undertaking; being between sectors (oral history and international development) doesn’t always feel great; I struggle to prioritise my user (students yes, but also hopefully others); and will we be able to maintain a living archive for the foreseeable future? But there’s no turning back now. Oral Testimony Works has the mandate to build on the legacy of Panos London, and I’m currently a “Digital Pioneer” (really?) on Our Digital Community’s Learning Programme. So I am just having to get used to working with those doubts.

The Digital Learning Programme is for social enterprises in the UK who are developing digital services. Being on the programme is a great opportunity: it provides a structure, mentoring and a peer network to what otherwise risks being an undisciplined process of ideas development.   We’ve completed a couple of modules and been asked plenty of uncomfortable questions – such as present your idea in 150 words (see below), what would your Minimum Viable Product look like, will you use Drupel or WordPress, is your development ‘agile’ and who is going to pay for this stuff? But it’s all good: learning comes from being challenged and this is certainly challenging.

Here’s my current 150ish words on it – using the working title oraltestimony.org:

Oraltestimony.org will be a global living online archive of first hand experiences of development issues, past and present.

Oral testimonies are in-depth interviews drawing on personal memory and experience.  For twenty years Panos worked directly with communities to record oral testimonies with men and women living with poverty, conflict, HIV, displacement and environmental change.

Panos’ legacy is 1300 oral testimonies from men and women in 42 countries. These personal accounts provide an essential perspective on how men and women around the world have lived with development challenges over the past 20 years.

The quantity of material and the diversity of time, place and theme provide the potential for exciting user journeys through an online archive. Oraltestimony.org will be a site to provoke and inspire new activities and a means to engage with new global audiences.

I’d love to receive any feedback on the idea in general, as well as what you think of the 150 word intro above.  And any ideas – other than “oraltestimony.org” – for what I should call thing much appreciated.

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