Michigan State University and the MSU Museum, in partnership with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, American Folklore Society, and Oral History Association, will convene seven multidisciplinary working groups that produce a new foundational scholarship for Oral History in the Digital Age. The groups, working online and at a plenary symposium at the LOC, will build on existing scholarship and practices to produce consensus on seven core issues: intellectual property, transcriptions, digital-video, technology, scholarship, preservation, and access / interfaces. The project will begin in fall 2009 and run until fall 2011, with support from MSU and partner organization sustaining the project beyond its completion date.

The need and audience for this project come from the impressive success and development of both landmark projects and grass roots efforts that leverage and advance oral history in the digital age. The transition into a digital world, and the flexibility it brings, has changed the potential directions and costs of doing Oral History, standards of practice and scholarship, and the vehicles for access. Resulting issues are deeply complex and often dynamic. Digital video is now readily affordable, but the field remains deeply divided over its use and role. Equally important, the digital age makes widespread access and use of both audio and video oral narratives, as well as transcripts, increasingly affordable but also highlights major questions about intellectual property rights and informed consent. The role of transcription, typically a staple in oral history, is now being reexamined given the new technologies for studying and accessing digital oral histories. Major technical challenges remain, and arise anew, as collections of oral histories are digitized, preserved, and accessed at an extraordinary rate with due consideration to benefits and challenges of the World Wide Web. The ubiquity of the collections creates new challenges for access, searching, archiving and interfaces. Individual landmark projects that advance oral history by producing new digitized collections bring scholarship and clarity to some issues; however, they leave in their wake new directions and questions that must be vetted and accommodated. Finally, the value of supporting the plethora of local ethnographies and community projects through the exhaustive best practices and leadership from this project should not be understated: the grass roots projects are a key resource on lives/history/culture of ordinary people and have dramatically changed scholarship across the humanities and social sciences. As oral history/ethnography is particularly important to democratize sources, it must be conducted in a wide variety of resourced-environments.

The project will advance the way museums and libraries collaborate with multidisciplinary scholarly groups and will demonstrate the kinds of foundation and tools required to form effective partnerships. Through strategic, collaborative effort, this partnership will (1) produce an ongoing collaboration among seven working groups that will yield foundational scholarship for a comprehensive, online knowledgebase, a framework to display and connect the elements of the knowledgebase, and a traditionally published scholarly volume on oral history in the digital age; (2) convene a national symposium at the Library of Congress to authoritatively review scholarship and practices of digital oral history; (3) develop standards for digital video-based oral history; (4) develop a portal for communicating best practices for digital-based oral histories which are linked to the framework and knowledgebase on oral history; (5) create focused collaborative networks and spaces so museums, libraries and oral historians can inform each other about challenges, opportunities, and needs, as well as share digital objects to enhance exhibits; and (6) hold regular sessions at annual conferences to review these products and their effectiveness at serving oral history in the digital age.