I’ve been taking my comprehensive exams over the course of this semester, which provides a strange and exhausting opportunity to really step back and think about the state of my field of research, as well as the ways that field has historically been presented to students and scholars from outside of the field. The overlap between reading for these exams and planning a project for the CHI fellowship has provided me with some interesting perspectives on the problems of teaching recent American history, as well as some useful perspective on the potential value of new archival resources in the classroom, particularly around audio and visual content. The traditional print sources that historians favor make up an increasingly small part of the cultural archive available to those of us who study the very recent past, and I’m excited to have this opportunity to try my hand at building a more accessible means of accessing these multilayered sources. Oral histories, in particular, interest me. “True” oral histories—collaboratively constructed narrations of a person’s life history—provide a deeply dimensional and rich resource for historians, provided that they are treated as something more than a flat and flawed transcription of an audio file. Unfortunately, the practical exigencies of real time work with audio files leads most historians to lean heavily on these transcripts. Text files are searchable, making them efficient to catalogue and reference in research. Audio files are unwieldy and extremely difficult to effectively “skim,” making them unpopular with any scholar on a deadline. The “Oral History Metadata Synchronizer” software—primarily developed by Doug Boyd and the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries—offers a potential solution to the practical problems of academic research with oral histories.
The OHMS software itself is hosted by the University of Kentucky’s Nunn Center, and is available here. There are various examples of the software in use under the “featured” tab of the website, but I’ve pulled out three of my favorite uses below. I think these examples do a nice job of demonstrating the flexibility of the software, as well as the various ways it can be built into more complex web structures.
This first example is the most straightforward and unedited, and I think it provides a nice example of a collection that is indexed cleanly without too much editorial interference. For the purposes of archival presentation, this is a very desirable format, as it allows the researcher to build their own narratives without excessive editorial influence from the site creator. The OHMS viewer is integrated under the “watch” tab of this website.
This second example is essentially the inverse of the first, meaning it is a highly edited gallery which uses oral histories in conjunction with other media sources and educational material. I like this project because I think it nicely showcases the possibilities for enhancing public engagement with oral sources within a broader public history project. This project is massive in scope, and was funded by a fairly significant grant, making it an extremely aspirational version of anything I could hope to accomplish alone in one academic year. The OHMS viewer is incorporated under the “listen” tab of this website.
This final item is closest to my own long term project goals, again in a very aspirational sense. This one is still a work in progress in some areas. It makes use of multiple archives to create small biographical galleries for each activist in the collection, although most of the content is drawn from the ACT UP oral history collection. I particularly appreciate this project’s emphasis on exploring contemporary political questions through the historical contextualization of the recent past. I think the authors of this project do a nice job of balancing an overtly political and highly edited project with contextualized but unedited oral narratives. The OHMS viewer is linked from each gallery under the “interviews” tab, in a “watch interview” link under each portrait header at this website.
Finally, this is just a nice feel good video about digital archives from Doug Boyd. He put this together to promote the OHMS viewer, and I think it does a nice job of explaining the vision behind the project, for anyone unfamiliar with the software or the value it adds to oral history archival structures. Taking these examples as inspiration, I hope to build at least the very early version of a recyclable digital gallery built around the OHMS viewer’s integration with Omeka that could add to the MSU library’s ongoing digital initiatives in a useful and meaningful way.