How The Ever-Evolving Cell Phone Is Changing History

In recent years, the purpose of the cell phone has shifted from a verbal communication tool to a multimedia tool, often adopting the name “mobile device” rather than being called a phone at all. We now use our cell phones for more than just placing calls. We use it for surfing the web, checking email, snapping photos, updating our social media status, playing music, recording and playing audio and video and the list goes on. Now almost everyone has a cell phone. And the rapidly expanding software, better screen and camera resolution, expanding memory capacity that can hold as much as a computer would just a few years ago and constantly improving interfaces making cell phones easier to navigate, are revolutionizing the uses of cell phones. Add that to the phones ability to capture events as they happen as well as record oral histories, and you can see why it has attracted the attention of many oral historians. The increasing capabilities and accessibility of the cell phone have practically eliminated the need to keep other gadgets, such as audio recorders, cameras and video cameras on hand. Historian Mark Tebeau writes,

“The mobile computing revolution offers tantalizing possibilities to archivists, historians, and curators interested in reaching broader public audiences.”1

To understand oral historian’s rising interest in the development of the cell phone technology let’s first explain oral history. Oral history is a field of study and a method of collecting, preserving and interpreting the voices, memories and personal commentaries of people, communities, and participants in past events. Predating the written word, primitive societies have long relied on oral tradition to preserve a record of the past in the absence of written histories. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, and one of the most modern. Modern oral history was initiated in the 20th century with tape recorders and now using 21st-century digital technologies like the cell phone. Modern oral history generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet.  Oral history does not include random taping, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee. So, the key aspect of oral history is “the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.” In most cases the interview is planned, but in occasionally, an unplanned interview opportunity occurs when the historian least expects it. And with the cell phone usually on hand, that is when its accessibility advantage becomes apparent.

For a greater understanding and appreciation of how the cell phone is contributing to the field of oral history, we will first explore the benefits of oral history itself. Oral history has benefits that no other historical source provides. Oral history allows historians to learn about a history event from the people who lived it. Oral history enriches historical knowledge; enhances research, writing, thinking, and interpersonal skills; gives oral historian a connection to the interviewee; and gives a sense of inclusion.

Oral history allows you to learn about the perspectives of individuals who might not otherwise appear in the historical record. While historians can use traditional documents to reconstruct the past, everyday people fall through the cracks in the written record. Notable figures like politicians, activists, and business leaders may show up regularly in official documents and the media, but the rest of us very seldom do. Chances are, if someone had to reconstruct your life story from the written record alone, they would have very little to go on — and the information they would be able to gather would reveal very little about the heart and soul of your daily life, or the things that matter most to you.

Oral history allows you to compensate for the digital age. Historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can rely on extensive correspondence and regular diary entries for information about life in the past. But in today’s world, telephone, email, and web-based communication have largely replaced those valuable written records. Without oral history, much of the personal histories of the late-20th and 21st centuries would unavailable to future historians.

Oral history allows you to learn different kinds of information. Even when we do have extensive written sources about someone such as a politician, we may not have the kind of information we want. Newspaper articles, speeches, and government documents may reveal significant useful information, but those kinds of sources often neglect more personal and private experiences. Through oral history, you can learn about the hopes, feelings, aspirations, disappointments, family histories, and personal experiences of the people you interview.

Oral history allows you to ask the questions you’re interested in. If you are a historian studying Frederick Douglass and you have a burning question about his life, the best that you can do is to hope that, through a creative reading of the existing sources, you’ll find the answer somewhere in his papers and other contemporary documents. But by talking to people in your community about the past, you can ask what you want to ask and create the source materials that will help you answer your questions.

Oral history provides historical actors with an opportunity to tell their own stories in their own words in the place where it the stories happened. Through oral history, interviewees have a chance to participate in the creation of the historical retelling of their lives. Unlike Frederick Douglass who is long dead and cannot complicate, extend, or argue with our understanding of his life, living historical actors can enrich our understanding of history by telling their version of events and their interpretations in their own words and provide a understanding of “Place.” This is especially true with mobile devices. Tebeau writes,

“ Listening and the human voice, in particular, evokes place in visceral and profound ways.”2

“ Listening to to the human voice on a mobile device allows users to experience memory within the Landscape where the stories were lived.”3

History, after all, is all about the human experience. Through oral history, researchers and interviewees come together in conversation about a commonly shared interest, as with all human interactions, this has the potential to be tremendously rewarding for both parties. And these benefits of oral history are increasingly enabled and enhanced by the increasing capabilities and accessibility of the cell phone. Cell phones also have the potential to provide opportunities and aid in the challenges facing oral historians in the areas of organizing, preparing, and managing interview collections. “Oral history recordings are by definition complex and resource-intensive to manage and extremely time-intensive for user research and review.”4 With the ever-expanding capabilities of the cell phone, I am confident that new software can be developed that that will specifically address these challenges. And the cell phone will increasingly become an integral part of oral history.



  1. Mark Tebeau, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” Oral History Review 40 (January 2013), 25-35.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Frisch, Michael, Douglas Lambert, Mark Tebeau, and Erin Bell. “Oral History Curation in the Digital Age: A Framework for Choices and Planning,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,



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