Enhancing Discovery: Connecting Users
to Your Oral History Collections Online
by Doug Boyd
Users and researchers need to first find our collections before they can explore, connect with, and engage the content contained within individual oral histories. The Internet has certainly made it dramatically easier for the world to find and use our materials. Prior to offering collections on the web, the Nunn Center boasted that 500 researchers used our collection each year. Internet discovery tools have brought usage up to several thousand each month.
Of course we still cannot say how remote and sometimes anonymous visitors use oral history interviews we labored to put on line, we can be sure the rate of discovery has risen dramatically. How are researchers and curious users able to find and navigate our collection records that live online? How do we then help them use the interviews effectively? This micro essay focuses on discovery, the crucial first step in engaging users in a digital environment with oral history content.
Information specialists have long known that efficient discovery depends heavily on the production and availability of descriptive metadata. Metadata standards are profoundly important (see essays by Maze and McKay) but if the best-constructed metadata is not in a location or system that encourages discovery, the interviews will remain unused. Metadata can be at the collection level, or part of individual interviews.
Collection-level descriptive metadata does exactly what the name implies. It provides an introduction to a set of archival interviews usually unified by a project or topic. Typically, a collection-level description is accompanied by broad, descriptive subject terms and an inventory containing the names and dates of individual interviews within that collection. A good collection level description is a tremendous tool for a user navigating a large archive. Collection-level description gives users something to search and browse when engaging with an archive in order to determine whether or not the archive houses content that will be useful or important to them.
Unfortunately, from a practical standpoint, sizeable archives that store a large volume of oral history interviews and collections usually do not have funding or staff to take the time to critically listen to each individual interview and create detailed descriptions of the content. With significantly constrained resources repositories instead produced published (paper-based and now online) catalogs containing only collection-level description. This is an important first step in enhancing discovery of the interviews in an archive and in an archival collection. Collection-level description alone, however, often proves inadequate in terms of accurately representing the complex and comprehensive content contained in individual interviews, especially for larger archival collections. For example, if a collection is made of 100 oral history interviews representing 150-200 hours of life stories, vague collection descriptions such as the following hypothetical description, creates more questions for researchers.
This collection contains interviews about individual experiences of living in a segregated society and discussions of the struggle to end legal segregation in Kentucky. Topics in this collection include: Segregation, public accommodations, desegregation of education in Lexington and Louisville, as well as smaller towns in Kentucky.
To a researcher or curious visitor, focusing on the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky, description of this collection has enabled initial discovery and confirmed that this archive, indeed contains interviews that may be relevant to their research. Collection-level description is an effective initial access point. However, if it is the only access point to oral history material, future researchers will find it cumbersome and somewhat difficult to use the breadth of an archive and its collections effectively
Item-level description – descriptions for each interview – is the metadata ideal but as I previously mentioned, it is labor intensive, time consuming and ultimately expensive to produce on a large scale. Yet item-level description is indispensible for optimizing discovery and future use of the oral history interview. Fortunately, slight changes to archival workflow and the emergence of digital tools can optimize the creation of item-level metadata and reduce the resources required to produce it.
As discussed in the case study: Metadata in the Field: Interviewer-Generated Archival Description, the Nunn Center has begun to depend on interviewers by Doug Boyd, to create an initial level of item level metadata ingested with the interview during archival accession. Within minutes of accessioning this interview, there are searchable elements representing it in the digital domain. Requiring interviewers to create “Interviewer generated,” or I-G, descriptions, enables the Nunn Center to quickly and efficiently accession an interview with an immediate descriptive presence. The archivist ingests this I-G metadata, efficiently edits the interview summary to conform with Nunn Center standards, utilizes broad Library of Congress Subject Headings derived from the I-G metadata and saves the record. As an alternative to creating exhaustive metadata, simply providing 5-10 searchable keywords, a summary mostly written by the interviewer, and a few authorized headings associated with the content of the interview profoundly transforms and unlocks the potential for discovery of content within the interview. And, as a bonus, I-G metadata benefits the interviewer; their work is more likely to be used and found by an appreciative audience.
Online Access to Archival Catalogs
The discovery of good descriptive metadata greatly depends on the location of that metadata. In general, I recommend that libraries, archives, and museums strive to provide users with as many access points in as many places as they can afford to create and maintain as possible.
Many archives continue to use archival management systems that have no public access point, or no web interface for browse and search of archival records. SPOKEdb, the Nunn Center’s online catalog launched in November 2011, regularly gets over 10,000 page views a month and, interestingly enough, reference requests have quickly risen as a direct result. Many of these new reference requests now focus not on interviews from projects the Nunn Center has publicized and have been well known for housing, but reference requests are focusing on the individual, miscellaneous interviews and projects that the public never knew we housed in our collection. It is not hard to connect the dots. Prior to the launch of SPOKEdb, there was no efficient mechanism for users to browse and search the Nunn Centers’ collections without working directly with an archivist.
A large part of seven billion people can now reach your archive when the library, archive or museum materials can be searched and browsed online. There are archival system for going online that offer a 1) database for the materials, 2) space for item and collection level metadata, and a public interface for providing content to users. As articulated in Sara Abdmishani Price’s essay Collection Management Systems: Tools for Managing Oral History Collections several archival systems for curating collections also provide these “front ends” for users to engage. Many museums and small archives and libraries use Past Perfect, a tool that manages collections that provides and optional web interface for making records accessible online.
Discovery Tools and Strategies
The Nunn Center’s system SPOKEdb, was self designed, specifically, for efficiently and professionally curating and disseminating oral history online (http://www.kentuckyoralhistory.org). Built on Drupal (http://drupal.org/), an open source, content management system designed for websites, SPOKEdb is optimized for search engines such as Google. We chose to create SPOKEdb because we felt that typical professional archival collection management systems such as Archivist Toolkit (utilized by the Special Collections division of the University of Kentucky Libraries) fell short in effectively managing oral history archival collections. More importantly, at the time of adoption of Archivist Toolkit, there was no expressed plan by the Archivist Toolkit creators for providing remote user access for the system. Archivist Toolkit is now planning a major transformation in the next few years and will provide a pubic, web interface for users to search and browse. When considering the adoption of a professional collection management such as Archivist Toolkit, or design your own system like SPOKEdb, consider its accessibility. Users are expecting some level of access to collections online and providing an inventory of collections is proving easier and easier to accomplish.
A great advantage of Archivist Toolkit is an automated system for generating online finding aids that conform to professional archival standards. Archivist Toolkit produces DACS compliant, EAD finding aids. DACS stands for standards outlined in the book Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). I highly recommend it for a view of current best practices for archival description. The finding aid is an important archival convention for providing users with an inventory of an archival collection and can contain a massive amount of important collection information. Online finding aids are searchable but they are static and when changes are made to metadata, or an interview is added to the collection the finding aid must be recreated and replace the older version. Nevertheless, the finding aid is an excellent way for oral history collections to be incorporated into larger multifaceted collection environments. Researchers rarely want to access only the oral history content. They want access to any archival material you house that may be related to their topic. If users have to search multiple databases, they often get frustrated. The finding aid is an excellent convention for empowering users to search across all of the archival collections, no matter the type or format.
In the absence of an online, searchable database, library-based institutions should consider the generation of LibGuides, which essentially function as searchable webpages created on a particular topic or subject. These can be very effective for providing an initial level of access to collection records. The strong disadvantage of this “webpage” approach to disseminating collection records is that they are static. If a collection description or inventory changes, the collection manager must manually alter the LibGuide or webpage each time. This is not scalable for a larger institution. The Nunn Center has utilized LibGuides to feature certain collections, such as the guide we created to highlight our oral history collections that pertain to the Civil Rights Movement.
For basic collection-level records, I have found that typical library catalogs have been optimized for discovery. WorldCat, an online union-catalog contains catalog records from over 70,000 libraries around the world. Employing a library catalog such as WorldCat for housing your searchable oral history records can expose your oral history collections to an enormous online community. Additionally, it will incorporate oral history collections with related, non oral history material, which creates serendipitous discovery of content. Most researchers do not set out to search oral history collections for related content, but they are mainly interested in finding any material relating to their topic or research project. WorldCat can disseminate your records at both the collection and at the item level. The only catch with participation in a library union-catalog is that it requires the need for a professional librarian to prepare the content in MARC. MARC is a library standard that is fairly esoteric. Needless to say, I highly recommend the participation in a library system such as WorldCat to optimize dissemination of collection records.
The primary discovery tool being utilized by most global users is Google. Libraries and Archives around the world have been scrambling to ensure that their searchable databases and Online Public Access Catalogs (OPAC) are being indexed by Google. The result is, once more, enhancing the discovery of information. One of the key factors to discovery of oral history materials is, first, to have well produced descriptive metadata. A second key factor in discovery is providing multiple access points to content. The following describes typical Nunn Center strategy for creating and maintaining access points to our oral history collection records:
1. SPOKEdb for web browsing and searching of our oral history collection. Optimized for Google
2. Archivist Toolkit for easy incorporation of oral history materials into the larger collection management system so that oral history does not operate in isolation of other archival content at the University of Kentucky. No public access point at this time
3. University of Kentucky Libraries WorldCat (OPAC) (Automated Export from Archivist Toolkit).
4. EAD generated Finding Aids on the Kentucky Digital Library for selected collections (Automated Export from Archivist Toolkit).
5. LibGuides that connect researchers to topic oriented collections such as the Civil Rights Movement. These LibGuides are incorporated with other LibGuides produced in Special Collections at the University of Kentucky Libraries.
A final note of celebration and caution about enhancing discovery of oral history interviews. The Nunn Center currently receives over 13,000 page views of SPOKE, our online collection catalog. I am thrilled to report that optimal search engine optimization has ensured that our collections are being easily discovered and this has transformed the number of reference requests that the Nunn Center is receiving. However, reference has dramatically increased to a point that is clearly beyond our current staffing capabilities during a time of limited resources. Many of the interviews being discovered have not yet been digitized which has created a “digitize-on-demand” scenario, which can slow down the reference process. Enhancing discovery and use of our wonderful oral history collection is, indeed, our mission, so this is a good problem to need to solve.
Citation for Article
Boyd, D. A. (2012). Enhancing discovery: connecting users to your oral history collections online. 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/enhancing-discovery/.
Boyd, Douglas A. “Enhancing Discovery: Connecting Users to Your Oral History Collections Online,” 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/enhancing-discovery/
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.