Reservoir of Memories: A Student Oral History Project in Providence
By Anna Wada and Nate Weisenberg
In the fall of 2011, the two of us—along with fourteen other students, both graduates and undergraduates, in the Oral History and Community Memory class co-taught by oral historian Anne Valk and artist Holly Ewald—began an oral history project on Mashapaug Pond, the last remaining freshwater pond in Providence, Rhode Island. The project, titled Reservoir of Memories, also incorporated the stories of the Gorham Silver Manufacturing Company, whose main factory stood on the Pond’s shores for a century and polluted its waters, and memories of life in the Reservoir Triangle neighborhood near the Pond. As our class familiarized ourselves with the area, conducted interviews, and worked with residents to put together a community collection exhibit, we faced several questions. How could we sustain engagement between this community and a student population whose stay in Providence is usually transitory? How might we try to bridge the divides of race, class, language, and privilege that separate College Hill from much of the rest of Providence? When we represented some stories, were we neglecting or silencing others? How could we present our project in a format that was accessible and preserved our work for the future?
As two of the five members of our class’s “archives team,” we helped shape these decisions and create one of the public faces of the project: our website, reservoirofmemories.omeka.net. We hope some of the details behind the creation of the site and our larger project will be instructive for organizations and individuals currently engaged in or planning similar initiatives using Omeka or other Web tools. And we hope our experience will help you look at oral history and university-community collaboration in new ways.
I. Project Background
Mashapaug Pond is a hidden place. Many points of access to the Pond are restricted: chainlink fencing encloses the contaminated area by the former Gorham site; visitors access the Pond’s boathouse by walking through a parking lot and venturing behind an Ocean State Job Lot. We encountered several people who told us they lived nearby and barely knew Mashapaug existed. The Pond’s contamination—the results of decades of pollution from Gorham and other industries and other factors such as storm drain run-off—also keeps many people away from the site. “Word on the street—if you go in that pond you get three legs,” one local high school student wrote to us. Yet many people, from fishermen to the homeless, continue to use the Pond and the land around it. Our hope was that our project would allow a wider audience to learn about the history of the Pond, the surrounding neighborhoods, and Gorham, and help contribute to ongoing efforts to clean up the Pond—in other words, making this often-obscure place more known.
For this reason, our interviews and content had to be easily accessible and available as a local community resource. Another goal of our project was to learn about oral history ourselves, presenting the process of collecting interviews and building an exhibit as an option to anyone involved in community work. As a project trying to reach out to a wide audience, it could also act as a resource outside of the local community – for instance, for environmental organizations, oral historians, or professors teaching digital history.
Using our interviews and the objects we gathered, we organized a one-night community exhibit at a local church and community center, the Mediator, in December of 2011. But we wanted our project to live on, to give as a wide an audience as possible a chance to reflect on our work and on what Mashapaug means both to others and to themselves.
II. Why Omeka?
We needed a website where we could present audio clips from our interviews, other work we created during the semester such as research papers, and objects and photographs we collected as we built our exhibit. As students who were digitally literate but with little Web design experience, we discussed three possibilities: a Google Site, WordPress, and Omeka.net.
Time, lack of funding, and the diverse format of our collection items played into our decision to use Omeka. With only a month to build the website and no budget, we needed a free plan that would allow us to quickly upload large files and design the website. As of July 2012, Google Sites had a storage capacity of 100MB, Omeka 500MB, and WordPress 3GB. A typical minute and a h
alf audio file that we gathered from our classmates was around 10MB. In this regard WordPress was our top choice, but we could not upload audio files without paying for a space upgrade. Omeka supported diverse file formats in its free Basic plan, offered a friendly user interface, and doubled as an archive and digital exhibition. We were able to set up the site easily without programming skills, which gave us the time to work on content and design instead of simply uploading files. Each item we included on the site was searchable in the “Items” database, and also acted as a medium for storytelling in the “Exhibit” section.
III. Building the Site
Among the features we found most useful was the ability to create “Collections,” which allowed us to organize our material into five
categories: oral history excerpts, research papers, photographs of the area, photographs of objects from the exhibit, and photographs of our exhibit opening. A sixth collection will hold material related to our traveling bus exhibit (more on this below). Visitors also have the option to view every item on our site by clicking on the “Browse Items” button, where they can view them in the order in which they were uploaded or by searching for tagged keywords.
Another useful Omeka option is the ability to create Exhibits (which we installed via an “Exhibit Builder” plugin). Here, we could try to recreate our physical exhibit in an online format. As with our physical exhibit, we created three separate sections—one about neighborhood memories and folklore, one about Gorham and its industrial legacy, and one about efforts to
clean up the Pond. Although we only partially completed this part of our site, we planned for each section to contain written excerpts from our interviews arranged alongside photographs from the exhibit and links to other relevant material, such as a student paper on a particular topic (e.g. the community boating center next to Mashapaug Pond) mentioned in the interview.
We added material to our website in the weeks leading up to our opening and, to a lesser extent, during December and January (primarily items such as edited clips from our interviews that took longer to produce). In the brochure we provided at the exhibit and during our announcements at the event, we encouraged visitors to visit our site and provided an email address (email@example.com) where they could leave us comments and questions.
Did our site fulfill its purpose? Some who have visited it—including a Brown professor who ended up inviting Annie and Holly to present in his class—commented favorably on its appearance. At no cost, Omeka gave us a professional look. Visitors also found information relatively easy to find, whether they browsed through our collections, our system of tags, or the site’s built-in search feature. As nearly as possible, Omeka gave visitors who could not attend the exhibit a sense of what our project was about.
Yet our website has not become the resource we hoped it might. Since February, our project email has not received a single message. When we mention the site, the most common response has been “How do you spell Omeka?” Some of the fields of our Omeka items (such as Dublin Core information and item type metadata included with certain entries) are confusing and tend to distract viewers from the content presented. We didn’t agree amongst ourselves on a standard for entering metadata and tags. As a result, we had to do a substantial amount of editing and standardizing after we had already promoted our website at our December event. We were also unable to do enough publicity for the site, apart from mentioning it at our event and sending sporadic emails to our narrators and contacts from the project.
Another major issue was determining how best to present our interviews. Our team agreed it would be unwise to upload full interviews and complete transcripts. Not only did our site lack the necessary storage capacity, but we also risked overwhelming visitors with too much information. We settled on asking our classmates to send us short, two-minute clips that in their judgment best represented their interviews. However, due to time constraints, not everyone was able to send us their material. The site missed out on several stories: the interview clips we do present are only fragments of our class’s work.
Our site also doesn’t have the capacity to facilitate online conversation: there is no forum or other place for visitors to leave comments that others may see and respond to, no interactive component. Even though the site tells the story of a collaborative community project, in some sense, our site risks telling just our story.
Above all, we dealt with two major constraints: limited time and lack of pre-existing strong relationships. Conducting interviews, building the site, and constructing our exhibit within three months proved almost too much to do. Our work, including the site, inevitably became rushed. A related, and greater problem was our lack with familiarity with the Reservoir neighborhood. We were forced to rely on the existing contacts we had identified through Holly and Annie’s work. To some extent, we ended up speaking with people who were eager to be interviewed. Speaking with them was valuable, yet resulted in an exhibit where the dominant voice became a romanticized, idyllic portrait of life near the Pond in the 1950s-70s, with fewer stories from present-day residents.
Our website reflects this dominant voice. Many of the residents in the neighborhoods closest to the Pond beyond the immediate Reservoir Triangle area are native speakers of Spanish or Khmer. The website has not proven an effective means to reach them. Like our project itself, the stories it tells represent only some of the slices of life near the Pond.
In recent months, a new phase of the project, a traveling bus exhibit also called Reservoir of Memories, launched. Other than a brief item on the website announcing the exhibit and a mention of the site on our introductory panel, the traveling exhibit makes almost no use of the website, although we hope eventually to upload pictures and announcements about the bus’s travels. Depending on a pending grant proposal, we plan to begin translating portions of our exhibit (and eventually parts of the website) into Spanish.
In the spring of 2013, another group of students will once more conduct interviews about the Pond. They may choose to use our website or create a new one. The ultimate repository for our class’s work will be a website hosted by the Brown University Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship; our site will continue to exist, but may take on more of a supporting role. How it will differ from the Brown Library site remains to be determined.
Below, we list six recommendations – some specific, some general – taken from our work on this project.
Recommendations for using Omeka in oral history projects
1. Know your community. Who is your intended audience? Are there any barriers to access to your site (age, lack of Internet, language, etc.)?
2. Take advantage of Omeka’s Exhibit feature.
3. Create a URL that is easy to remember.
4. Integrate your site into the project earlier and include it in your budget if using a non-Basic Omeka plan.
5. Be consistent. Particularly when working in a group, set internal standards for filling in the metadata and tagging.
6. Be concise. Do not upload the entire interview or transcript and overwhelm visitors.
So, all in all, what did we learn from our site? We go back to the night of our opening, where we witnessed visitors and community members not only interacting with the content, but with each other — talking about shared experiences, work at Gorham, the memories and reflections the project brought to mind. The site may not do that in itself, but it can be part of a larger effort that does help bring communities like the neighborhoods around Mashapaug together around shared connections to place and common interests in local history. That’s the reason we got involved in this work in the first place.
Anna Wada ’13 and Nate Weisenberg ’13 are graduate students in the Public Humanities master’s program at Brown University.
Citation for Article
Wada, A., & Weisenberg, N. (2012). Reservoir of memories: a student oral history project in providence. 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/designing-an-oral-history-project/.
Wada, Anna and Nate Weisenberg. “Reservoir of Memories: A Student Oral History Project in Providence,” 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/designing-an-oral-history-project/
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.