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Digitizing Oral History Collections by Paul Parrie

Oral histories bring the past to life. Whether remembrances of a battle fought in World War II or a description of life on the West Texas plains during the dust bowl, the words of an individual who participated in an historical event transport the reader/listener to another time, teaching history in the process. These primary source materials create an educational opportunity unlike any other type of learning. As those interviewed are lost to us through death, their oral histories become priceless artifacts of our culture as well as educational resources for today and for future generations.

  • Providing access to oral history collections, specifically the information deeply embedded within personal stories, has long been a challenge for museums and libraries. The primary difficulty of working with oral histories is this — how can museums and libraries provide deep and meaningful access to and within oral history collections for the 21st century web-literate consumer? On the surface, it seems like this would be an easy task. Simply make the audios & videos available online. However, the task is not that simple. In order for oral histories to be truly accessible and beneficial, an infrastructure for making them searchable needs to be built. The Technology and Collections Departments at the National WWII Museum (NWWIIM) seek to address this challenge.

We’re living in a time of widespread enthusiasm for digitization. This is coupled with a desire for instant accessibility to large oral history collections. In response to this, the NWWIIM’s Digitization Project Team is developing a methodology, a delivery and storage solution, which will enable end-user tagging of oral histories at a narrative level.

In other words, a user-friendly and intuitive interface for viewing and interacting with oral histories will be developed. Users will not only be able to view histories, but also add comments and tags that can later be incorporated into a synthesized taxonomy. Traditionally, to locate a specific passage in an oral history, the user had to listen to an entire oral history. The tools and methods being developed in this project will take the user to the specific point in the audio or video where the subject discusses the search term. Through tagging, oral histories will be indexed using Contextual Indexing, as opposed to literal indexing. For example, if someone searches for information on what it was like to be a POW, but the words “POW” or “Prisoner of War” are not actually said in the oral history audio, the person who indexed it will have tagged the audio as having to do with POWs due to the context of the discussion. In this manner, a rich database of information easily accessible by anyone will be created.

In the process of indexing and segmenting oral histories in the NWWIIM’s collection, this project will develop methods that can be used by other institutions to perform the same activities within their holdings. Additionally, through the creation of a methodology in the form of a step-by-step guide, and through workshops, other institutions will have the means to effectively replicate these activities at their institutions.

The Digitization Project at the NWWIIM is a multi-faceted project bringing together the disciplines of Technology, Collections, Library Science and Online Interface Design. Servers have to be specified, designed and built; a vocabulary created; web interfaces designed; etc; etc. The project team and the NWWIIM view this as a long term project that will have a lasting, positive effect not only on this museum’s collections but, potentially, on the collections of museums across the country.

Paul Parrie is the Associate Vice President of Technology at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, LA. Paul has over 25 years experience in broadcast media, information technology, and media creation.