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In recent decades, oral histories have become an increasingly popular way of documenting the personal memories and experiences of everyday citizens. Inspired by projects like StoryCorps, countless individuals and organizations have gone about recording the stories of family and community members. Preserving, digitizing, and providing access to these oral histories presents both an opportunity and a challenge to libraries, archives, and other cultural heritage institutions.
One of the most important considerations when evaluating oral history collections is, of course, format. While fundamental principles of preservation and access apply to any collection, the process of working with documents (i.e. transcriptions, reports, etc.) can be quite different from working with audio and video recordings. To date, the MDCH program has partnered with several institutions to digitize and/or provide access to oral history collections in a variety of formats.
In 2006, the program worked with WHILBR, Western Maryland's Historical Library, on "Coal Talk." The "Coal Talk" collection included a number of interviews with individuals who were part of Western Maryland's coal mining communities. The interviews, most of which took place in the early 1990's, were recorded on audiocassette tapes. While MDCH did not ultimately host the collection on our website, we did convert the original tape recordings into digital .wav audio files. The files were later made available on WHILBR's website as part of the "Coal Talk" digital collection.
In 2007, MDCH began a partnership with St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, MD on the American Century Project, a collection of oral histories completed by students in their junior year. As part of this ongoing project, each student selects a person of no relation to interview about a period or event, then creates a paper based on the interview, primary and secondary sources, and their own analysis. While audiocassette tapes of the interviews are archived at the school's Dreyfuss Library, audio files of the recordings were not included as part of the online MDCH collection. Instead, the students' papers were digitized by Dreyfuss Library staff, and PDF's and metadata were imported into MDCH's Union catalog using CONTENTdm collection management software. CONTENTdm's OCR (Optical Character Recognition) extension enabled Dreyfuss Library staff to also generate full-text transcripts of the PDF's.
As mentioned in my previous blog post, MDCH has recently partnered with Carroll County Public Library (CCPL) and the Community Media Center on the Carroll County History Project. The project's collection of interviews with Carroll County residents are in a digital video format, so no conversion of VHS tapes or other analog video formats is necessary; however, determining the best way to provide access to the videos using CONTENTdm has been a learning experience for staff here at MDCH, myself in particular.
Although CONTENTdm can store and retrieve most audio and video files the same as other file types (JPEGs, PDF's, etc.), there are some unique factors that come into play when working with audiovisual materials. Depending on the file format and delivery method selected, the videos may be stored on the CONTENTdm server and accessed natively within the CONTENTdm record, or they may be stored on a separate server and accessed through a url. If importing the files directly into CONTENTdm, it is recommended that they be in a compressed format, such as MPEG for moving images (video, film, etc.) and MP3 for audio. Compressed files can be downloaded more quickly by end-users, and take up significantly less storage space on the CONTENTdm server. To further facilitate faster download and easier viewing, lengthy audio and video sequences should be segmented when possible. Interviews, for example, can be edited and broken down into smaller segments, which are then imported into CONTENTdm as separate files. This also enables the creation of more specific metadata, including subject terms, for each audio or video segment. If working with audio or video delivered in a streaming media format, then the files are stored on a streaming media server. The metadata is entered into CONTENTdm, and a url linking to the streaming media file is imported.
In the case of the Carroll County History Project, the interviews are currently stored in a web-accessible Adobe Flash video format on a server maintained by the county's Community Media Center. Rather than import all of the videos into CONTENTdm, we have decided to instead import urls linking to the videos stored on the separate server. CCPL and the Community Media Center will provide the metadata for each video, which will also be imported into CONTENTdm. We are currently exploring possible ways to link to various points in the videos, as well how to best display the videos and metadata within CONTENTdm. While there are still some details to be worked out, I look forward to making this unique oral history collection available on the MDCH website. Since our collaboration on the Carroll County History Project began, I have also received inquiries from other institutions interested in partnering with MDCH on oral history projects. These potential new partnerships offer an exciting opportunity to apply what we have learned in working on other collections, and to explore further how to best digitize, store, and provide access to oral histories.