Oral History

In this digital age, oral history is quickly becoming one of the most interesting and engaging aspects of public history. While oral history itself is nothing new, how museums and organizations are using and manipulating it is novel. Instead of just having professionals create audio recordings and transcripts to be put in archives for scholars to access for research, oral histories are now being presented for a wider audience and even in some cases, are being used as user engagement tools.

For example, in 2010, the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress (LOC) launched an Occupational Folklore Project in order to record the stories of everyday Americans’ workplace experiences, as well as the training and education they received to succeed in their field. But instead of sending out government employees to gather interviews (as was done with the famous WPA interviews), AFC is partnering with local museums, archives, historical societies and even individuals, who will conduct the interviews and upload them to a secure site through an online submission tool. As part of the submission process, the interviewer adds helpful metadata to the interview record. This pre-cataloging reduces the workload of AFC workers who are processing the interview, allowing the interviews to be posted online sooner for a general and scholarly audience. Not only is this program gathering valuable interviews for the AFC, but it is also establishing a stronger connection between the AFC and the partner organizations (or individuals) who are contributing the interviews.

Some archives, like the Bracero History Archive (http://braceroarchive.org/), are taking it even a step further and are soliciting submissions (text, images, audio and video) directly from the public. A digital archive with an online submission form is making this possible. Many sites are finding this to be a great way to engage directly with the public. When surveyed, people who submitted their own material said that they felt more connected to the site and also felt good that they could make a positive contribution. At the same time, making material submissions open to the public also forces archival professionals to decide how to treat these submission. Will they be automatically added to the archive as soon as they are submitted, or will they need to be viewed and approved by archive staff first?

New digital tools are also making oral histories more useful and accessible. For years, the Nunn Center at the University of Kentucky had in their possession hundreds of interviews that were not transcribed and were not easily accessible. Transcribing each interview cost upwards of $200 an hour. Even if the interviews were transcribed, users were able to use a standard search feature to locate words in the transcripts, but then had to manually find that moment in the audio or video provided. And what if the interviewee talked all around a term, but never said it in the interview? That term wouldn’t be reflected in the transcript and a search feature would never find it. Looking to fill this need, the Nunn Center developed a new tool called the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS). This tool allows one to synchronize the audio or video file with a transcript (if there is one) and allows users to jump directly to the section in the audio or video file that contains the information they want. It also allows one to tag or index an audio/video file, breaking it into sections and adding add keywords or descriptions along the way. For interviews that do not have transcripts, indexing can be done more quickly and for a fraction of the cost. At the same time, it still provides users with valuable, searchable information about each section of the interview. The more that interviews are synchronized or indexed with this tool or tools like it, oral histories will become more accessible and useful.

Finally, video versions of oral histories are being used to create engaging documentaries, such as the “Quest for the Perfect Bourbon: Voices of Buffalo Trace Distillery,” produced at the Nunn Center at UK. This really demonstrates the coming together of oral historians and media professionals to present these stories in a meaningful way. It also ensures that these stories will be head by a wider audience instead of ending up sitting in an archive, where they might be enjoyed by the occasional researcher.

This week, as I have been considering the world of oral history as well as working on my current project, Voices of Sackville, I have been reflecting on what the two have in common. For example, I am struck by the number of times the word “Voices” has come up in my browsing through oral history sites. For example, the Nunn Center video mentioned eariler is subtitled “Voices of Buffalo Trace Distillery.” The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project (http://digital.library.unlv.edu/ntsohp/) greets users with a page on their “Community of Voices,” where one can choose to read oral histories from protest groups or the NTS Administration. I think that my project and these sites shares a common goal: presenting many different individuals’ perspectives on an event. Since my event, the Siege of Sackville, took place more than 230 years ago, I have to rely on personal memoirs and journals instead of audio or video recording of the individuals responding to interview questions. (I can definitely see that if my project was about a more recent event, it could easily incorporate more elements of proper oral history.) But at the same time, I can embrace the spirit of oral history by trying to incorporate as many quotes from these individuals as possible and really let the stories come through in their own words.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *