Oral History Curation in the Digital Age:
A Framework for Choices and Planning
by Michael Frisch, Douglas Lambert, Mark Tebeau, and Erin Bell
What are the best practices for oral history curation in the digital age? The answer is simple, and always exactly the same: “It depends.” What it depends on, for any institution or organization or archive or community project in any area of practice, are factors grounded in a constellation of not always aligned pulls, pressures, trade-offs, and unfolding capacities. Together, these inform rapidly changing curatorial options and choices.
Two linked trajectories lie at the core of this constellation, propelling what is most challenging and exciting about the curation of oral history in the digital age:
- capacities to curate audio and video recordings as oral history’s primary source, and
- ubiquitous electronic access to extensive digitized oral history collections.
The expanded scale and instant accessibility of digital oral history provides challenges and opportunities for organizing, preparing, and managing interview collections. These challenges and opportunities, in turn, are both extended and complicated when interview media function as a primary source: oral history recordings are by definition complex and resource-intensive to manage and extremely time-intensive for user research and review.
Together, these trajectories affect a range of general curatorial issues, including collection management, content management, metadata, transcription and speech recognition, and user access. For each of these, expanding choices are becoming available in a widening range of tools, modes, and approach. These are considered in the several essays comprising our group’s report. To provide a broader context for these examinations, this introduction offers a framework for understanding how these aspects are connected and necessarily interdependent in digital age curation as well as how important appreciating this becomes as curators assess the choices they face.
Imagine digital age curation as a spatial field defined by four concrete foci at the corners, and a fifth one suspended over all of them. Each of the four corners, like the corners of a tent, represents a distinct aspect of curatorial orientation and responsibility. The multiple relationships between these comprise the sides, and the tensions between them shape a quadrilateral floor space in-between. The fifth focus lifts up from the floor, as the tension between the poles raises the peak of the tent from the ground, shaping an enclosed three-dimensional space underneath. The tent metaphor is especially helpful in moving us beyond right /wrong, good/bad, this/that, and either/or dichotomies. Particular concerns pull in different directions, like tent poles, and that’s not only acceptable, it’s essential. Without tension between the poles, there is no tent, and no tent space to enter.
In this spirit, let us first identify the four tent poles and the tent peak of oral history curation, which together shape the tent of choice and approach in any situation. Each is necessarily involved to some extent in any contemporary oral history curatorial setting. But their variable weightings in specific situations, much less the tensions, trade-offs, and pulls between them, shape the particular space within which particular curatorial decisions are made.
First is Collection Management. The oral history collection must be received, processed, organized, protected, and made accessible. This involves a range of considerations, including but not limited to, developing appropriate collection metadata and finding aids; the role of transcription or other forms of annotative content guides; and balancing responsibilities for preservation with protocols for access/use, in everything from physical design to technological mediation.
A second distinct dimension is Media Management. In the digital age, with the recordings in oral history more and more a core primary source for everything from research to public presentation, dealing with media has become an increasingly significant dimension of curation across the board. This ranges from distinct preservation questions to the role of media-metadata to issues of access and use (these latter issues are complicated when the primary source is media and not print documentation). The accelerating primacy of video, in contrast to audio, is an especially important dyamic here, in that it video has widening utility in every sense, yet presents so many complex demands for all aspects of curation.
A third dimension, whose pull or significance varies considerably across curatorial settings, is Output Management. This involves all the considerations bearing on the degree to which output needs and concerns—production, publication in print or digital form, representation as text or in multimedia formats, Web site development, researcher needs, and user involvement in curation—can be seen as driving curatorial practice (or at least being provided for and supported by curatorial practice).
Fourth are real-world considerations that can collectively be called Project Management.—This includes all the concrete determinants of curatorial capacity: budget; staff size and training; managerial skills and limits; broader institutional constraints, obligations, and expectations; technological infrastructure and in-house IT capacity; and so on. These often vary with scale, but even that is often more complicated. Larger institutions may have relatively modest and/or peripheral oral history collections, whereas in modest institutions oral history collections may be the central fulcrum on which curatorial practice and choices rest. These balances speak directly to what will be available for managing oral history collections at every level, from funding to equipment to staff and staff capacities. Whatever the level and the mix, in the real world of rapidly changing curation, basic capacity/capacities represent a crucial, defining independent variable, a dimension in necessary tension with the other dimensions of curatorial ambition.
Finally, lifting up the peak and determining the height of this digital age tent and, hence, the volume of the enclosed curatorial space, is the pull of Software and Digital Technology. This is itself an independent variable, widening and complicating the range of capacities, choices, and implications for all of the dimensions of curatorial practice. Software and technology are, of course, just tools, but they are also—for better or worse– cultural and practical drivers. Deciding what level of technology is needed, appropriate, manageable, affordable, and sustainable thus becomes a determination of considerable complexity and consequence in every dimension of curation.
Curatorial challenges, and best practice choices for meeting them, can then be imagined as located somewhere in that three dimensional space, depending on how the issues are engaged and the choices made. In different settings, depending on the relative salience of one or more of these aspects, this “space” of curation will have a different shape. It will present more room for choices and approaches relevant to the dominant curatorial emphases and priorities in any setting.
Some issues seem very close to one of the poles, such developments in collection management software tools. Others will be positioned closer to two or three poles. Some approaches and choices addressing an issue may be “higher” in the space, (i.e. more technology intensive) others less so. Choices among particular approaches depend on where in that tent the curatorial challenge is, where one may wish it to be or move towards and why, and when or how that may/may not be supportable and feasible.
The main utility of this model rests on how it encourages appreciation of the interconnections between the noted dimensions of curation when assessing the implications of any choices under consideration. A particular approach to collection management, for instance, may be appropriate for an organization with a minimal interest in or need need for generating a broad range of outputs, but not the right choice for one with an ambitious, open-ended interest in flexible output generation. Choices about media formats, preservation, and management may have complex implications for collection management, user access, interfaces, and outputs. A technological level appropriate for meeting a need may not be supportable or practical given the IT capacities, staff, and infrastructure available. Organizations focused on outputs and public engagement may have very different needs in collection content and media management than formal archives. Archives may find their approach to media management changing in response to converging digital capacities for collection management and flexible, user-driven output. In and across all of these, project management, staff, infrastructure, and skill capacities are crucial variables in determining what situational best practices are appropriate and supportable. Thus, planning needs to be informed by both the direction of curatorial practice in relation to all the other corners of the tent and the level of technological development that can be effective and strategic in that regard.
Here are four examples illustrating how different the curatorial the space might be in different settings, the implications for the curatorial choices presented by that setting, and the choices most appropriately imagined and realized within that curatorial space.
Consider first a more substantial traditional archive. Here, management of the oral history collection is the primary driver. Project management capacity is likely to be relatively stable and institutionally supported, making it more of a dependent variable in response to other pulls. Media management is likely a growing concern and a broader dimension of practice, but media management is also responsive to– and shaped by– the pull of collection management. Output management, likely a newer and rising interest, is not yet powerful enough to exert much pull on the other dimensions. Finally, at the peak, technology is likely to be relatively well and ambitiously deployed, opening up a widening space for innovation and development that can permit the other dimensions to become more substantially and imaginatively interconnected with collection management. The space of curation, in such a setting, might be usefully represented as something like this: and choices then identified that best fit the particular shape of that space:
Now consider a very different model that might describe curation in a video-based program or center that is entering into more sustained involvement with the collection and use of oral history video materials:
Here, media management is the primary driver, and output management a strong secondary concern. Together, these create most of the space defining critical curatorial decisions. The media base in both respects means that the technological peak is likely to be relatively high and canted strongly towards the media and output management poles, since digital media technology beyond simple recording is now so central to contemporary media practice, training, and production. Collection management is the weakest of the secondary concerns, even if of rising interest. Project management is likely a dependent variable at a relatively modest level responding mainly to the strong pull of media work, but not well as developed in relation to the other dimensions.
Now consider a third setting: an established, but modestly sized, community or neighborhood project with a focus on exhibitions of various kinds. Here output management is the primary determinant, and collection management—though perhaps a growing interest as simple digital tools increase collecting capacity and abilities to manage it—is the dimension with the weakest pull on project curation. Project management capacity is likely to be substantial, perhaps a secondary determinant but—like the level of technology— it is strongly pulled by the output management driver.
Finally, imagine a new, grassroots community-organizing project trying to use oral history to jump-start community engagement and social change. Collection management, media management, and output management will all be relatively new to them. Resource constraints will severely limit what technology can be imagined and obtained, and hence the curatorial space in this regard will be a pup tent, with hardly enough height for one to stand upright. The shape of the floor will be predominantly pulled by project management capacities, both as to scale and constellation.
It may be helpful for readers to keep this tent model and its many possible configurations in mind when exploring the “it depends” choices explored in the various contributions to our group’s focus on curation in the digital age. While reflecting on these perspectives, it may be helpful for readers to imagine a spot on the floor of their own choosing—a curation setting with distinctive qualities and challenges– and then to imagine how the pulls of the various poles would determine the tent space for curation choices taking shape around and over that point. Then, identify a range of best practice choices that speak to the constellation of objectives relative to that standpoint and reachable within the tent of possibility and examine how any choice or complex of choices would fit and affect the curatorial space and the project itself.
In this way, rather than considering curatorial choices in isolation, it may be possible to approach a more comprehensive determination of those best practices best fitting the basic circumstances and the desired trajectory for any setting. Such exercises have special value in an open-ended, dynamic, rapidly changing digital age that makes the careful deployment of the essential “it depends” criterion absolutely central for curatorial choice.
Citation for Article
Frisch, M., Lambert, D., Tebeau, M., and Bell, E. (2012). Oral History Curation in the Digital Age: A Framework for Choices and Planning. 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/oral-history-curation-in-the-digital-age/.
Frisch, Michael, Douglas Lambert, Mark Tebeau, and Erin Bell. “Oral History Curation in the Digital Age: A Framework for Choices and Planning,” 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/oral-history-curation-in-the-digital-age/
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.