“No One Wants the Maintenance Crew Named after Them,”
or Preparing Material to Deposit in the Digital Age
by Troy Reeves
Most folks love conducting interviews. It gives them an opportunity to meet with interesting people and hear interesting stories. They get to ask good questions and better follow-up questions. They get these men and women to think about their lives in new and unique ways. Those same folks, however, rarely like to then prepare those collected interviews for deposit. As this essayist likes to say in his introduction to oral history workshop, “most people love to have the building named after them (i.e. collecting interviews). No one wants the maintenance or IT named after them (i.e. curating interviews).”
The digital age—as this document, in its entirety, has argued—has (or should) changed many aspects of the practice of oral history. Included in these changes is the relationship between collector and curator. In the analog age, with some exceptions, the collector conducted interviews to use for his/her purposes, and then at some point in the process (usually well after the gathering of them) the materials ended up in the lap of a curator. In the digital age, the collector and curator (if not the same person) should collaborate from the very beginning on the oral history project. Why does this collaboration matter? Here is an, albeit minor, example.
Some archives in their donation protocols include a disposition clause. That means there are things that an archive will not accept as part of a donation. By the collector and curator collaborating, the interviewer or oral history project leader will know on what they should focus their collecting, saving both him or herself and the archivist or repository’s collection development person time and resources. So, if an archive will take the recordings only if the collector has created a transcript, the collector knows to budget that into his or her bottom line.
Also, in the digital age, the type of material donated has (or should) changed. Primarily, in the analog age, the donation included tapes and release forms (for sure), summaries, and—on occasion– transcripts. An oral history project, in the digital age, should not only create audio (or audio/video) recordings but also capture digital copies of other primary source material. This material includes photos, pamphlets, personal correspondence, and other one-of-a-kind material that will augment the oral history. This deeper collecting will provide current and future users with a myriad of material to bolster their historical works. Also, it will furnish the curator with a wealth of interesting documents, with which he or she could create some type of publishing piece for his/her repository, enticing people to learn more about the overall collection through this oral history project.
Working with a repository well in advance of the donating stage can also create a clear line of support on a crucial item of oral history in the digital age: metadata. Nancy Mackay is one of our most thoughtful Oral History Association’s members on the subject of metadata. Mackay, who has been working with others on metadata criteria for oral history, said the following in a pre-essay for the OHDA symposium:
Creating a metadata scheme and accompanying cataloging guidelines for oral histories is one important step in the process of creating standards and guidelines for curating oral histories. The communication gap between the creators and the curators of oral histories is lengthening rather than shrinking as more communities undertake oral history projects and without guidance, are forced to make up rules as they go along. Clear guidelines and best practices that are responsive to oral history as practiced in the 21st century will benefit not only our communities today, but researchers in future generations.
Creating and donating good metadata, a term unheard of in the analog age, can mean the difference between a project that can be easily processed by the curator (and therefore easy for them to make accessible to the public) and a project that resides in the digital version of the analog era’s unlabeled, unprocessed tapes. The curator can explain, if necessary, to the collector the importance of adding to the recordings (and other material) subject headings or keywords or fully explicated Dublin Core-type fields of information in spreadsheet or database form.
Along with good metadata creation, a collector must give the curator well-labeled digital files. The curator will need to determine quickly & easily not only the file type (.wav, .aiff, .mp3, .doc, .rtf) but also the “who and when,” at least of the interview. A .wav file will need at least minimal labeling to allow the curator to quickly ascertain the difference between one narrator’s interviews and another or the sessions within one narrator’s oral history. So, if someone did an oral history with this essayist to start 2011, it could be labeled “reeves_1_1_2011.wav” when given to the curator. The curator might (probably will) change that nomenclature in some way, but at least he/she has been given a good starting point.
While we cannot easily within our purview offer practical advice on how best to capture or digitize the other materials– such as photos– that one should collect as part of an oral history project, we can offer some similar words of wisdom. Standardize the labeling of the scanned photos, pamphlets, or personal correspondence, so the curator knows what they will see on each .tif or .jpg before they open it. The same advice holds for the metadata: the more information the collector can give about each non-recording the better the curator can intake the collection and push out documents and catalog records to help folks find and use the material the collector compiled. The technology inside today’s video or sound recorders gives collectors the chance to capture metadata— specifically technical info–and demands that interviewers know their equipment and how to let the machine do some data creation work for you.
Metadata creation can be cleaved into three sections. First, one needs to create data about the technical aspects of the interview, such as how it was recorded. Second, one needs to create data about the content of the recording or descriptive metadata, such as the keywords or subjects discussed. There is also administrative metadata, but that gets outside of our collection bailiwick, even in this twenty-first century world of integration among collecting, curating, and communicating.
Metadata capture and transfer can be a complex issue, but with the integration of tasks (collecting, curating, and communicating) in the twenty-first century oral history world it can be managed by collaborating with curators (i.e. librarians and archivists) from the beginning. Plus, the digital technology within the recorder—whether it be an audio or audio/video—can assist the collector and curator by programming it to create some metadata, primarily technical information. As noted in another essay for this piece, in the digital age, the data we create about our interviews might become the one thing a repository truly “owns” in their oral history interviews, project, or collection.
The collector, at this phase, should not neglect his or her role in the process. This includes making sure that information about him or herself makes it into the metadata, as well. Too often, project leaders fail to give us information about the interviewer or interviewers. In the digital age, one can easily compile either audio or audio/video information about the interviewer, such as motivations, project planning and implementation overview, and final thoughts on a recording. Or that type of information can be added to a notes field to help both the curator and communicator with additional information for their work.
Whatever analogy one wants to use, be it a building or vehicle (“where the rubber meets the road” comes to mind), the digital age has (or should) changed the process and content of the meeting(s) between the collector and curator. To make the process an effective one for all involved and to create a package of material—including the data about the recording—worthy for current and future generations, an oral history project should involve collaboration between interviewers and archivists. These meetings, which should happen early and often, will craft a metaphorical building anyone could inhabit for the long term.
Citation for Article
Reeves, T. (2012). No one wants the maintenance crew named after them, or preparing material to deposit in the digital age. 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/no-one-wants-the-maintenance-crew-named-after-them/.
Reeves, Troy. “No One Wants the Maintenance Crew Named after Them, or Preparing Material to Deposit in the Digital Age,” 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/no-one-wants-the-maintenance-crew-named-after-them/
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.