Informed Accessioning: Questions to Ask After the Interview
By Doug Boyd
I am, and continue to be, a strong advocate for effectively using the Internet for enhancing access to our rich collections of archived oral histories that have long languished on the physical and virtual shelves. I developed OHMS (the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) as an impulse driven by the empirical reality of oral history’s archival and access-related challenges. Since 2009, the Nunn Center has been using OHMS to escalate aggressively the online availability of our collections. Oral History now has a range of free tools to enhance profoundly access to online oral histories on a mass scale with great immediacy and potential impact.
As we celebrate enhancements to the discovery of and access to our online oral history collections, we need to carefully reflect on and consider the consequences of providing immediate and widespread access to oral history interviews. No matter what the primary scope of an oral history interview or project may be, we are recording and preserving very personal, very powerful stories; the curation and dissemination of oral history is not a simple and harmless act. No matter what the topic, oral history interviews can contain a massive amount of personal information posing a wide range of potential risks to the narrator, but also to the archive. The Nunn Center is now accessioning an average of 300-400 interviews per year from a variety of internal and external partner projects, and we cannot listen to and consider the potential consequences of each moment in every interview that we accession.
Over the past few decades, John Neuenschwander has provided much wisdom in his writings regarding oral history and the law. His essay “Major Legal Challenges Facing Oral History in the Digital Age” provides a useful introduction, and his book Oral History and the Law is the comprehensive presentation and discussion of potential legal issues facing oral history. The document, Principles and Best Practices for Oral History, adopted by the Oral History Association in October 2009, addresses ethical standards and encourages practitioners to “uphold certain principles, professional and technical standards, and obligations.” The statement continues:
These include commitments to the narrators, to standards of scholarship for history and related disciplines, and to the preservation of the interviews and related materials for current and future users.
Most discussions of best practices with regard to the oral history’s “commitments to the narrators” focus on the notion of “informed consent,” ensuring interviewees understand how the recorded interview they are gifting or releasing to an archive can and may be used. As the director of an oral history center that is increasing our volume of newly accessioned interviews and aggressively increasing online access to interviews, I struggle with the notion of what I call informed accessioning. For the most part, we do not know the content-details existing in the moments of the interview we are accessioning, preserving, or providing access to in the typical oral history archival workflow.
To achieve an improved state of informed accessioning for incoming Nunn Center interviews and collections, I have encouraged project partners and interviewers to create what I have previously called “Interviewer Generated Metadata” (IGM), which has become an integral part of the accessioning process following the conclusion of an interview. I encourage interviewers and project directors to fill out an “Interview Information Form” that captures basic-level descriptive metadata while the information is fresh in the interviewer’s memory. By formalizing IGM into our workflow we sought to more efficiently create descriptive metadata, minimize the burden on oral history archivists, and enhance potential discovery at the point of archival accession. What we have discovered is this reflective moment poses an excellent opportunity for the interviewer to also consider and document the presence of sensitive, problematic, or deeply personal details.
I have established six questions that, ideally, Nunn Center interviewers will consider and document following each interview:
- Does this interview contain personal information such as a physical address, healthcare information, a phone number, a social security number, or anything else that potentially poses a future privacy risk?
- Does this interview contain confidential or sensitive information (about anyone) that the Nunn Center should consider prior to making this interview available online? Examples include discussions of personal tragedies, medical conditions, sexual abuse, or violence. Consider this: if this interview were your story, is there anything in this recording that you would not want made searchable or available online?
- Does this interview contain criminal allegations against another party?
- Does this interview contain potentially slanderous or libelous language pertaining to another living person?
- Does this interview reveal institutional, trade, or corporate secrets?
- Does this interview use culturally insensitive language?
By no means do I want to indicate that a “yes” answer to any of the above questions means that the Nunn Center will automatically reject, restrict, or censor interview content. A “yes” answer will trigger a process of heightened examination of flagged content, responsible documentation, and a carefully considered institutional response. Responses may include placement of temporary access restrictions on an interview or simply not providing online access to that particular interview for a specified period of time. Most commonly, the flagged information is documented at the point of accession and no restrictions are placed. When discussing issues pertaining to online archives and privacy concerns, the phrase “risk management” is often used in professional discourse. Effective risk management depends heavily on the presence of comprehensive and accurate information. These six questions are my effort to efficiently create this information.
Of course, the Nunn Center still has a percentage of interviews being accessioned without any metadata being submitted, and we have an over forty-year backlog of interviews, many of which contain minimal or no interview-level metadata. However, we also consider these six questions prior to providing repository-based, online access to an interview. The act of indexing an interview in OHMS requires deep listening, and in doing so, we are able to efficiently identify more moments where the discussion of sensitive or personal details may prove problematic for immediate, online access. Anyone indexing Nunn Center interviews is now being asked to consider these questions before marking the index as “completed” and ready for online access.
In the book, Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement, which I co-edited with Mary A. Larson, I state “Archives continue to struggle to adapt workflows to meet the challenges and demands of ever-increasing born-digital materials, especially oral history interviews.” I take great pride in the fact that the Nunn Center is accessioning more interviews each year. OHMS has revolutionized Nunn Center workflow and access strategy, and it is now being adopted and implemented by archives all over the world. As archival workflows are becoming more automated, we are processing collections much more quickly and efficiently. The popular archival concept of More Product, Less Process (MPLP) has emerged as the dominant workflow paradigm, infusing much needed efficiencies into cumbersome and inefficient archival processing workflows. There is no doubt that oral history’s typical archival processing workflow needs to be more efficient, affordable, and sustainable. Archived oral histories have long depended on the creation of a verbatim transcript for an effective discovery and access user experience. Because this dependency has proven prohibitively expensive and unsustainable, our profession has long pinned hopes on the success of Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) to generate these transcripts. While I still hold out hope for the eventual success of this technology, I find it useful to remind myself that, when it comes to oral history, the more we automate, the less we know, and the greater the risk.
“Commitments to the Narrator”
In 2014, the Nunn Center used OHMS to index and provide online access to over 900 hours of interviews from our collection. During the indexing process, we discovered that a few of these interviews contained discussions of deeply personal information that were recorded in an age when the Internet, Google, and interfaces and systems like OHMS were science fiction. One specific case included a woman discussing the sexual abuse of her daughter by the girl’s father. No criminal charges had ever been filed and the daughter would, now, be well into adulthood. This story was discovered in an interview that was part of a project that had nothing to do with documenting narratives like this, and the archive had no idea of its existence. Were we simply putting transcripts of audio/video online, we may not have caught these moments. For the most part, archival budgets are not growing, and archivists have unrealistic workloads. I hesitate to suggest a workflow “enhancement” that adds steps and potentially slows down our processing. Yes, we need to process more efficiently; however, we also need to process our collections more effectively. Indexing poses an affordable and effective opportunity to enhance access, but it also provides the archive a powerful, built-in opportunity to consider the content that is about to be made accessible to a global audience.
A few years ago I served on a panel in Berlin, Germany, pertaining to online access to Holocaust-related oral history projects. Following my talk, a member of the audience asked a poignant question that I can only paraphrase. The question was something like this: “As an interviewer, I have established a trust relationship with my interviewees. How can you guarantee that this trust relationship will transfer to the archive along with the recorded interview?” My answer in that moment was, “To be honest, I am not sure that it does.” I knew that this sounded harsh, so I clarified that current archival workflows and processes make it very difficult to focus on the individual. Our “commitments to the narrator” linger in the forefront of my mind as I design realistic archival workflows with greater accessibility and efficiency in mind.
As the rate of interviewing and accessioning accelerates, as tools such as OHMS provide pinpoint accurate access to individual moments of online oral history on a mass scale, as our archival workflows increasingly rely on automatic and mechanized processes, these six questions represent an effort to improve our knowledge of what it is we are preserving. I know this is not a perfect solution and that the question of what is “personal,” “sensitive,” “private,” or even “risky,” is subjective. By inserting these questions at the pre-accessioning point, followed by reconsideration prior to providing online access to an interview, we better inform and document what we are preserving and disseminating. More importantly, we are slowing down, for just a moment, to carefully consider the individual and honor the precious gift they have given us by consenting to place their recorded oral history interview into the archive.
 Principles and Best Practices, Oral History Association, adopted October 2009, http://www.oralhistory.org/about/principles-and-practices/
 Boyd, Douglas A. “Case Study: Interviewer-Generated Metadata,” 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/interviewer-generated-metadata/
Citation for Article
Boyd, D.(2015). Informed Accessioning: Questions to Ask After the Interview, 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/2015/03/informed-accessioning-questions-to-ask-after-the-interview/
Boyd, Doug. “Informed Accessioning: Questions to Ask After the Interview” 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, 2015, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2015/03/informed-accessioning-questions-to-ask-after-the-interview/
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.