Case Study: Baylor Institute for Oral History
by Elinor Mazé
When the Baylor University Program for Oral History (now Baylor University Institute for Oral History) was created in 1970, three strategic decisions shaped its practice and product for the decades to come. These decisions were, first, that every oral history interview created or acquired would be transcribed; second, that the audio recordings would be kept, cared for, and made accessible; and third, that the services of archiving and accessibility would be provided by others—closely related and nearby others, to be sure, but under separate governance and guidance in an archives branch of the Baylor library.
The decision to transcribe interviews was made by the director of the fledgling program, Dr. Thomas L. Charlton, because “Most of the well-established oral history research programs in the United States at that time were deeply committed to preserving oral recollections on paper as well as on magnetic tape recordings.” The original oral history documents were considered to be the voice recordings, with the edited transcripts intended as aids for “those accustomed to traditional forms of historical documentation.” This idea was modified a bit under the advice and influence of visiting consultants during the program’s first two years. The director was urged to think of the transcribing work not as “a mere stenographic task.” The organization’s first staff members devoted much of their attention to transcribing; an internal style guide was created, and the editing of transcripts became “one of the program’s greatest emphases.”
The consequences of this emphasis were significant. The great majority of the organization’s resources of staff, time, and funds were devoted to transcribing, editing, printing, and distributing transcripts. The record-keeping system created for managing this work was designed mainly to keep track of transcripts. Created before personal computers and amateur-friendly relational database software, a system of typed forms with handwritten entries kept track of transcript production but made no record of the recordings. Interestingly, the creation of transcripts was more complex and created more varieties of documents and ancillary materials than the record-keeping system accounted for. No note was made of the physical location of the typed drafts in various stages of completion. Review of transcripts by interview participants was considered an important part of the editorial process. But when the hand-marked transcripts were returned to the organization’s files, although they were kept permanently as a record of the authors’ assent to the final form of the transcripts, their location and the extent of the editorial changes they required were not noted. The end product of the transcribing effort, one bound typescript each for the archives and for the interviewee—often brought together several interviews, either with a single interviewee or with several interviewees whose interviews were topically related. The composition of these final volumes was not noted, nor was the final distribution of the volumes.
These omissions and shortcuts were not attributable to carelessness, of course. The organization was small, its work– though ambitious– was not voluminous, and the office conventions of filing, storing, and corresponding were well understood among the small staff. The context for record-keeping was the organization’s office; however, the relationship of these records to metadata important for research, for public access and for long-term preservation, was not foreseen and, probably, not foreseeable.
The second of the strategic decisions made at the organization’s inception—that audio recordings would be preserved—was of theoretical significance in the beginning. As noted earlier, these recordings were considered the original, primary historical resource and the transcripts of them were merely research aids. It was not the further advice of consultants alone that shifted focus to transcribing; practicality played a large role. For the first 15 years or so of the organization’s existence, interview recordings were made on open-reel tape with a wide—and seemingly randomly selected—variety of recorder settings with respect to speed, channels, tracks, and such. Such documentation as there was concerning recordings was hand-written on the boxes in which the tapes were stored. Sometimes interviews spanned more than one tape, sometimes tapes contained more than one interview, and copies made for access were often different in almost every technical and physical respect from the originals. And although access copies were made, the logistical challenges of storing the tapes and playing them on request, and the cumbersomeness of the linear medium for researchers seeking quick access to content, meant that, in practice, the tapes rested in near oblivion. Some care was taken in the earliest years to rewind the originals once or twice to repack the reels and prevent signal bleed-through, but this practice was– at best– sporadic and was eventually abandoned. The advent of the audio cassette did not change the relative status of the audio recording for researchers, nor did it change how recordings were managed within the organization or by its archive partner. The pattern of handling recordings had long been established and new media forms did not change it.
The consequences of these policies and practices for audio recordings have also been far-reaching. As time took its toll on the analog recordings, it became imperative to undertake a comprehensive preservation project. The condition of the tapes needed to be surveyed in order to prioritize digitization and plan for stabilized physical storage. Again, information needed for this survey had never been systematically recorded because its importance was not anticipated. For example, the manufacturer details of the tape stock were not available and, as noted above, many of the specifics of recording settings had not been recorded consistently and were not included in the data collection maintained for transcripts. By the time the preservation project was undertaken, the Baylor University oral history collection had grown to over 5,000 interview recordings, with virtually no centralized or easily-accessible record of media, format, or other crucial data. Guesswork, surmise, and limited physical sampling had to serve to determine the scope and urgency of the preservation tasks at hand.
The third strategic decision was perhaps the most far-reaching of all, and was the one that had to be fundamentally reconsidered as Baylor’s Institute for Oral History settled fully into the digital realm and recasted its mission to take full advantage of the integrating and outreaching power of digital technology. In the era of typewriters, Baylor’s oral histories were accessible only to visitors to the Baylor campus and only by appointment with the archivist of the Texas Collection, the special archives library that had partnered with the oral history program to provide preservation and access services. Even when digital word processors made it easier to produce copies of transcripts, the bound volumes in the archives continued to be managed as unique, irreplaceable archive documents, available for reading only under the invigilating eye of an archives staff member. More importantly, the content of the oral histories was documented only through the typed abstracts which accompanied the bound volumes to the archives. These abstracts were written by the staff of the oral history program, and they were filed by the archivists in a notebook which served as researchers’ only means of browsing and searching the collection. It was not until 1985 that the first catalog of the collection was written. This printed volume accumulated the abstracts for deposited volumes and added further aids, such as indexes and lists of interview participants and projects. It also provided some basic information about the very large and growing number of in-process interviews, transcripts for which the final editing had not been completed. The most important of the added features of the printed catalog, however, was the creation of a set of discrete descriptors for characterizing the subject content of the interviews. This set of descriptors was homegrown and devised wholly within the context of the collection itself. Apart from a few specific institutional and geographic names, the descriptors were extremely broad; such terms as agriculture, education, politics, and religion provided some browsing and searching guidance to researchers who had already discovered the oral history collection at Baylor, mostly by scholarly word-of-mouth or consultation with the archivist. This early attempt at descriptive metadata did not serve in any precise or useful way to connect the oral history collection with the other materials in the archives, let alone with the collections of all kinds discoverable in the Baylor library catalog or beyond.
The first printed guide to the collection was updated with a supplement in 1996. Like the first volume, the second included abstracts of completed interview transcripts, lists and indexes, and a brief guide to in-process interviews. Within one to two years of the appearance of this second guide volume, institute staff created its first digital guide to the collection. Created with one of the earliest versions of FileMaker software, this computer finding aid provided item-level access to the collection with a simple search interface, a controlled vocabulary for descriptors, and some other search parameters. This digital guide was also from computers in the reading room of the Texas Collection. It was the first tentative step towards harnessing the power of digital technology for research, but it did not expose the oral history collection to researchers beyond the confines of the Baylor campus. Nor did it include information about any of the still-in-process interviews, which significantly outnumbered the completed ones.
Shortly after the creation of the computer finding aid, the institute’s first computer-based process-control system was inaugurated. Again using FileMaker software, the typed and handwritten process stage sheets which held all of the available data about the institute’s oral history work were copied into a single table. In succeeding years, the database was further developed into a relational one, with value and authority lists, field control, and provision for data about recordings. But the relationship between this process control data and the metadata required for digital public access and preservation was largely overlooked, and a great deal of double-entry of data began to take a disproportionate toll of staff time.
As the institute’s internal process management system was growing increasingly sophisticated, so was digital access to the content of the oral history collection. The first step towards widespread online discoverability of the collection was the migration of the homegrown Filemaker finding aid to machine-readable cataloging (MARC) records for Baylor’s online library catalog. This work was undertaken by the institute’s staff, and marked the beginning of the process by which public access and preservation of its oral histories became the institute’s own work, not that of the separately organized and managed archives organization.
The migration to MARC records was accomplished with a quick-and-dirty field crosswalk from the Filemaker item-level finding aid. Discrete descriptors, the only available subject metadata for the interview content, had to serve in place of Library of Congress subject headings– a shortcoming which required about a year of part-time attention by the institute’s faculty editor to correct. There were two more shortcomings in the data collection available through the Baylor library catalog. First of all, the information about in-process interviews was still nowhere to be found beyond the long out-of-date and mostly forgotten printed guides to the collection. Secondly, because completed oral history transcripts, bound as oral memoirs, were still deposited in the Texas Collection archives, there was no process by which records for new deposits could be added to the catalog. The Texas Collection dealt in finding aids for its archive collections, not item-level cataloging, and institute staff were outside of the authorized workflow of acquisitions and cataloging for the Baylor library system. Full control of the collection was still one step ahead for the institute.
The framework for that final step was provided by the Baylor library’s acquisition of CONTENTdm, a digital collection management system produced by OCLC, Inc. About the same time, the Baylor library’s digital management team acquired high-speed, archive-quality scanning equipment. All of the typewritten transcript volumes in the archives were scanned– with preservation TIFF and PDF files and watermarked-access PDF files–and stored on the centralized preservation server. Another crosswalk moved existing cataloging data for the oral history collection from MARC records to CONTENTdm’s Dublin-Core-based metadata schema, the PDF transcripts were added to each item, and the whole was configured to expose the collection to Internet search engines. New transcripts were added as they were created, including drafts for in-process interviews still awaiting final editing but reviewed and approved by interview participants. Library of Congress subject headings, abstracts, and full-text searching of transcripts made the content of the institute’s collection discoverable worldwide.
Next on the horizon is to realize the potential of digital audio and the audio presentation capabilities of CONTENTdm, to make the original institute’s interview recordings readily accessible to the research public. The challenges are many and the tasks required to meet them will make heavy demands on available resources of staff, time, and expertise. But the wisdom of the founding decision to keep and care for the recordings, however sketchily documented they were, has provided the institute the opportunity to bring researchers closer to the original aural sources of its collection.
What have been the lessons of this odyssey from typescripts to multimedia online archives? First, exhaustive documentation of every detail of oral history creation is important for the long term. The Baylor experience has shown that whatever seems trivial today—the manufacturing brand of the media on which recordings were made, the models (or even serial numbers) of the machines on which they were made, or the version of the word-processing software with which transcript documents were created—may play a major role later in determining how best to preserve or present recordings and transcripts with succeeding generations of technology. Secondly, there is an intimate connection between the information needed to manage processes within an organization and the data required to expose a collection to the public and to preserve it for the long run. The processes of accessioning recordings on original media; of managing digital files for preservation and processing; of creating descriptive, administrative, rights control, and technical metadata; and of generating abstracts, indexes, transcripts, and descriptors are intimately tied to the systems for access and preservation. These subsystems generate and use much of the same data and need to be created to work in tandem. Multiple unrelated data sets and records and redundant data entry mean inefficient use of resources, which few organizations– small or large– can afford.
The third lesson derives from the first two. Technology has made documenting, processing, and archiving oral history seamlessly connected. Separating any of the three subsystems from the others causes them all to fail in key ways in the overarching goal of oral history, which is to preserve an interview for the longest possible time and for the widest possible audience. In the end, all three of these lessons are as equally pertinent to the local historical society embarking on its first oral history project as they are to large, complex organizations such as the Baylor University Institute for Oral History accessioning its five-thousandth interview.
 Charlton, Thomas L., “Introduction,” in Rebecca Sharpless Jimenez, editor, Baylor University Institute for Oral History: A Guide to the Collection 1970-85. Waco: Baylor University, 1985, p. x.
 ibid., p. xi.
 Myers, Lois, M. Rebecca Sharpless, and Jaclyn L. Jeffrey, compilers; Baylor University Institute for Oral History: A Guide to the Collection, Vol. 2, 1985-1996. Waco: Baylor University, 1996.
Citation for Article
Mazé, E. (2012). Case study: baylor institute for oral history. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/baylor-institute-for-oral-history/.
Mazé, Elinor. “Case Study: Baylor Institute for Oral History,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/baylor-institute-for-oral-history/
This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.