Oral History in the Digital Age: Full Proposal

Oral history is in a profound transition, from an extensive period when sophisticated technology meant utilizing tape cassettes, to a time when the field has moved into the digital, networked, multi-media rich age. The transition into a digital world, and the flexibility it brings[1], has changed the 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 it 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[2] 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 to online collections. Individual landmark projects that advance oral history by producing new digitized collections bring scholarship and clarity to some issues; however, they also raise new directions and questions that must be vetted and accommodated. Individual practitioners, novices, and grass roots historians of cultural heritage, whose work will only continue to grow as digital technology spreads, need to create their materials mindful of the practices of institutions that will likely be custodians of their work and integrate their histories into media rich exhibits. Overall it is a daunting challenge to reach consensus and clear directions. Museums and libraries are at the forefront of these issues as they are the world’s repositories for cultural heritage, preserving and providing access to past, current, and future oral histories for the peoples of the world. Thus, there is a pressing need to build a sustainable, authoritative and collaborative framework that will put museums, libraries, and oral historians in a position to address collectively issues of video, digitization, preservation, and intellectual property and to provide both a scholarly framework and regularly updated best practices for moving forward.

Michigan State University proposes an IMLS National Leadership project in which museums, libraries, and scholarly societies build a sustainable collaboration to marshal expertise and advance these seven core issues for oral history in the digital age: intellectual property, transcriptions, digital video, technology, scholarship, preservation, and access / interfaces. The project will produce a durable partnership among Michigan State University Museum, MATRIX, the American Folklife Center (AFC/LOC) at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH), the American Folklore Society (AFS), as well as the Oral History Association, the leading scholarly association in this field. 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 ongoing best practices for digital-based oral histories which are linked to the framework and knowledgebase on oral history in the digital age [3]; (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. An Advisory Board of 10 distinguished individuals – including representatives from the partner organizations and oral historians and practitioners who specialize in intellectual property, digital technologies, and preservation – will guide the project, review the working groups and topics under review, and consider the potential of each topic to produce strategic impact, innovation and collaboration.

This initiative will forge an ongoing partnership that will regularly identify and review issues emerging from individual projects and practitioners and provide leadership for museums, libraries, orals historians and the broad landscape of practitioners and novices. The collaboration will publish a volume that will provide a scholarly foundation that helps practitioners understand core issues influencing oral history in a digital world and will facilitate the future of library and museum collaborations[4] (Dilevko and Gottleib, 2004). The project will be administered by Michigan State University (MSU), where it will draw on the expertise of MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online; the MSU Museum; the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders; and the Department of History.

1. Audience and Assessment of Need

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.[5] The freely available technologies emerging over the last decade – recording, digitizing, archiving, syncing, and searching – are provoking broad interest in preserving aural reminiscences, inviting contribution from novices and community heritage projects. They have been useful in scholarship, in ethnographies and community documentation.[6] The audience is potentially endless, and the needs of this group of practitioners, and potential practitioners, must be met. The benefits and virtue of grass roots efforts are not to be understated; they are a key resource on lives/history/culture of ordinary people and have dramatically changed scholarship across the humanities and social sciences. Oral history/ethnography has long been recognized as particularly important for democratizing sources, so it inevitably is conducted in a wide variety of well- and under-resourced environments.

However, the grass roots oral historians represent just one heterogonous constituency of oral history in the digital age. The flexibility and ubiquity of digital technology is also yielding immense, complex, collections and integrated exhibits that stretch traditional practice. The Illinois State Museum Society is developing an Audio-Video Barn, a contextualized setting for oral histories that utilizes video and is salient for a range of audiences, from farmers to historians.[7] To help reach these audiences, and help audiences locate parts of the history most salient to them, Audio-Video Barn uses multi-dimensional indexing.[8] This represents a major leap forward from early web-based oral history projects, like Oyez, where relatively de-contextualized audio was made available for Supreme Court scholars and public consumption and relied on tagging.[9] A similar trend is evident as digital video regularly makes its way into oral history; From Resistance to Rights: Digital Access to the PBS American Black Journal, brings clips from 30 years worth of the PBS program to an online exhibit and library.[10] The University Library at Illinois is taking preservation of endangered recording a step forward, building on work done in Historical Voices, and creating technologies for preserving endangered recorded sound and moving image collections.

These developments, a function of both multidisciplinary landmark and grass roots projects, are expanding the audience and needs for an authoritative IMLS Leadership project. The need here is not to start from scratch, but rather to leverage the work that has been done and fill in gaps created by opportunities in a digital world. The grass roots audience is increasingly utilizing a range of affordable and user-friendly field recording technologies to create and preserve histories. Yet it is unlikely that these practitioners are going to be influenced by insightful reports and scholarship produced by state-of-the-art projects. They need to base their work on authoritative best practices regarding intellectual property, preservation, and access if it is to be useful to museums, libraries and scholars. While many efforts at best practices have produced good results, they are typically time bound, a cursory review shows there is substantial variability among them, and sets of best practices typically have subtle tradeoffs that influence practice. Michael Frisch captures the best practices perspective of an archivist (as contrasted to a scholar) in a note on H-OralHst posted in the digital age of oral history.

In a recent discussion on the H-Oral electronic oral history discussion forum, for example, an American archivist termed anything other than collection-or interview-level indexing to be ‘ethically problematic’:

As an archivist it’s not my job to create new meaning, it is just to try to stabilize the meaning of a recording or document in relation to the larger grouping from which it comes – to maintain it as best as possible within the intellectual context of its creation and use. Making new meaning is the job of a researcher using the materials.

This is an understandable posture in traditional archiving, but its limitations in dealing with oral history audio and video documentation are manifest.[11]

There is also a compelling need for all audiences to understand the implications and challenges of digital video as a presence in oral history. While video has been a part of oral history for decades, digital video’s low cost and flexible editing tools have enabled digital video to influence how oral histories are acquired and accessed. This impacts scholarship, design, and intellectual property, and it is likely just the beginning of many complex applications of these tools.[12] Digitization broadly facilitates the integration of oral histories into complementary collections and media-rich online exhibits. As these histories grow, there is a need to examine archival and intellectual property issues, which are paramount for museums, libraries and institutional custodians of oral history. Finally, there are challenges that have endured from early digital oral histories, particularly building effective interfaces to large online collections. Unlike images, where thumbnails offer a preview of the entire object, there is currently no established technology for accessing the content of audio files. New practices in metadata, transcription and speech recognition[13] may afford better search techniques, and opportunities for users to listen to than read oral histories, but these benefits will only be available if practitioners have access to, follow, and understand current best practices.

Goal 1: Establish a set of cross-institutional working groups for reviewing and establishing a comprehensive knowledgebase for Oral History in the Digital age. This effort will meet the profound need to encourage open demonstration and prognostication of issues with respect to seven topics central to oral history in the digital age: intellectual property, transcriptions, digital-video, technology, scholarship, preservation, and access/interfaces. The work will establish a leadership platform for best practices, and elevate the detail, richness, sustainability and understanding of museum-library partnerships with scholarly societies. Each group will have an expert leader, members from libraries, museums, and oral history, and the support of graduate students. Their goal will be to build on the existing heritage of scholarship and create a foundation for standards and practices that accounts for the perspectives of the broad range of stakeholders. Below is a summary of the groups’ mission, along with their first-term leader.

Intellectual property (Sheldon Halpern): This group will build on work by the LOC and John Neuenschwander on Intellectual Property and Ethics for the OHA,[14] Specific attention will be paid to IP issues for collections created before the digital age. The goal is to create an ongoing work that both practitioners and institutions can appeal to and regard as authoritative when working to preserve and offer access to collections.

Transcriptions (Linda Shopes): The group will investigate scholarly tradeoffs between listening to oral histories rather than reading, and consider the work by Sherna Gluck, Mike Frisch and others to facilitate search and access of recordings through complex indexing and advances in current technologies. Related perspectives by archivists will be leveraged to measure the stability of archiving and preserving recordings, with the goal of providing an ongoing base for scholars, and the broad range of practitioners, to use when considering how best to preserve oral histories.

Digital video (Peter Kaufman): Video has been a part of oral history for decades, and very effective practices have been developed in concert with the Smithsonian[15]. The goal of this group is to consider changes brought about by digital video, which facilitates contextualization – creating visual information to accompany the interview, both the oral dimension of the interview and the content. It creates new opportunities for multidimensional indexing, changes in scholarship, and requires on-going attention to standards for low- and high-end applications. The goal of the group will be to lay the foundation for a second generation book on digital video that builds on the prior work by the Smithsonian.

Technology (Doug Oard): No area is changing faster for oral historians.  To that end, this group will work in consultation with the other six groups and maintain and monitor a master list of shifting technologies.  They will do an analysis of trends as well as emerging technologies. Scholarship will address technology issues for grass roots ethnographies, digitizing and accessing extensive collections, and searching across collections.

Scholarship (Charles Hardy): Communication and interchange with scholars in the field will be key to this project.  This group will facilitate scholarly interchange.  The group will also identify descriptive and normative foundations for the ways video, preservation, access, use and intellectual property relate to the goals of museums, libraries, and oral history.

Preservation (Sarah Cunningham): Preservation of growing collections of digital materials is an on-going concern for museums, libraries and archives.  Many key projects around the world are addressing these issues. This group will collect and evaluate on-going developments in preservation and translate them to the specialized needs of oral history collections.

Access / Interfaces (Mike Frisch): Computational tools for digital oral and video histories open an important non-linear, multi-pathed ground between relatively “raw” archived collections and “cooked” histories in constructed, selective, and linear documentary forms. Direct indexing, cross-referencing, and searchable access in and across audio and video documentation can influence what forms of the histories scholars might conveniently study and what kinds of interfaces can offer the most useful access to digital collections. The goal is to provide a foundation for best practices on how new tools impact access, interfaces, and practice for all audiences and practitioners.

The challenge for each group is to develop scholarly foundations that take into account the perspectives of users, creators and custodians of oral histories, in all their different forms. Differences in perspective are profound, and illustrated simply when considering the multiple perspectives on “use.” Oral historians produce profound descriptions of history through voices, but often their thinking about uses for oral histories ends with each particular project. Yet libraries and museums have identified countless audiences for these vibrant stories.  Researchers for the Shoah Foundation, for example, have identified dozens of uses and users for their interviews (e.g. historians, linguists, psychologists, educators) that go far beyond the original reasons for the collection.[16] The same is true for the Illinois State Museum Audio-Video Barn. The digital era has facilitated the use of once relatively stand-alone oral histories as unique dimensions of countless virtual exhibits. Because individual collectors rarely see their work serving this purpose, their collections often are underutilized. Museum curators recognize that placing human voices and images within a display has “the power to touch the viewer at an emotional level” and help her/him come to a more sensitive understanding of other cultures and peoples.[17] These stakeholders need to develop a shared perspective about use and communicate this to their peers. The notion of use also faces the perpetual challenge of intellectual property regulation, an especially significant concern for 1) public access to interviews of people from indigenous cultures and those with little or no access to the Web[18] [19] and 2) interviews collected before the advent of the newer technologies. Yet grass roots efforts at oral histories may languish if the creators do not accommodate intellectual property issues as interpreted by librarians (who also require historians to take into consideration intellectual format, adequate metadata, preservation, and access) and curators (who would benefit from histories that serve as contextualizing materials, ephemera, and use high quality video).

Rewards for a multi-perspective scholarly foundation on each topic will be vast, offering rich opportunities for expanding the use of oral histories and helping the work of oral historians live on while bolstering the importance of the field. Ultimately, each group will contribute to the scholarly work that will emerge from this project. Drawing on expertise from the leading representatives of libraries, museums and oral history organizations, the groups will, over two years, identify the richest practices and theories that can serve this collaboration, recognize the need to invent new methods when necessary, and establish a durable multidisciplinary foundation that supports the profound tenets of each stakeholder and does not tarnish the final product — how libraries and museums bring the corpus of oral histories to the public.

Goal 2: Convene a national symposium at the LOC aimed at developing consensus on a publishable scholarly foundation for oral history in a digital world. Prior to the symposium, groups will work at a distance to examine their topic from the perspectives of the broad range of stakeholders. As they develop their scholarship, each group will regularly share it and respond to feedback. The focused activity at the symposium will build on the online collaborations. Attendees will include the Advisory board, PI’s, project manager, evaluator and members of the working groups. At the symposium, each group will vet their work under the scrutiny of immediate peer review and exhaustively identify how issues are collectively understood and used by all stakeholders. The conference also will initiate seminal work on a design to formally map best practices to a multidisciplinary knowledgebase of scholarship on oral history

Goal 3: Develop standards for digital video-based oral histories. With the cost of high-quality equipment coming down and the ability to create, work with, and index video becoming easier, more and more oral historians are adopting digital video, and this trend requires special consideration.[20] Important work on using and preserving digital video is in progress at The University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science and Folk-streams project (funded by the IMLS), but this has focused primarily on digitizing existing documentaries. This project will focus on strengthening the importance of digital video for oral historians, [21] especially the grass roots ethnographies and community voices. For this work to find its way online into searchable collections and exhibits sponsored by libraries and museums, oral historians need to understand the requirements and perspectives that span these institutions.

Digital video enhances, and complicates, best practices in oral history – it fundamentally extends the possible roles it might play in a museum or library exhibit. While some practices can be implemented in a timely way (i.e., shooting b-roll and still images, and recording metadata) other practices will need to be debated and negotiated to help museums create rich, contextualized exhibits and libraries to catalogue, preserve and create access for digital video oral history. Scholarship needs to address the impact of digital video. The extrapolated best practices on digital video productions need to accommodate the extremely rapid development of a wide array of digital video recording devices that make it much easier for scholars to record interviews in ways that might compromise preservation, access, and the histories themselves.

Goal 4: Establish unified Best Practices: Developing and instituting authoritative best practices requires expertise, long-term thinking, and an ability to absorb and communicate the perspectives of very different fields. [22], [23] This project will build best practices that are rooted in the scholarship created by the working groups. The scholarship from each group will be engineered to a knowledgebase – a collection of individual key ideas – and displayed in a framework that conveys the essential connections and multidisciplinary. Best practices will be connected to this framework so the users can, when necessary, understand the rational for the practices. It is a best practices for a multidisciplinary community in the digital age. A number of exemplary guides and unique repositories already exist,[24] but it is not always clear to the different constituencies how a particular best practices framework captures the needs of their own project or how it relates to the scholarship that defines the field. For example, the NISO framework for building good digital collections can offer an excellent starting point for anyone embarking on a digital project, but for many, how and why it would be important may not be clear. Extrapolations can become problematic. Best practices resulting from this project will organize and contextualize the rationale for the various audiences.

To create the most meaningful, adoptable[25] best practices for the diverse audience this project serves we will:

1) utilize tutorials and examples that illustrate best practices from different perspectives,  2) create examples of the ways museums and cultural heritage institutions can create effective online exhibits that contextualize digital objects to facilitate learning and understanding; and 3) develop illustrations that maximize and enhance access for people with special needs. Brad Rakerd, a noted expert in communicative disorders and acoustics research, will lead this effort.

Goal 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. Establishing new practices is difficult, but having them adopted by those for whom they are intended is even more challenging.[26] Moreover, the primary means for dissemination – the website – often quickly becomes dated and stale as information ages.  A process is required to harness the ongoing wisdom of the community through the social networking capabilities of the web to help maintain perpetually current best practices. The project will utilize a Wiki, sponsored by AFS, OHA, and MATRIX, to create a space for conversation on best practices and create opportunities to share digital objects. The Wiki, and the best practices, will be promoted at annual meetings of the professional associations at designated sessions. In addition, H-OralHist, affiliated with the OHA, is a vibrant and lively email discussion list with over 2000 subscribers with frequent discussions of best practices and technology. The Wiki will connect to, and leverage, H-OralHist to jump start dissemination of best practices and shared objects

2. National Impact and Intended Results

This project will have a profound national impact on the way multidisciplinary scholarship can guide libraries and museums in their collaboration with academic disciplines. The knowledgebase and framework will introduce scholarship that identifies descriptive and normative foundations for the ways digital video, preservation, access, use and intellectual property relate to the goals and practices of museums, libraries, and oral history. The project also will be a model for best practices, redefining them, and illustrating how time-sensitive guidelines need to be explicitly connected to the foundational scholarship and needs of the libraries, museums, and academic disciplines that use them. Each of the guidelines in the best practices will be explicitly connected with one or more areas in the knowledgebase and framework to support decision making around the development, access, and use of oral histories. The work on digital video will advance work on using traditional (analog) video, introducing the needs of libraries and museums to oral historians who are first utilizing digital video in their work. Similarly, fleshing out the guidelines of intellectual property with the perspectives and interests of these three fields will make an important contribution to how recorded oral histories can be prepared and used in the future.

There also will be an exceedingly important outcome related to collaboration. In this project, the collaborative effort comes up front: ongoing multidisciplinary workings groups, scholarly meetings between libraries, museums and oral historians, a foundational scholarly framework, and new best practices. The benefits will be reaped by future projects undertaken by individual museums, libraries, and oral historians. If the proposed collaboration is successful, more oral histories will be useable across applications, settings and institutions. The goal, and expected outcome, is to create a foundation that allows practitioners to work independently without compromising opportunities for creating, publishing, investigating, exhibiting and sharing oral histories.

3. Project Design and Evaluation Plan

3A. Project Design: Jeff Charnley, who has 25 years of leadership and experience in the oral history community, will mange the project.  He will work in conjunction with Dean Rehberger and Marsha McDowell. They will initially work with the working group leaders and representatives from the OHA, AFS, LOC/CFCH, and AFC to flesh out membership for each group (see section 4). Simultaneously, they will launch an effort to identify and estimate the range of existing and planned  oral history collections that can help the working groups best understand the body of oral histories for which a framework and standards are required. Finally, while this often occurs nearer the end many projects, the group will begin to plan and carry out dissemination and evaluation activities.

Working with the Principle Investigators, the leaders of the four partner organizations will develop a call for participants to take part in working groups, attend the symposium, and help develop a scholarly book and corresponding website that provides a knowledgebase and framework on which best practices can be based. The framework will extend beyond the choice of technologies and ranges of standards to accommodate the broad range of projects by practitioners, libraries and museums. It will identify key elements of video, preservation, access, use, and intellectual property, describe related variables (i.e., sampling rate and metadata), and set out how they are collectively understood by all users of oral history.

Progress on the second objective – identifying and estimating the range of existing and planned oral history collections –  will begin at the OHA annual meeting in October 2009. A plenary session, chaired by Hardy and Rehberger, will be dedicated to identifying the materials. It also will serve to introduce the project, identify methods for capturing the breadth of oral history collections and activities, formulate a scholarly book and book proposal, and begin to describe the collections of oral histories in ways that meet the perspectives of libraries, museums and oral historians. Collections entered in Oral History Online will be a starting point. This work will produce both quantitative and qualitative projections over five years and yield a scholarly publication. Advisory Board members will work with the project PIs and manager to help identify challenges and examine plans for working groups and the symposium.

The third objective is to begin dissemination and evaluation. Dissemination and evaluation that starts at the end of a project is rarely effective.[27] The evaluation will begin with a formal content analysis of published best practices available for digital video, access, preservation, use and intellectual property as they relate to creating and publishing oral history[28], to document what is considered core, redundancies, mistakes, and dated materials. This research will help identify priorities among topics to address in this project. Dissemination will begin at the OHA meeting and will continue at meetings of the AFS and AAM. These conferences will dedicate one or more sessions to the project. The “preliminary” dissemination will help prepare the audience for multidisciplinary knowledgebase, framework and best practices. These initial conference sessions will be supplemented by postings on listservs, a call for participants, and opportunities through the project website and listservs for practitioners to pose questions and offer feedback.

Symposium: Once these three activities are in motion, the leadership team will convene one of the principal activities of the project: a roundtable meeting on intellectual property, transcriptions, digital video, technology, scholarship, preservation, and access / interfaces. The three-day meeting will be hosted by the Library of Congress and attended by approximately 30 library scientists, curators and oral historians, as well as selected experts in intellectual property and digital video technology.  The project Advisory Board members will be among those who participate. Rehberger, Charnley, and MacDowell will chair the sessions. Prior to the meeting, participants will receive results from the best practices content analysis, drafts of the scholarship by each working group, and well as estimates on the quantity and quality of oral histories in place and being planned. A preliminary agenda of the meeting includes the following:

Day 1: Review of research distributed prior to the meeting
Working groups meet to establish outlines
Summarize results from interdisciplinary working groups, plenary meeting offers critiques, feedback
Day 2: Working groups review critiques, amend and extend outline
Plenary meeting summarizes results from  working groups, with opportunity for critiques and feedback
Plenary meeting on organization of knowledgebase and framework
Working groups review knowledge structure with respect to their expanded outlines, brainstorm needs from shared spaces for long-term dissemination and discussion.
Day 3: Working groups separate issues related to best practices and knowledgebase and framework
Summarize results on shared spaces and best practices
Plenary discussion on the design of a scholarly work on implementing the book, knowledgebase, framework, best practices and shared spaces
Discussion of next steps and assignment of responsibilities

The seven groups, each chaired by a member of the advisory board, will develop an outline for a scholarly chapter, best practices, and the needs for shared spaces to continue the dialog. The meeting will alternate between creating outlines on the seven topics and taking time in plenary sessions for critiques, analyzing patterns and create clusters. By the end of the meeting, there should be a summary of issues that will serve as the foundation of a knowledgebase framework for oral history in a digital world. Authors will be chosen to draft chapters.

Following the symposium, design and engineering will begin on the knowledgebase, framework, standards for digital video, best practices, and shared spaces. Draft chapters will be reformulated into units suitable for a knowledgebase, and a bi-directional framework from best practices to the knowledgebase will be constructed. This knowledgebase will be evaluated by content experts, and, after revisions, used to populate the database. A draft of best practices will be subject to an assessment focused on isolating which are intuitive, relatively easy to absorb and accommodate, and which require additional clarifications and connections to the knowledgebase. Librarians, curators, and oral historians, through protocol analysis, will describe their understanding and interpretation of the best practices, related implications, and then asked to rank them by importance. Results will be clustered, and issues contributing to misunderstanding or low ranking identified.

The project Wiki will be designed to facilitate communication among curators, librarians, and oral historians. In addition to providing updates and inviting commentary on the framework, knowledgebase and best practices, it will include a facility for describing projects and collections in planning and in progress, with the goal of inviting colleagues to recommend available digital objects that might complement exhibits and collections.

When specifications for the best practices have been vetted, programming will begin. The site will be tested for usability and technical robustness by protocol analysis and testing scripts. A revised technical specification will be drawn to guide re-engineering. Concomitantly, book chapter drafts will be edited and revised by the authors.

About halfway through the second year, a new group will be established to nurture and sustain the project. This group will be comprised of representatives from OHA, MATRIX, the MSU Museum, and AFS. Their charge will be to convene a session at the OHA and AFS national conferences to present their reviews of the knowledgebase and best practices. The first session will be held at the end of the project’s second year. The goal is to recruit at least two oral historians, curators, librarians and students to serve as reviewers. Reviewers will be encouraged to use the Wiki and H-OralHist to solicit additional reviews.

3A. Evaluation: Several key areas of the project require assessment. Two activities occur at the start – a survey of oral histories and a survey of best practices. The survey of oral histories will be done by generating categories of possible collections via an N dimensional matrix; each axis represents a set of choices (recording media, metadata, fair use, etc). Once established with the help of a forum at the OHA, the matrix will be distributed on H-Oralhist and members will be asked to identify oral histories that meet different criteria. The method should reveal the breadth of collections that the framework, best practices, and samples should address, as well as number and size of collections. The evaluation of best practices will also require a search, though this will be automated and done via search engines. Once identified, best practices will be grouped by categories (created or adopted by a library, museum, oral historian, motivated by a project, etc). The best practices will be content analyzed using Latent Semantic Analysis. The results should suggest how different institutions create or select best practices, content redundancies, absences and mistakes, and indicate the extent to which best practices from a given project or institution cover issues salient to other collections and institutions. This is a baseline “collaboration index” against which collaboration empowered by this project can be measured. At the conclusion of this project, when the unified best practices are established, three different sets of oral history collections will be assigned to eight groups of librarians, oral historians and curators. Their goal will be to select best practices for implementing a sample project based on each collection and describe the steps they would take to carry the project to its conclusion. The expectation is that at least 80% of the groups will choose best practices produced by this project, and that none of the tasks derived from  the best practices would be identified, by experts, as not inhibiting future work by practitioners.

In addition to these broad assessments, specific assessments will be required to improve project outcomes, specifically the knowledgebase, framework and best practices. The assessments, measures and goals are below.

1) Which best practices require clarification and extended links to scholarship? Once the first version of best practices is in place, a group of 15 librarians, curators and oral historians, and members of the Advisory Board, will be asked to create a sample project plan for an existing collection of digital video oral histories using the best practices, then rank the practices from most to least important. Conflicting decisions among the 15 subjects and Advisory Board will be noted and revisions made to the best practices. The same exercise will be conducted after the beta version is complete. Goal: 90% fewer conflicts.
2) Usability: Once the first version of best practices is in place, a group of 2 librarians, 2 curators and 2 oral historians will be asked to create a sample project plan using the best practices. They will participate in a think-aloud protocol to assess usability.  Results will be used to develop the beta version. After it is complete, the assessment will be repeated. The goal: No more than 2 usability questions in 30 minutes, each of which is answered by the sites help facility in less than one min.
3) Technical robustness: Once version 1.0 of best practices is released, a group of 2 librarians, 2 curators, and 2 oral historians will be asked to create a sample project plan using best practices and report any technical or navigation problems. Results will inform a beta version, and, after it is complete, the assessment exercise will be repeated. The goal: No more than 1 technical problem in 30 min., with a user able to pick up at the spot of the problem in under 1 min.

4. Project Resources: Budget, Personnel and Management

Jeff Charnley, who will serve as project manager, has used oral history in college-level teaching for more than 25 years. He has taught oral history methodologies at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at MSU to more than 4,000 students. He has served as the Director of the MSU Sesquicentennial Oral History Project since 1999 and has conducted more than 120 interviews for that institutional history project. As founding and lead editor of H-Oralhist since 1998, Charnley has served as the list coordinator for the OHA and he has played an active role in that organization since 1992.

Dean Rehberger is an Associate Director of MATRIX and Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. His primary areas of research include information design and architecture; digital libraries, museums and archives; Internet technologies in the classroom; and hybrid learning environments. An expert in user interface design, Rehberger oversees MATRIX’s digital library projects and served as project manager for The Spoken Word. He is a seasoned leader in implementing major humanities technology projects and has managed numerous online educational projects that involve collaboration among multiple institutions, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Marsha MacDowell is Curator of Folk Arts, MSU Museum and Professor, Dept. of Art and Art History at MSU. She has been primarily engaged in the documentation and analysis of production, meaning, and use of traditional material culture. Dr. MacDowell is founding & current editor of H-Quilts, founding & current board member of The Alliance for American Quilts, past-president of The American Quilt Study Group, and coordinator of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program.

Steve Cohen, project evaluator, is a research professor at MATRIX/MSU whose expertise is in program evaluation and assessment of large scale interactive media driven environments. He has worked both as a Technical Director supervising the development and engineering of learning technologies and as a cognitive psychologist specializing in assessment. His learning technologies have been published by Wadsworth and Prentice Hall.

Brad Rakerd is Professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, former chairperson of that department, and a former director of its Oyer Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic. Rakerd publishes regularly on the acoustics of speech and on human hearing and hearing disorders. He is a consultant to MATRIX regarding its digitization and preservation of sound. He has worked with MATRIX to develop a series of tutorials about sound and its recording.

Advisory Board: The Board includes the following representatives of the partner organizations: Charles Hardy (Oral History Association), Tim Lloyd (American Folklore Society), Peggy Bulger (American Folklife Center, LOC), and Daniel Sheehy (Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage).  The Board also will include the following distinguished scholars who have done exemplary work in the field of developing creative presentations of oral histories online and the technologies required to work with them:

Linda Shopes, recently retired, managed academic programs as a historian at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Shopes’ recent publications include “Legal and Ethical Issues in Oral History” in Research Handbook of Oral History (2006) and “Oral History and the Study of Communities: Problems, Paradoxes, and Possibilitiesin the Journal of American History (2002). She also is principal author of the “Oral History Background Paper” for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Project on Folklore, Ethnomusicology, and Oral History in the Academy (2006).

Michael Frisch is Professor of History & American Studies/ Senior Research Scholar at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Frisch is the author of A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (1990) and Portraits in Steel (1993), a book and associated GANYS exhibit in collaboration with the noted documentary photographer Milton Rogovin, which received the OHA’s Best Book prize for 1993-1995. He has served as editor of the Oral History Review (1986-1996). His currently works in oral history applications of new media technology.

Doug Oard is Associate Dean for Research in the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, College Park and has a joint appointment in the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. His recent work has focused on interactive techniques for cross-language information retrieval, searching conversational media, and leveraging observable behavior to improve user modeling. As co-PI on the NSF-funded MALACH project, Oard directed the development and evaluation of new techniques for automated indexing and interactive search in large collections of oral history interviews.

Sarah Cunningham is currently the Audio Preservation Specialist for the National Archives branch at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. She also works with the Historical Music Recordings Collection in the Fine Arts Library of the University of Texas at Austin. Ms Cunningham has an MSIS from the School of Information (formerly the Graduate School of Library and Information Science), The University of Texas at Austin, with an Endorsement of Specialization in Preservation Administration.

Peter Kaufman is president and CEO of Intelligent Television. He executive produces all Intelligent Television media and directs the company’s research and consulting work.  He is also an expert consultant on access issues for the Library of Congress Division of Motion Pictures, Broadcast, and Recorded Sound and in 2008 was appointed co-chair of the new Film and Sound Think Tank of the U.K.’s Joint Information Systems Committee

Sheldon Halpern is the Harold R. Tyler Chair in Law and Technology at Albany Law School and the Emeritus C. William O’Neill Professor of Law and Judicial Administration at Ohio State. He is the author of several books, including The Law of Defamation, Privacy, Publicity and Moral Right: Cases and Materials on the Protection of Personality Interests; Copyright Law: Protection of Original Expression; and Fundamentals of United States Intellectual Property Law. He has served as the director of a series of interdisciplinary conferences on intellectual property and technology.

4C. Work Plan

Phase I: Tasks Responsibility
At OHA conference, develop a strategy to survey collections of oral histories Rehberger, MacDowell, Charnley
At Oral History Association meeting  meet with Advisory Board  (in person and by teleconference) to review project Charnley, Rehberger, MacDowell,  Advisory Board
Draft, send for review, and post call for participants working groups Charnley
Draft book proposal and engage publishers Charnley, MacDowell, Rehberger
Form working groups Working Group Leaders, Charnley
Begin survey of  oral history collections Cohen, Rakerd
Begin analysis of best practices Rakerd, Cohen
Share first version of working group outlines Working Group Leaders, Charnley
Complete survey of oral history collections and analysis of best practice Rakerd & Cohen
Share second version of working group outlines Working Group Leaders Charnley
Plan agenda, logistics for the Roundtable Conference MacDowell Rehberger Partners
Hold meeting at the Library of Congress Plenary event
Begin drafting chapters and framework Authors, Charnley
Phase II: Tasks
Meeting at OHA with Advisory Board to review book

Hold Sessions at OHA and AFS to recruit reviewers

Rehberger, MacDowell, Charnley
Coordinate and integrate scholarly framework Rehberger, MacDowell
Draft specifications for knowledgebase and framework Rehberger, Charnley
Draft best practices  and design for Wiki Rakerd, Charnley
Assess understanding and use of best practices Cohen, Rakerd
Revise best practices Rakerd, Charnley
Begin programming on best practices, knowledgebase, Wiki Geimer
Review drafts of chapters Rehberger, MacDowell, Partners
Alpha test usability, best practices, knowledgebase, Wiki Cohen, Rakerd
Test technical robustness and draft revised specifications Rakerd, Watrall, Cohen
Revise website Geimer
Beta test usability, best practices, Wiki Cohen, Rakerd
Finalize framework for publication and website, final testing, MacDowell, Watrall, Rehberger, Cohen
Release V1.0 of best practices, knowledgebase, Wiki Rehberger, MacDowell, Partners
End Project, Begin Maintenanc

5. Dissemination

Having a new set of best practices adopted is a challenge. There is a need for a web presence – where the best practices and scholarship will reach the widest audience.  This step, however, is just a well established starting point. The heart of the dissemination will stem from the partners organizations and their outreach. The OHA, AFS, MSU Museum, and MATRIX will help to disseminate project developments and outcomes using their meetings, publications, listservs.  We will take advantage of online networking and use four methods to disseminate information about digital video, preservation, access, use, and intellectual property in oral history as the relate to the roles of museums and libraries:

(1) Whenever there is a proposed or actual change to either the best practices or framework it will be posted on the Wiki as well as list serves of the OHA, AFS, and H-OralHist.

(2) Video and audio demonstration clips of better and less effective recording equipment and conditions posted on the website will be a valuable addition to existing print guides. MSU Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders and MATRIX have created several sample demonstrations clips in this series. Our experience is that scholars going into the field to conduct oral histories are seeking advice that is clear, concise, and easy to understand. We believe that they will be able to avoid many less-than-optimal choices of recording equipment and environments if they can conveniently see and hear ahead of time the problematic outcomes of certain choices. Additional demonstration clips will give particular focus to digital video recording equipment.

(3) Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) will be used to augment best practices. FAQs is a useful format for providing advice about best practices for common questions about recording, cleaning, streaming, and preserving audio and video recordings. The FAQs will be especially well-suited for people relatively new to digital video technology.

(4) Experts from the project staff and Advisory Board will contribute to a blog that will address the technology standards needed for conducting and disseminating audio and video oral history interviews.

6) Sustainability

The OHA, MATRIX, MSU Museum, and AFS are committed to sustaining the goals and directions of this project. MATRIX will host the Wiki and knowledgebase, framework and best practices after the duration of the project, and make updates to the content as necessary. In addition, the AFS and OHA will designate yearly sessions at their national conferences dedicated to sustaining this work. At these sessions, multidisciplinary teams of reviewers will report on the state of oral history in the digital age and the extent to which the online products from this project are serving their purpose as effectively as possible. Results of these sessions will be posted on the Wiki for reaction, and disseminated on H-OralHist, to invite additional feedback. These reviews will serve as the primary mechanism for updating the Wiki and best practices site. Representatives from the AFS, MATRIX, MSU Museum, and the OHA will prioritize the needs and develop a list of updates that need to be made for the oral history community to have a sufficient foundation to thrive in the digital age.

[1] Brown, J. S. and Duguid, P. (2002). The Social Life of information. Harvard Business School Press: Cambridge, MA


[3] Audio-based interviews will be included in the consensus; however, a particular emphasis of the project will on digital video-based interviews. The responsibility of the video interviewer is to capture both the audio and moving image.  In this narrative, the term “digital video” will stand in for both the audio and visual record.

[4] Dilevko, J., and Gottleib, L. (2004). The Evolution of Library and Museum Partnerships: Historical Antecedents, Contemporary Manifestations, and Future Directions. Libraries Unlimited: Westport, CT

[5] 2006 “Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Towards a Post-Documentary Sensibility,” in Perks and Thompson, eds., The Oral History Reader, 2nd Edition (London: Routledge)

[6] Crothers, G. A. ‘”Bringing history to life”: oral History, community research, and multiple levels of learning’, Journal of American History, vol. 88 no. 4, 2002, pp. 1446-1451.


[8] 2008 “Three Dimensions and More: Oral History Beyond the Paradoxes of Method,” in Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy, eds., Handbook of Emergent Methods (New York: The Guilford Press, 2008) 221-238

[9] Original proposal to NEH to develop Oyez,


[11] 2006  “Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Towards a Post-Documentary Sensibility,” in Perks and Thompson, eds., The Oral History Reader, 2nd Edition (London: Routledge)

[12] Michael G. Christel , Michael H. Frisch, Evaluating the contributions of video representation for a life oral history collection, Proceedings of the 8th ACM/IEEE-CS joint conference on Digital libraries, June 16-20, 2008, Pittsburgh PA, PA, USA

[13] Michael G. Christel , Julieanna Richardson , Howard D. Wactlar, Facilitating access to large digital oral history archives through informedia technologies, Proceedings of the 6th ACM/IEEE-CS joint conference on Digital libraries, June 11-15, 2006, Chapel Hill, NC, USA


[15] T. A. Schorzman (ed.), A Practical Introduction to Videohistory: The Smithsonian Institution and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Experiment, Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida, 1993

[16] Soergel, D., Oard, D., Gustman, S., Fraser, Kim, J., Meyer, J., Proffen, E., and Sartori, T. (2002). The Many Uses of Digitized

Oral History Collections: Implications for Design

[17] Brown, D. (2007) The Ahu Hiko: Digital Cultural heritage and Indigenous Objects, People, and Environments, in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage, MIT: Cambridge, MA.

[18] Alaska Native Knowledge Network. 2000. Guidelines for Respecting Cultural Knowledge.

[19] Brewster, Karen. 2000. Internet Access to Oral Recordings: Finding the Issues: Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

[20] See  Charleton (1984), Henson and Schorzman (1991),  Ritchie 154 (2003), and  Oral History Society’s “Practical Advice for Getting Started (

[21] Video recording has the ability to capture much more information than audio recording alone and can make interviews more flexible for differing uses (Ritchie 2003).  Also for most perceivers, audiovisual speech integration is quite robust, and persuasive (McGurk and McDonald, 1976). Moreover, it offers a basis for maintaining a high-level of speech intelligibility in instances where audio quality may be compromised (MacLeod and Summerfield, 1990).

[22] Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations: Free Press

[23] Szulanski, G. (2003). Sticky Knowledge: Barriers to Knowing in the Firm. Sage: San Francisco

[24] See, for example, Vermont Folk Life: Field Research Guide (, Oral Histories of the American South (, NWDA Oral History Encoding Standards (, and OpenVault (, HistoryMakers (

[25] See Sound Matters for prototype tutorials (

[26] Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations: Free Press

[27] Shadish, W., Cook, T., and Leviton, L. (1991). Foundations of Program Evaluation: Theories of Practice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage; Flagg, B. (1990). Formative Evaluation for Educational Technologies. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

[28]Palmquist, M. E., Carley, K.M., and Dale, T.A. (1997). Two applications of automated text analysis: Analyzing literary and non-literary texts. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Text Analysis for the Social Sciences: Methods for Drawing Statistical Inferences from Texts and Transcripts. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.