The Kentucky Oral History Commission

Case Study: The Kentucky Oral History Commission — the Digital Shift

by Sarah Milligan 

Looking back over a 35+ year granting agency specifically designed to support the documentation of oral history interviews, there have been many changes and adaptations to needs, both cultural and technological. My entrance into the Kentucky Oral History Commission (KOHC) staff in 2007 was in the middle of the continuing shift from analog to digital technology. There have been several hurdles. As a granting agency, we have been coaxing people over as they seek funding and general support in the move from analog to digital recording equipment, the concept of digital collection management, and the changing face of access for oral history interviews. While it is gratifying to see the acceptance of the digital age take root more firmly over the last decade, there is still consistent need for education and outreach on the complexities of the subject. In my office, it isn’t just the staff that has to be made comfortable with change; it’s the entire state.

The first real move was to encourage the use of quality digital recording technology for oral history practitioners and grant recipients. We replaced our own arsenal of analog recorders with digital recorders, models that conveniently looked like a tape recorder. As applicants developed grant proposals, either for cash-awarded projects or non-cash technical assistance, we stressed the use of these digital recorders, providing outreach and training on the use of digital media for the collection of oral history. Some practitioners jumped on the digital bandwagon early and it was a matter of setting standardization for the digital recordings and making sure the equipment being used in projects wasn’t the equivalent of a digital microcassette recorder. At the same time as we were shifting our grantees’ mindsets about recording technology, we were working with our grant review panelists to judge the new applications for quality digital projects. Over the last decade, we have slowly seen consistent use of digital recording technology from all demographics. Thus, we are loaning out digital recording equipment with less and less hesitation. Our latest challenge isn’t coaxing practitioners to embrace digital recording equipment, but to make sure they understand the difference between an interview recorded on their cell phone and an interview with an archive as the end result.

Submission into an archive, we needed to make sure the archives were ready for those carefully transferred-and sometimes triplicate, backed-up- interviews. In the past, for a repository to be an acceptable place for KOHC sponsored projects, they needed to prove: climate control, secure storage, and a place to access the recordings. This could sometimes translate into: a) a consistent HVAC system; b) a locked filing cabinet; c) a tape recorder and a corner desk.

With the push for digital recording, the requirements for care of these collections jumped not only in skills and knowledge, but also in associated cost. No longer could you just take the tape and put it in a card catalog drawer. This was going to require a comfort level with digital collections management, including tech support, digital file storage, and maintenance. As a granting agency, we want to see our project funds go towards the creation of lasting collections. We look at applications with an eye to how this collection will be accessible in 50 years and not simply for the book the researcher would like to write. The KOHC requires that grantees create a partnership with a repository that will accept their interviews and that they will work with this repository for the duration of their granting period. It was obvious that the way we assessed an “acceptable” archival partner dramatically shifted with the entrance of digital recording.

Our first step was to create an avenue for assistance to repositories to begin to move their analog oral history collections into the digital realm. We created new grant programs specifically for preservation needs: a digital preservation assistance program and a digital preservation project program. The first allows for the loan of a digital workstation that would allow the digital migration of oral history collections from analog cassette to digital files. The second was a cash grant that would fund any oral history collections that might need to be sent off to a media preservation company, primarily for lack of playback equipment or special condition of the file. With the utilization of these grant opportunities, repositories were not only able to begin to change the way they thought about oral history collections, but were also able to spotlight these collections to administrators and potential funders as they begin to look for their own resources and a more permanent digital solution.

The second step was to determine a method which made clear our commitment to the preservation of oral history collections we were funding. We created an application process where repositories can submit a request to be accredited as an institution where KOHC-funded projects can be submitted. This accreditation project includes basic information requests about digital collections management, digital storage, accessibility, and long-range archival plans. More than anything, it provides basic standards which a repository has to meet. This new application has had both drawbacks and benefits. The downside is that it dramatically shrinks the number of collecting institutions we have traditionally worked with. However, it also sets goals for collecting institutions to meet that will help them  responsibly deal with their existing and future oral history collections. The reality is that the digital age of collecting media has changed the game for a lot of institutions. It is a reality we must actively face and plan for.

We have also had to change our interaction with oral history collecting as we work with potential grantees in the changing concept of “access.” While we don’t require an end result for oral history projects besides archiving, we always want to see how people are going to utilize the information they are creating. What will be the “cooked” version, as Mike Frisch always says. Over the last decade, this has changed in our grant applications from “I plan to publish a book” to “the interviews will be accessible online.” With digital tools available, there is a lot of room for creativity in sharing information on an oral history project and we like to see that creativity reflected in applications.

One example of using technology for access to a collection, is a recent grant award made through the KOHC to two professors at Morehead State University working on a project entitled, “Eastern Kentucky Women Artists for Social Change.” They describe their project as “Research[ing] the practicing artists, arts-related groups, art instruction, exhibition and sales venues, public art, historic architecture, and special arts initiatives available within each county. The project also collects and disseminates oral histories relevant to the region’s arts.” They are using digital audio recording equipment, posting their interviews online set to a visual representation of each artist’s work, and partnering with the Nunn Center at the University of Kentucky to archive the interviews. The web presence ( is a valuable method of sharing their research and furthering their project mission, while preserving the interviews with an archive that will continue to make them accessible past the life of the Web site. The interview participants are made aware of the immediate online component of their project, and they supplement the audio documentation with photographs and sometimes video. They even have a county-by-county listing of other research they have come across- including oral histories- which deal with their topic. In this example, the applicants demonstrated an understanding not only of how digital technology and resources could work for their project goals, but the ethics of using these resources responsibly.

To stay competitive with the KOHC, applicants have to be interested in utilizing or learning digital technology as well as what the shift into the digital age means for preservation, access, and dissemination. The practitioner is responsible for a little bit more than submitting their shoebox full of cassettes and consent forms at the end of the granting period. In addition to all of the changing technological concerns, we still look for creativity in subject matter, under-documented events or communities, and a relevance to the context of Kentucky history.  The application process definitely hasn’t become less complex, but the license for creativity is boundless.

Citation for Article


Milligan, S. (2012). Case study: the kentucky oral history commission — the digital shift. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


Milligan, Sarah. “Case Study: The Kentucky Oral History Commission — the Digital Shift,” 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,


This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation. 

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