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Using Google Earth to Jog Memories in Oral History Interviews

October 27th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve noticed that when people use Google Earth to fly over places from their past — where they grew up or places they used to live — it seems that their memories are dislodged in a different way than when you have people recall memories based on other techniques.

It is the difference between asking “Where did _______ happen?
and asking “What happened near _______?

I’ve worked with several people who were flying and zooming around in Google Earth and ended up saying things like, “Oh, I remember when this place …” or “That was where I saw …..” Last year, I was using Google Earth with my dad and I heard several stories that I had never before heard from him about growing up outside Cleveland.

There is something about Google Earth’s birds-eye (aka, oblique) views that gets people recollecting in different ways than they do with street map views or even straight-down aerial photos. Skimming over the earth with a 45-degree birds-eye perspective imbues a more narrative sense of the landscape than the straight-down view. It is really about going beyond strict geographic context to convey a larger sense of perspective.

I’m interested in knowing if oral historians have used Google Earth as an “oral history memory motivator.” I know that the PhilaPlace Project is using a mapping component to “feature an interactive map through which visitors can explore both personal stories and historical records mapped to specific locations.” They map stories and eventually may use maps to obtain those stories. Later today I’m heading over to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to talk with Joan Saverino and Melissa Mandell about the mapping component of PhilaPlace.

This approach would only work for certain types of location-specific recollections and would be difficult to use in a field interview setting (due to reliance on speedy network access). But for certain types of interviews, it may be a good tool. One might even be able to employ the tour-recording-and-narration feature of Google Earth to “easily” record an entirely georeferenced oral history.

If anyone knows of projects using Google Earth to jog people’s memories, I’d love to hear about it.

  1. jordon
    November 23rd, 2009 at 13:26 | #1

    Sorry I am just getting to this now as I power through my saved posts in my feed reader before Thanksgiving.

    I’ve found the 3/4 default “Bird’s eye view” of Microsoft’s maps website is actually better than that of Google maps. Check it out, I think their maps are through Bing now.

  2. matt
    November 27th, 2009 at 15:09 | #2

    Jordon, those bird’s eye views in Bing Maps are indeed awesome. They are provided by Pictometry International (pictometry.com). As I understand it, over the last several years, many larger municipalities have used Pictometry’s services — but Bing’s use of their imagery is the first wide (free) availability they’ve seen. Their website says they cover “the geographic areas which contain over 70% of the United States population.”

  3. jordon
    December 8th, 2009 at 10:03 | #3

    Nice. Haha, “the Aerial Oblique Photography Company.” Something tells me they’ve got that market cornered.

  4. matt
    December 8th, 2009 at 10:41 | #4

    Via West Yorks Archives on Twitter: We’ve been trying similar, collecting memories using historic maps as a prompt in our Tracks in Time project http://www.tracksintime.wyjs.org.uk/tracks-in-time-outreach.htm
    (http://twitter.com/wyorksarchives/status/5214033944)

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