Oral Histories

ACT UP Philly

One of the things that really gets to me about oral histories archived on the web is how little information usually accompanies them, before clicking on a video or a PDF of a transcript. Some archiving projects don’t even provide a date for the interview, let alone a focus. I understand why: it’s a massive amount of work to break down multiple interviews further, with useful metadata and indexing. But without doing so, who will be accessing these oral histories, and why? 

I’m interested in learning how some projects have navigated this challenge: what to provide as a tickler, if you will, to encourage further web browsing. I’ve gathered here some interesting approaches. 

  1. The short video clip: This strikes me as the most successful approach. The ACT-UP oral history project has nearly 200 interviews on their website. Each interview has a full-length PDF of a transcript and a short, three-five-minute video clip of the interview. Importantly, each short description about that clip describes what the clip is about. So for example, the interview clip of Ron Medley (interview #038) is described as “Crashing a Pataki Fundraiser,” with the date of the interview listed as well (December 28, 2003). And the video clip itself (see still) also has Ron’s name on it as well. So this isn’t a huge amount of information to work with, but it’s something. There is also an index to the interviews, allowing a researcher to find interviews that speak to specific topics, such as “ACT-UP Meetings.”  
  2. The AIDS Activist History Project focuses on AIDS activism in Canada, and emerges from the work of Gary Kinsman and Alexis Shotwell. There’s a list of places, with about 60 narrators overall. Each interview is accompanied by a short video clip (usually around 1-2 minutes), a transcription of that interview, and a link to the full transcript, which includes the date of the interview (not otherwise available in the visible metadata). Unlike the ACT-UP Oral History Project from NYC, though, there’s no brief description of the clips, nor is there an index from what I can tell. So it would be hard to direct anyone to specific themes across the 60 interviews, and given that the one interview transcript I did access was 54 single-spaced pages, I can see someone getting overwhelmed quickly. 
  3. Browsing by Tag: The Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony has about 10 “collections” on their site, which was founded by our collaborator Elise Chenier. Elise set up these oral histories and interviews in collaboration with trained archivists. As a result, one can search the interviews by collection; by topics such as “Coming Out” (using a controlled vocabulary); by tags (such as “prison”); and by user rating. I am not sure where the tags came from; I suspect these were generated by the archivist and by Elise. Each interview appears with both the link to the recording and a panel of full metadata including format, rights, date, location, etc. By browsing tags or topics, one can search across interviews and collections on a given topic, making the sorting process very accessible.   

But the question still remains: how to get people to be motivated to find and watch even a five minute clip? 

Elspeth Brown