Connecting the Classroom and the Archive: Oral History, Pedagogy, & Goin’ North

Connecting the Classroom and the Archive: Oral History, Pedagogy, & Goin’ North 

By Janneken Smucker, Doug Boyd, Charles Hardy III

The Fall 2014 and Spring 2016 West Chester University (WCU) course “The Great Migration and Digital Storytelling,” (aka, Goin’ North) centered on a archival collection of oral history interviews conducted in the 1980s with African Americans who moved to Philadelphia from the South in the 1910s and 1920s and the Black Philadelphians who greeted them. This innovative partnership between WCU professors Charles Hardy and Janneken Smucker, their students, and Doug Boyd and his team at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries resulted in a high impact experience for students and the development of a model for collaboration between an archive and classroom using OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) and Omeka—open source digital platforms—for the dissemination and curation of oral histories. For an introduction to OHMS see the articles, “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free” and “Indexing Interviews in OHMS: An Overview.

In this experiential learning course, students worked collaboratively to create a public-facing, usable, professional—and award winning—digital project. Through trial and error, fits and starts, we developed a course design that is replicable, using oral history interviews and open source tools to produce a high impact learning experience and a sustainable, multifaceted public digital history project built on a partnership between classroom and archive. The final products appear on the Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration website. Goin’ North provides an innovative model for partnering with archives to re-discover the many “legacy” analog oral history collections that have gone untouched in an imaginative, affordable manner following professional standards, and for its pedagogical approach centered on working closely with students through the iterative processes of discovery, creation, and dissemination of historical content in digital forms. Ideally suited to the classroom, our workflow, outlined below, is replicable with other oral history collections ripe for interpretation and dissemination.

In their article “Indexing as Engaging Oral History Research: Using OHMS to ‘Compose History’ in the Writing Classroom,” Doug Boyd, Janice Fernheimer, and Rachel Dixon observe that “a discussion of teachers and faculty engaging archival partners to use oral history in course design is nearly absent from the current scholarly conversation.”8]1]  Those co-authors launched that dialogue. And now Goin’ North serves as a model for engaging students with oral history; creative integration of innovative digital tools such as OHMS; directly connecting the archive and the classroom with effective pedagogy; multi-institutional collaboration; and the production of a final product that is powerful, professional, and useful. Although Boyd and his team originally designed OHMS for “enhancing archival access to oral history,” it has emerged as an exciting pedagogical tool with a growing scholarly dialogue supporting its integration in the classroom.[2]  This article presents a pedagogical model in which students are not mere consumers of oral histories as part of the course design or the website development. Goin’ North demonstrates a workflow that elevates the level of engagement, interaction, and critical thought in students’ relationship with oral histories and the lives and history that they document.

The year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Migration, one of the most significant historical transformations of the twentieth century. Between the First World War and early 1970s more than six and a half million African Americans fled the American South for northern and then western cities in a mass exodus that transformed America and helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In preparation for the centenary Hardy determined to make interviews he and his assistants conducted in the early 1980s accessible through a series of interrelated projects, including the development of a team-taught course with Smucker. In this course, each student conducted quality control on a full interview transcription; indexed and curated that interview using OHMS, the open source platform designed by Boyd and developed by the Nunn Center; and wrote a biographical sketch of a narrator, illustrating and curating it with images and documents drawn from a student-populated digital archive housed on the Goin’ North website. The team built the resulting public-facing website in Omeka, a free open-source content management platform created by George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. The students then created digital storytelling projects using Omeka, HistoryPin, Creativist (now Atavist), iMovie, Weebly, and other off-the-shelf tools and platforms.  For a full list of student participants in the Goin’ North courses, see the project website’s “About,” page.

Before presenting the pedagogical model, we want to provide a quick tour of the online repository generated by this collaborative, classroom initiative. Take a moment to watch this visual walkthrough.


Course Workflow

Preliminary steps

  • Content research
  • Identify, permission, and gather digitized archival materials from regional repositories; uploading digital files to shared cloud storage such as Google Drive
  • Transcription of interviews (optional)
  • Request OHMS Repository (free — only necessary for instructor)
  • Instructors develop competencies with OHMS and Omeka.
  • Identify web-based location for hosting audio files[3]
  • Optimize/format transcriptions for OHMS (if using transcripts)
  • Install Omeka and OHMS Viewer on server; configure Omeka with plug-ins, user accounts, and theme[4]
  • Instructor (repository admin) create OHMS accounts for students

To prepare for the course Hardy spent the summer of 2014 reviewing recent scholarship in the field of Great Migration studies, visiting archives and arranging for digitization of and permission to use images and documents, and compiling primary and secondary source readings for the students. Smucker and Hardy auditioned digital projects that might serve as models for student digital storytelling projects, while Smucker selected the digital platforms and software for the website’s construction, including installation of an instance of Omeka on server space from Reclaim Hosting. Boyd oversaw digitization of more than 50 interviews in the Nunn Center’s Goin’ North Oral History Collection and he introduced Hardy and Smucker to OHMS. Boyd, Hardy, and Smucker designed a workflow for integrating OHMS into the course, then worked through the steps and protocols for creating “Level 3” OHMS indexes for each interview, which provide the highest level of curation and description through the use of hyperlinks, images, keywords, and GPS coordinates.

Course outline (See Syllabus)

  • Instructors assign interview to each student
  • Quality control of transcript (Assignment PDF)
  • Compilation of keyword terms for thesaurus drawn from transcripts
  • Uploading of and metadata creation for archival items in Omeka (Assignment PDF and Metadata Instructions)
  • OHMS “Level 3” index creation (Assignment PDF)
    • identifying segment timestamps
    • creating descriptive titles and keywords for each segment
    • writing brief segment synopsis
    • finding GPS coordinates for geographic places key to segments
    • linking to images that help illustrate the segment’s content and context
  • Quality control of student work[5]
  • Development of a style guide for OHMS indexes (PDF) and biographical sketches (PDF) [6]
  • Publish indexed/synchronized interviews via OHMS Viewer
  • Biographical sketches drawing on interview excerpts created with Omeka’s Exhibit Builder
  • Storytelling Projects (Assignment PDF for proposal, and see details below)
  • Student-led bootcamps and discussions on historical content throughout semester
  • Publish Omeka site following final quality control

We designed the course with a series of scaffolded assignments, each building on the previous one. For the first seven weeks of the semester, the students became intimately acquainted not only with the life story of an interview narrator, but also immersed themselves in the historic photographs, newspaper articles, sound recordings, ephemera, and other primary source documents that they would use to curate that interview and make sense of their narrator’s life. At the beginning of the semester, we assigned each student an oral history from the newly digitized collection at the Nunn Center, along with a set of primary sources for which each was responsible to load into Omeka. The first two assignments involved creating a digital archive of these primary sources using the Dublin Core metadata scheme in Omeka, and conducting a final round of quality control of the individual interview transcripts, listening and editing to ensure exact verbatim transcriptions of the audio, complete with ums and false starts.[7]

Before the semester began we had compiled a preliminary group of photographs, documents, and ephemera drawn from generous regional archives for students to load into Omeka—including previously unpublished images and ephemera from the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection and from Special Collections at Temple University Libraries, and from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. For these, students created descriptions, tags, credit lines, and basic metadata; the data providing information about other data. They then found additional items, including newspaper articles from the Philadelphia Tribune, and other primary and secondary sources from national and regional collections.[8] By the end of the semester, students had created an archive of nearly 400 items related to the Great Migration to Philadelphia, which they used to curate the oral histories. As a hybrid between a content management system (CMS) and digital asset management system (DAM), Omeka functions with “items”—in this case our primary sources—as building blocks. After creating item records, the students could then use these sources in their subsequent assignments.

By conducting the final audit on the oral history interview transcripts, students developed an intimate understanding of the interview’s content. The resulting exact verbatim transcript also served as another form of metadata for the interview’s audio. A transcript synchronized in OHMS connects a textual search to the corresponding moment in the audio file, so that when an end-user searches the transcript for a word, one can jump right to that moment in the audio file. In order to be effective, however, the transcript must be precise. For projects unable to afford transcripts—or preferring not to use them—OHMS works equally effectively with an interview index.  When narrator’s accents or hard to comprehend recordings make it difficult for listeners to understand every word, transcriptions are invaluable. They also make it easier for end users to grab direct quotations.  Fortunately, we were able to fund transcription thanks to a West Chester University Faculty Development Grant and generous support from the Nunn Center. According to Boyd, the ideal way to use OHMS is with both a transcript and an index, but for projects on a tight budget, the costly transcript can be eliminated.[9]

As part of the transcript audit assignment, students created a controlled vocabulary of close to 1,000 keyword terms. The OHMS Indexing Module can integrate such a thesaurus of terms in order to promote standardized language for keywords, such as “World War I” instead of the “First World War,” or “J. Hampton Moore” instead of “Hampy Moore,” when referring to the 1920s mayor of Philadelphia. During interview indexing, OHMS suggests terms from uploaded thesauri, allowing indexers to choose a standardized term. To create the thesaurus students compiled all proper names, places, institutions, and events mentioned in the transcripts, and added global themes (e.g. segregation, housing, politics, and race relations) drawn from the content of the interviews. Smucker and the Nunn Center staff then culled this list, standardizing terms and formatting the thesaurus to upload into OHMS. This extensive taxonomy should prove useful not only to Goin’ North, but to other projects centered on Philadelphia from 1910-1930.

In the next assignment, students used OHMS to create detailed “Level 3” indexes, tagging and describing interview segments using all available metadata fields, including linking to GPS coordinates and websites, and animating with images and documents from the growing digital repository in Omeka.[10] Here, the effective pairing of Omeka and OHMS is most evident. Image files uploaded into the Omeka archive each have a unique url; students used that url in the OHMS hyperlink field to associate images with index segments, which then appear in a lightbox viewer when the end-user clicks on the hyperlink while listening to an interview segment. Omeka hosts the image. One could do the same with another image hosting service, but for integrating with OHMS in a classroom setting Omeka is ideal in the ways it encourages students to be precise with credit lines and metadata, rather than simply linking to any image found on the internet. In an age when everything on the internet appears to be free for the taking this is an essential transferable digital literacy skill.


OHMS viewer

Example of the OHMS Viewer




















Continuing their individual research, students then created biographical sketches of fifteen narrators—some narrators had two interviews—drawing on items from the growing digital archive to illustrate these life stories, and integrating direct quotations from the interviews. In this exercise students had to identify and distill the most significant aspects of an individual’s life into a concise, readable narrative. We encouraged students to start by selecting the most powerful excerpts from their interviews—the ones that moved them while listening and revealed something essential and deeply meaningful about their lives. With minimal editorializing, students then connected these vignettes to create a life arc based upon highly memorable passages from each interview. We wanted students to resist the temptation to “tell” the meaning of the narrator’s life rather than “show” it through selected interview excerpts. Students used Omeka’s Exhibit Builder plug-in to showcase these biographical sketches. By using Omeka’s digital archive with individual items as building blocks, Exhibit Builder enables users to curate exhibitions using photographs, articles, ephemera, and other items, combining narrative with archival sources. These bio sketches then hyperlink to the OHMS indexes, allowing website visitors to have multiple avenues to explore the content—through narrative as well as through index and transcript synced with audio.[11]

The course was by its nature collaborative and creative. Class participants ranged from first-year college students to high school social studies teachers, all of whom worked together in groups that mixed ages, skills, and disciplines. Although Hardy and Smucker provided mini-lectures on the history of the Great Migration and digital history and tools, most of the instruction was student led. Over the first ten weeks of the semester, students, working in small groups, walked their classmates through the assigned readings and sound documentaries on the history of the First Great Migration and African-American life in Philadelphia in the early 1900s. Throughout the semester they also led “bootcamps” on digital resources and tools that proved beneficial in the production of the digital projects, including collaboration with Google Drive, image editing in Photoshop, identification of public domain photos and other primary sources on the Web, exhibit creation using Omeka’s Exhibit Builder plug-in, basic skills in HTML, digital audio editing, and a variety of web-based tools for multimedia storytelling. By serving as the bootcamp leaders for tools and techniques in which they were not previously well versed, students harnessed their innate abilities to learn new skills and provide hands-on instruction.

Half way through the semester, we divided our students into seven storytelling groups, each with three participants, based upon commonalities and differences in their oral history interviews. Their instructions were quite simple: Working with your oral history interviews, use your curiosity and creativity to produce digital storytelling projects that amaze us. None of us, neither instructors nor students, had any idea what these would look or sound like. The students had the content knowledge, the research skills, and an introduction to the broad range of digital tools and platforms with which they could work. Now they were on their own.

In this form of student-led learning, each group then developed a project proposal demonstrating their collective vision for a final project. Framed like a grant proposal, this assignment required students to make a compelling pitch and support it with both secondary literature and an implementation plan, another important, real-life skill. Each group researched potential digital platforms, consulted with professors and classmates; honed in on their project’s goals, potential audiences, and learning outcomes; and articulated their proposed project in a clear and compelling fashion. The class as a whole then reviewed and critiqued these proposals, brainstorming ways each group could realize their plan.

From this point forward, about half of our classroom time moving forward was dedicated to lab work, including collaborative storyboarding, audio editing, and platform testing. Utilizing a variety of platforms and media, the teams created seven digital storytelling projects, six of which we published on the Goin’ North website. The storytelling projects demonstrate tremendous variety, creativity, and professionalism. Using Atavist, one group used interviews to explore the complex relationships between “Old Philadelphians” and southern newcomers in the early 1900s. In “Mapping the Great Migration,” students used HistoryPin and iMovie to explore the history of Black Philadelphia through the lives of Black civic leaders Isadore Martin Sr., Alexander L. Manly, and their sons I. Maximilian Martin Jr. and Milo Manly. The course enabled two storytelling teams to work with Philadelphia archives. One group created a multimedia project featuring a short documentary in which excerpts from Ruth Hayre’s 1984 interview provide an introduction to the Wright family archive, an audio playlist of period recordings by African-American musicians associated with Philadelphia, and slide carousels highlighting materials documenting the First Great Migration and Black life in early twentieth-century Philadelphia housed at Temple’s Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection. Another group, which conducted research and digitized images at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, created a digital exhibit showcasing biographies of members of the Citizens Republican Club, Philadelphia’s most prestigious African-American social organization in the 1910s and 1920s. This team’s exhibit documents the political, social, and financial capital that came with membership in the Citizens Republican Club, as a means of exploring the culture of Black Philadelphia which greeted southern newcomers.

Working with free third-party platforms has its limitations. In the year and a half since Goin’ North launched, Zeega has gone solely mobile, and no longer supports its desktop version; Creativist rebranded as Atavist; and Meograph disappeared entirely, requiring us to take down one of the digital storytelling projects. Essential to Goin’ North’s sustainability will be the important step of archiving the content in another form and platform, such as Digital Commons, the system widely used by university libraries to preserve digital content. Projects modeled on Goin’ North may want to consider identifying more stable platforms, a concern for all of us creating and publishing digital content.

In Spring 2016, Hardy and Smucker reprised the course with a group of twenty-four new students who worked with twenty-three additional interviews archived at the Nunn Center. During the first iteration of the course, professors, students, and Nunn Center staff improvised, inventing what the end project looked, sounded, and felt like with a spirit of discovery. In the second class, both students and professors had a much clearer vision of the core assignments and expected outcomes. Students had model OHMS indexes, biographical sketches, and storytelling projects on which to base their work, and they had a robust thesaurus of terms to utilize and build upon. This resulted in fewer rounds of editing. But some of the serendipity of figuring out what a strong index or sketch looked like, what elements our style guide would cover, and what form digital stories might take was lost, as assignments became more standardized.

Digital storytelling highlights from the second course included a Weebly site, “The Heart of a Worker,” focused on the distinct work lives and values of a stevedore, kitchen man, banker, and fireman. Another group created a short documentary tracing the modes of transportation used in the first wave of the migration north, including free transportation offered by the Pennsylvania Railroad. “The City of Opportunity,” a map tour of 1920s Black Philadelphia built in ArcGIS’s Story Map application, features short audio pieces combining interview excerpts with period music, pinned along with then-and-now photographs to a map of South Philadelphia’s African-American neighborhood.

A strength of this second course offering was the involvement of a cohort of students from Fall 2014. Dubbed “Peer Mentors,” six undergraduates and one graduate student offered assistance to the new batch of students, attending weekly class, giving advice, and meeting outside of class with current students as needed. Peer mentors gave one-on-one tech support for the digital platforms; helped identify the most salient parts of the interviews to use in the bio sketches; and offered tips for finding appropriate supplemental images and articles to add to the archive.

Student Learning Outcomes

Higher education pedagogical best practices have begun to emphasize transferable skills and what higher ed analysts now call “high-impact educational practices.”[12] With the humanities increasingly on the defense in relationship to STEM fields, such transferable skills have become all the more important as we in humanities fields must continue to justify our existence. Undergraduate students and M.A. candidates in the Goin’ North classes engaged in original research, partnered with community institutions, explored diversity, and used cutting-edge technologies—each hallmarks of high-impact educational practices. The course also exemplifies experiential learning—“learning by doing”—a major strategic focus of many colleges and universities. Additional student learning outcomes achieved in this course include development of the art of close listening; familiarity with the iterative nature of project development; a switch from the mentality of a consumer of history to a producer of historical interpretation; an understanding of the role of copyright, the public domain, and the Creative Commons; the honing of analytical and curatorial skills; and the ability to write concise and engaging prose targeted at public audiences. Students also gained exposure to arenas within the history profession they previously had not contemplated through partnership with the Nunn Center and their participation in a nationally-recognized public facing project.

As digital technologies including OHMS have changed the field of oral history, interviews’ audio has become significantly more accessible and more key as a primary source.[13] Most students remain accustomed to studying history through written documents, typically secondary sources. Working with these newly digitized interviews required that our students develop skills in close listening. Many of them asserted that one of the most challenging course assignments was the transcript audit. The most straightforward task, this required little creativity or critical thought. But listening close is hard work and highlights the importance of accuracy and attention to detail. Part of this work required efforts to identify words such as street names.  Erica Knorr and Smucker listened to Marie Mathis say “Edgely Street” some fifty times before correcting it from Azure Street and locating it on the map in North Philadelphia, enabled Knorr to add the GPS coordinates to the OHMS segment. The transcription for domestic worker Fannie Hutchinson’s interview mistakenly identified “Fireman Dalmer’s” as the location where she took the White children in her care for hotdogs. Close listening revealed Hutchinson said “Five and Dime”—changing the context and the meaning of this segment. Some southern migrants, particularly Charles Vance, had such strong accents that students labored over their words becoming familiar with their cadences and pronunciation, making the resulting edited transcript all the more important as a piece of metadata. In the digital storytelling projects, too, which used digitally edited interview excerpts—including “Mapping the Great Migration” and “The City of Opportunity”—students had to listen closely in order to capture the nuance, tone, and emotion in narrators’ words in order to make effective audio edits.[14]

Each of the assignments required several rounds of editing, as students revised and reworked their item metadata, indexes, sketches, and stories in response to feedback from both professors and peers. This created a valuable iterative project—the way collaborative work functions in the real world. Some students grew frustrated with the process, wondering when they would finally receive a grade and could stop revising. But as professors, we were insistent that students go through the rounds of feedback and revisions necessary for their work to be  polished enough for public audiences on the web. They also had to troubleshoot technical elements. For example, in the first semester while learning how to the OHMS Indexing Module, a small group of students working collectively mistakenly inserted a string of code where it should not go, inadvertently disabling the index preview mode where they could check their work. Following a string of emails documenting the trouble, the Nunn Center staff was able to identify the error and walk the instructors and students through a fix. Other times, students performed their own troubleshooting, experimenting until they had resolved problems with audio quality, embed codes, image resolution, and other technical issues.

This course—emphasizing production rather than consumption of history—has shifted students’ perceptions of the discipline of history and provided them with skills they have now applied in professional settings. Too often in history courses, students become passive recipients of a story handed to them by the so-called sage on the stage—the lecturing instructor who imparts the events of the past by moving through “one damn thing after another.” As John Smith III, an undergraduate student in Fall 2014, stated, he no longer wanted to be a passive student of history; in his words, other history courses bored him. In his final year at WCU he created opportunities to continue working closely with primary sources, digital technologies, and public-facing projects, including creation of an Omeka site as part of his internship at Valley Forge National Park.[15] In 2015, Richard Fontanet, another course alum, processed the Philadelphia Independence Seaport Museum’s “Labor on the Delaware” collection, a 1981 oral history project that documented the evolution and struggles of South Philadelphia’s longshoremen community. He then created a web-based storytelling project about the longshoremen community. For the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, graduate student Kristin Geiger built an online exhibit recounting the history of Seger Playground, the city’s first playground built by and for African Americans, which opened in the early 1920s. Graduate student Ben Spohn developed an audio feature edited from oral history interviews for The Sixties!, a Chester County Historical Society exhibit. Building on these experiences, he then landed his first post-graduation gig working on podcast and oral history projects for Hagley Museum and Library.

One of the more powerful features of the OHMS index is the ability to link the user from a moment in an oral history interview to a related primary source. While listening to indexed interviews, users can view photographs of people and places, and access related newspaper articles, all of which are drawn from multiple archives with their own rights and reproduction policies.  Student creation of these indexes introduced the pedagogical opportunity for us to teach about copyright, public domain, fair use, and the Creative Commons, which encouraged students to become more critical consumers and responsible users of the primary sources they discovered on the internet. The rights to the oral history interviews were clearly held by the Nunn Center. However, as we tasked students to find and hyperlink to primary sources that contextualized their narrators’ lives—census records, draft cards, historical images—we required that they be clear about a source’s copyright status. Using sources created by the federal government and accessible via the Library of Congress’s online database: no problem. But sources created after 1923 and held by another repository required that students make a formal request to use the item, acquiring permission along with a preferred credit line.

Collaboration with a nationally recognized archive—the Nunn Center—enabled students to think outside the confines of the history classroom. Seeing their finished OHMS indexes posted on both the Goin’ North website and in the Nunn Center’s SPOKEdb online repository made them aware of the real-world impact of their efforts. [16] The partnership also exposed students to job descriptions and distinct tasks within the larger field of history that they previously did not know existed. Someone digitized the audio, someone formatted the thesaurus, someone added the Library of Congress Subject Headings for each segment in an oral history interview, while someone else was in charge of troubleshooting software issues. During the second offering of the course, we arranged for Boyd to come to WCU’s campus to introduce OHMS to the students. Having a leader in the field of oral history and the creator of the platform speak to the class connected these students to the larger field, cementing the idea that they were a part of a project with significance far beyond their classroom and campus.

In the creation of a public-facing project, students had power. Public history in and of itself is a powerful medium, as its practitioners choose how to curate and interpret the past. Before embarking on this course, the majority of students had never heard of public history or contemplated it as a profession. But here students made interpretive decisions by identifying the most significant aspects of individuals’ lives—lives notably much different than their own—and distilling these moments into short and engaging biographical sketches. Similarly, by crafting OHMS indexes, students engaged in what Douglas A. Boyd, Janice W. Fernheimer, and Rachel Dixon have called a “translational move”—using words to describe another’s experiences. In their 2015 article, undergraduate Dixon writes that, “What indexers deem important about these oral histories is a rhetorical act in and of itself.” A segment synopsis in an OHMS index is only a few sentences, but those words must convey to future users what is important in these brief moments of spoken word.[17] The Goin’ North classes demonstrate that when given the opportunity, students can achieve a high level of professionalism that can have a meaningful impact—not only in their own academic and future professional careers—but on public understanding of and engagement with a historical subject.

Course Outcomes

While the students developed specific transferable skills, the course also resulted in distinct outcomes larger than any one student’s ability to use a new technology or think critically. As of October 2016, the Goin’ North repository holds 41 indexed oral history interviews and 550 items, including many sources previously not available digitally—photographs and ephemera from the Blockson Collection, and rare documents from the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and from Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church’s institutional archive. One idea behind the course was to give something back to the institutions that made their archives available to us.  The Goin’ North model results in an online repository providing contextualized discovery of and access to a powerful collection of oral history interviews and disparate archival material spanning multiple archival institutions. The students’ work shares and acknowledges the resources of specific collections, including the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, The Library Company of Philadelphia, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History in the University of Kentucky Libraries, and the Temple University Libraries’ Charles Blockson Collection of Afro-Americana, highlighting their wealth of archival materials relating to the Great Migration.

Since December 2015, Goin’ North has had over 21,000 pageviews by 4,000 unique users. High school teachers and students have explored Goin’ North in AP U.S. History courses,  university instructors have had students engage with its resources, and public and oral historians have used it as an inspiration and model for their own projects. Public librarians and documentary filmmakers have drawn on it for their own projects.

Our students can tell you what they learned about the Great Migration, the lives of their individual narrators, and technical platforms. But more importantly, this project has empowered them. Now, many also talk about their career aspirations in public history. As of June 2016, three Goin’ North alums had been accepted into public history and library science graduate programs. Eight have gone on to work on other public digital history projects, building Omeka sites for other institutions, working in open source platforms, and editing oral history interviews for museum exhibitions. One volunteered to continue indexing oral history interviews as an intern for the Nunn Center. Seven students have included their experiences working on Goin’ North on their resumes to help land internships with other institutions. Undergraduate Melanie Grear, for example, developed a love for metadata while creating records for over twenty photographs, documents, and pieces of ephemera—and correcting those created by her less-detail oriented classmates—in Omeka, and through crafting the OHMS index for a 1981 interview Hardy conducted with 102-year old Harvey Wilson about his experiences moving to Philadelphia in 1917. After finishing her undergraduate degree in 2017, Melanie plans to go to library school, where she will further her relationship with metadata. In summer 2016 she juggled an internship at Hagley Museum and Library processing a collection of reel-to-reel recordings, while also serving as a research assistant for another museum’s digital project built in Drupal.

Students like Grear now know what is possible, not just by using the skills and technologies they know already, but by understanding their own abilities to learn new skills to engage the public in history. Their work has resulted in at least five public presentations, including at scholarly meetings. As instructors, seeing students present on the project—showing off the website and asserting their newfound skills and expertise—has been one of the most gratifying aspects of the course. These students have taken ownership of the course’s final products because they know they will continue to have a utility beyond the course long after their grades have been recorded and the course completed.

The Goin’ North project exemplifies what is possible using free open source and low-cost cloud-based services. WCU does not have a department dedicated to assisting with digital projects like Goin’ North. Instead, the instructors and students, led by Smucker, researched options for hosting and platforms. Smucker’s experience as a digital content strategist and familiarity with the larger digital history community led her to select Reclaim Hosting, a service focused on bringing affordable hosting plans to universities, faculty members, and students. Reclaim offers one-click installation of Omeka and a number of other open-source content management systems (including WordPress, used by two of the digital storytelling projects) and has implemented one-click installation for the OHMS viewer. A significant advantage of using open-source platforms like Omeka and OHMS is not only the cost, but the community of user-developers sustaining the platforms. Several enhancements to the Goin’ North workflow were the result of Omeka plugins built by the University of Santa Clara Library, including Simple Vocabulary, which allows the creation of a controlled vocabulary for the various Dublin Core fields (a significant tool for a student created project that otherwise would require a large amount of metadata cleanup), and Admin Images, which we have put to good use on our oral history landing and detail pages. With funds awarded through the 2016 American Historical Association’s Roy Rosenzweig Award for Innovation in Digital History, we are contributing to these open-source communities by developing Omeka plugins that allow the OHMS viewer to more seamlessly integrate with the content management system and enable users to search across OHMS indexes and interview transcripts. These improvements will increase the ease in which other classroom/archive partnerships can occur.[18]

Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia—a collaboration between an archive and the college classroom—serves as a model for elevating the pedagogical impact of oral history on the student experience. In his 2016 review of Goin’ North, Todd Moye, a professor of history and director of the oral history program at the University of North Texas, wrote that the project “provides an exemplar of how twenty-first-century oral historians can use new tools from the digital humanities to breathe new life into legacy interview collections.”[19] The 2016 AHA Rosenzweig Award Committee concurred, sharing that “In integrating the work of successive cohorts of students, Goin’ North offers a compelling model of how iterative project development can be made part of teaching.”[20] This course also demonstrates how the humanities classroom and the archive can help institutions of higher education meet strategic goals related to high impact educational practices and experiential learning. The project exemplifies how a digital oral history project can bring together multi-institutional partners; integrate archiving, curation, and historical storytelling; mobilize student talents and energy; inspire students’ love of oral history; and prepare them for the careers in public and academic history that increasingly need the skills they learn and apply in a course such as this.


[1]  Douglas A. Boyd, Janice W. Fernheimer, and Rachel Dixon, “Indexing as Engaging Oral History Research: Using OHMS to ‘Compose History’ in the Writing Classroom,” Oral History Review 15, n. 2 (2015): 363.

[2] Dan Royles, “Teaching Digital Humanities with Oral History: The Staring Out to Sea Oral History Project and OHMS in the DH Classroom,” Oral History Review 43, no. 2 (September 1, 2016): 408–420.

[3] The OHMS Plugin for Omeka allows audio to be uploaded and hosted via your Omeka repository.

[4] We recommend Reclaim Hosting, a for profit web hosting service specializing in projects for educators and institutions. It offers many of the open source tools used by digital humanities practitioners with “one-click installation,” including Omeka and the OHMS viewer. See

[5] Some of this could be conducted as peer review, although in this course instructors gave detailed feedback on each transcript and OHMS index, with students making changes before the indexes went live. Nunn Center staff also conducted a round of quality control of indexes, and created Library of Congress Subject Headings for each segment, a very specialized task.  When necessary, Nunn Center staff also made minor changes to student work so that it best conformed to Nunn Center indexing standards. With public-facing student work, quality control is an essential step in the process.

[6] While having a style guide at the onset of the project would be more useful, we developed the style guide late in the semester after working with students on how to best create consistency in these two key projects. When teaching the course a subsequent time, we introduced the style guides early in the semester.

[7] Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, “DCMI Metadata Basics,” Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, accessed October 31, 2016,

[8] The nation’s oldest continuously publishing African-American newspaper, The Tribune provides incredibly rich documentation of Black life and affairs in Philadelphia throughout the Great Migration era.

[9] Douglas A. Boyd, “‘I Just Want to Click on It to Listen’: Oral History Archives, Orality, and Usability,” in Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement, ed. Douglas A. Boyd and Mary Larson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 92.

[10] Doug Boyd, Danielle Gabbard, Sara Price, and Alana Boltz “Indexing Interviews in OHMS: An Overview,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, ed. Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2014),

[11] See “Biographical Sketches,” Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia,

[12] George D. Kuh, “High Impact Educational Practices: A Brief Overview,” Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2008,

[13] Douglas A Boyd and Mary Larson, “Introduction,” in Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement, ed. Douglas A. Boyd and Mary Larson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 6-8.

[14] See these and other Digital Storytelling Projects at “Stories,” Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia,

[15] “Swords,” The Digital Vault, Valley Forge National Historical Park,

[16] Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, “Goin’ North: Tales of the Great Migration Oral History Project,” Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History Collection Catalog, accessed November 1, 2016,

[17] Douglas A. Boyd, Janice W. Fernheimer, and Rachel Dixon, “Indexing as Engaging Oral History Research: Using OHMS to ‘Compose History’ in the Writing Classroom,The Oral History Review 15, n. 2 (2015): 363.

[18] The completion and beta release of the OHMS plugin for Omeka is anticipated in February 2017.

[19] Todd Moye, “Goin’ North: Stories from the Great Migration to Philadelphia,” media review, Oral History Review 43, no. 2 (September 1, 2016): 425–27, doi:10.1093/ohr/ohw076.

[20] American Historical Association, “Announcing the 2016 Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History,” October 3, 2016.

Citation for Article


Smucker, J., Boyd, D., & Hardy III, C. (2017). Connecting the Classroom and the Archive: Oral History, Pedagogy, & Goin’ North. Oral History in the Digital Age. Retrieved from


Smucker, Janneken, Doug Boyd, and Charles Hardy III. “Connecting the Classroom and the Archive: Oral History, Pedagogy, & Goin’ North.” Oral History in the Digital Age, 2017.

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