Case Study: The Veterans History Project
Created in 2000 by Congressional legislation, the Veterans History Project (VHP) collects, preserves, and makes available first-hand accounts of men and women who have served in the uniforms of the United States Armed Forces during wartime, beginning with World War I. Originally containing the word “oral” in its title to emphasize recorded accounts of service, the project has also accepted correspondence, diaries and journals, memoirs, photographs, and two-dimensional art work as legitimate accounts of service. (In addition to making the collection a more robust one, it also allowed the project to collect accounts of deceased veterans or those too aged and infirm to be interviewed.)
The project faced a number of challenges from the beginning. In accepting collections that were often multi-media in nature (various audio/visual formats, manuscripts, photographs, etc.),the question of how to catalogue the material was a thorny one. And while the establishing legislation didn’t explicitly state a time limit on the project’s work, the common assumption was that it was not open-ended. Therefore, there was a sense of urgency in the first several years of the project: to collect as many accounts as possible, mindful that veterans from World War II, the largest percentage of living veterans, were a rapidly aging segment of the population. The drive to build numbers became important, and long-range planning was a lower priority. It was also considered vital to the project’s mission that participation not be restricted based on access to high-end audio/visual equipment. Therefore, all formats available were accepted.
There was also a concerted push to make the collections accessible as quickly as possible since a large part of the promotion was that families could see their loved ones’ histories online. Defining what “online” meant and managing expectations became a significant part of outreach efforts. This push, combined with the collecting of large numbers of submissions, informed the policies of how information was managed and selected for “digitization.”
The project was conceived as a volunteer effort, with interviews conducted by family, friends, and associates of the veterans. This meant the interviewers were not trained oral historians. They used what equipment was available to them and did not always record under the best conditions, though the Project’s Field Kit, created in consultation with the Oral History Association and American Folklore Society, offered instruction on best practices. As well, manuscript materials and photographs often arrived as photocopies and were accepted.
Early discussions on digitizing materials in the collection centered on making them available to the public. Two projects provided the impetus: a series of radio programs built around certain themes and featuring excerpts from the interviews, and an accompanying series on the VHP Web site titled “Experiencing War.” One of the library’s digital conversion teams (DCTs) was offered to VHP in the fall of 2002 to supervise the digitization work. Again, the goal was to make the programs and Web features possible with less thought given to preservation as a by-product or aim of the digitization.
“Experiencing War” became a regular feature on the Web site, with a new set of thematically linked collections four times a year. The themes which informed the radio programs (i.e. “Love,” “Family”) gave way to specific facets of the veteran experience such as prisoners of war, D-Day, and military intelligence.
As the project gained visibility and popularity (aided by the publication in 2004 and 2005 of two volumes of VHP stories), it began accepting accounts from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressional involvement with the project kept growing (one senator’s office has contributed over 8,000 collections to date), and the sense that VHP’s work would be limited to a few years began to dissolve. Looking toward a future without a closing point, VHP also began to reassess its collecting policies and accompanying digitization strategy. Driven by preservation concerns, the project became more selective about accepting certain recording media such as microcassettes and VHS recording tape. At the same time, efforts began to make existing collections on these formats more accessible by digitizing them in large batches.
Also, the project set out to establish firmer quality guidelines, more in-line with the standards of the American Folkife Center and Library of Congress. Interviews shorter than 30 minutes were no longer accepted and only original photographs were accepted. The latter decision was partly driven by digitization concerns: the quality of a digitized photocopy was deemed not worth the effort.
VHP’s digital conversion team has assigned the digitization of mass batches of audio and video materials to contractors outside the library, while the library’s scan center has been responsible for manuscripts. For digitized audio and video files, storage space had to be found on the library’s servers. DCT also had to transcode these files to derivative formats to provide access to the public through the library’s Web site.
For VHP and the library, the challenge with newer technologies is to determine how the file was created and if the quality of that medium is up to long-term preservations standards. The temptation, to think that “digital” is a more enduring storage medium, raises this question: Which of today’s digital technologies are tomorrow’s microcassettes and VHS tapes?
Citation for Article
Dewhurst, K. (2012). Case study: the veterans history project. 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/the-veterans-history-project/.
Dewhurst, Kurt. “Case Study: The Veterans History Project,” 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/the-veterans-history-project/
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