Deborah Turner, PhD

Fun Facts

Orality is a rich medium. People can convey a great deal of complex information by what we say and how we say it. This makes oral information worth studying. Would you like to learn more about some of the powerful ways orality and oral information have been used throughout history?

  • The American Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded numerous arts activities in part to recover from the 1930s Great Depression. Given this funding and the more recent Library of Congress American Memory project, we can now hear what Zora Neale Hurston, a WPA researcher and later novelist, learned about information African Americans at that time shared through song (also see ).

  • Before literacy was widespread, oral information entertained, educated, and helped socialize children and adults. Storytellers shared elaborate stories. The epic poem Beowulf was an early example of such a tale (see Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales, 1960).

  • Blank on Blank, a website offered by the nonprofit content studio Quoted in collaboration with PBS, is an example of how advanced technology can facilitate access to oral histories, or reminiscences told about one’s lifetime. Could the digitally illustrated “Lost Interviews” be a new genre of animated oral histories? (See also Alex Widdowson, “‘Storycorps Animated Shorts’ by the Rauch Brothers,” Animated Documentary, November 9, 2013.)

  • The 2013 movie The Lunchbox documented the work of 4,000 tiffin-wallahs, who deliver home-cooked lunches (packed into an aluminum lunchbox called a tiffin) to workers in India. Although the tiffin-wallahs have a low level of traditional literacy, mathematical equations and oral information are central to their organizational practices. They handle as many as 160,000 lunches a day in two shifts and it is exceedingly rare for a tiffin wallahs to misdeliver. Their oral systems are models of speed and precision.

  • For almost 150 years, Cuban cigar-factory workers have been entertained and educated by people whose job it is to read books, newspapers, novels, and more aloud to them while they work, often sparking debates about the reading material. The Cuban government recently suggested that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designate cigar-factory readers as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

  • Elder members of the native peoples living off the southeastern coast of the Indonesian archipelago on the Andaman and Nicobar islands observed the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 and retold oral tradition stories of a “huge shaking of ground followed by a high wall of water.” Despite having no modern communication system, nearly all their members subsequently survived the tsunami by moving to higher ground before the giant waves came ashore. Their traditional stories had incorporated crucial information.

  • The United States Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires that federally supported agencies return Native American and Native Hawaiian “cultural items” to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and organizations. To prove such cultural affiliation, descendants can provide linguistic and oral traditions—or stories from at least one lifetime ago—as evidence.

  • Cuban baseball fans gather all day long to argue passionately about baseball in Peña de Parque Central park, also known as “Havana’s hot corner.” This oral tradition reflects how the history of baseball intertwines with the history of the island nation.

  • Orality was once considered so powerful that a separate word, tetragrammaton, was given to the written, four letter divine name that appears in the Psalms Dead Sea Scroll (dated between 30 and 50 CE). Only trained spiritual leaders were permitted to speak this name aloud; others who dared did so on pain of death (Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls [exhibit text], Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Washington, 2006).

  • In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded numerous arts activities as part of an effort to create jobs that would help the United States recover from the Great Depression. You can hear what Zora Neale Hurston, who worked as a WPA researcher before becoming an acclaimed novelist, learned about the information African Americans shared through song in that era (

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Conceptualizing Oral Documents, Abstract

This dissertation proposes and explicates the concept of an oral document as a way to ground an exploratory discussion on orality and information behavior. This study isolates and focuses on information conveyed orally. A review of information behavior and allied literatures is used to explain what orality is and why it is important to information science. The meta-theory of social constructionism is used as a framework for defining and exploring the concept of an oral document. The concept of context additionally informs this effort. A field study methodology is used to gather observational data that demonstrate how utterances fit the definition for a document and incorporate properties of a document. Data analysis results in expanding the initial description of the concept under investigation. Results determine that the conceptualization of an oral document introduced is consistent with the concept of document and provides information researchers with extended capabilities for the study and analysis of information and knowledge that is created and conveyed orally. The dissertation provides recommendations for theory, practice, and future research.


“Can’t you just tell me what to type?”: Urban Libraries Respond, Abstract

Increasingly, the infrastructure of libraries and information organizations assumes online access. Yet, some people, frequently those in underserved populations, just want to talk to someone to get the information they need. This talk will focus on challenges faced when getting talkers to access information online and recommendations for how to overcome those challenges.


Reconsidering Library Collections: Community Services as Documents, Abstract

Traditionally, libraries have made available information situated in objects—books, digitized files, periodicals, videos, and the like. Information professionals and librarians engage in practices, including collection management, resource description, and references services to make these objects available thus ensuring that information the object’s convey can be accessed and used. An object’s format and practices used to maintain it help inform those objects’ status as documents. Changes in LIS professional practices reflect how information increasingly becomes available in untraditional formats. For example, an emerging trend in library space planning involves replacing book shelving with space for computer access, group study, or the production of objects—the latter as part of the Maker Space movement. This investigation considers whether changes in how information and library professionals make information available indicate the emergence of a new type of document.

The social constructionism metatheory informs this study. This metatheory posits that knowledge emerges from what is done (actions or practices), said, or written (Talja, Tuominen, & Savolainen, 2005). Knowledge reflecting change can be slow to appear in writing. However, research shows that people prefer to interact with new information by talking (Huotari and Chatman, 2001; Ikoja-Odongo and Ocholla, 2004; Pezeshki-Rad and Zamani, 2005). In order to identify emerging trends in practice, data collection and analysis used relies on the participant action research methodology (PAR), which views participants, in this case library staff members, as part of the research team. Specifically, this project focuses on knowledge that library staff members use to cope with challenges, provide services, and remain abreast of changes affecting the library and information science profession. The researcher used interviews, review of archival documents, and tours of facilities to gather observation, oral, and trace data. Meetings with staff additionally aided the interpretation of and further informed data gathered.

This paper reports on the initial stage of a three-year research project designed to determine how to design library services for marginalized populations that prefer to interact with information by talking. Given that changes in professional practices tend to occur more frequently in areas that experience turnover of those served, the researcher selected three urban public library systems as research sites because they routinely cope with changing demographics. One year at each site provides time to investigate staff perspectives of services, to study how eligible library users get information, and to design and evaluate the implementation of a service event. The initial stage involved spending time with various library staff at the first site, an urban public library system in a large city in the mid-western United States. A description of data gathered includes results from nine interviews, multiple observations made during two (half week) research trips, and an examination of organizational archival collections.

During the first stage, the researcher interviewed and had subsequent face-to-face and phone-based discussions with staff participants. Observational tours of multiple locations at the study site—six of its over two dozen facilities—also yielded data and helped determine how best to design later stages of the project. Staff participants helped determine aspects of the research design and aid in interpreting data gathered.

Initial data analysis is leading to the suggestion that staff participants manage community services in ways that resemble how they manage library collections. Discussion explains what is meant by community services and explicates how practices observed indicate that a community service can be a type of document. The paper ends with recommendations for professional practical and for future research.