The OHA Metadata Task Force: The Force Behind Our Task
By Cyns Nelson, Lauren Kata
This I Believe: A Micro Essay Not About Metadata
by Cyns Nelson
- I believe in the power of information to improve the human condition
- I believe that first-hand accounts present the most impacting kind of information
- I believe that oral history–the key vehicle for obtaining first-hand accounts– must be made prevalent and pertinent to our frameworks for sharing information
- I believe that the path to making oral history prevalent and pertinent will be guided by metadata
- And finally: I believe that I might convince every person reading this essay to also believe in the criticality of the word “metadata,” even as I believe that most people do not want to use or understand that word.
Imagine you have a very small kitchen, you are an energy conscious individual, and you rarely use the full capacity of your existing gas oven. You do, however, enjoy cooked food, and you do not like the idea of tiny waves being used to cook your food. Each of these factual circumstances leads you to consider a counter-top oven. You Google “toaster ovens” and discover exactly 1,330 different models that await your purchase. (Who knew???)
What differentiates one from another? How can you begin to make a selection? What is important to know? Factors to consider are: brand name, price, size, functions, features, and appearance. Your nearest appliance store is Best Buy, which has a website that allows you to compare different models based on selected criteria. So you sift through the website and identify a top-tier toaster oven. You head to Best Buy, and then you head home with a box containing the DeLonghi – 0.7 Cu. Ft. Rotisserie Convection Oven. You are excited by the promise of convection cooking in a sleek-black oven with a non-stick interior, removable drip tray, and integrated timer.
When you remove the appliance from its box, you discover that the cord only stretches 5 inches long, and you had designated a location for the oven that is eight inches from the available outlet. You wish that “cord length” had been included in the item details about the DeLonghi oven. You think to yourself: That was an important data point.
And here is my point: Data is important. The information that surrounds an object—be it an appliance, a book, a movie, anything—is incredibly useful. It’s essential. Researchers depend on surrounding information to discover content; educators rely on surrounding information to access curriculum material; citizens presume the existence of surrounding information with every catalog search or Google inquiry; and librarians/archivists need surrounding information to ensure the longevity of their holdings. We can afford to be cavalier about a missing detail like “cord length” in the instance of a toaster oven—an item that easily is replicated and/or replaced. On the other hand, an oral-history interview is one of a kind; its existence and utility cannot be treated with cavalier detail.
The question of “what is important” resonates with the quest to make oral histories fully accessible to a general public. What is important to know about any oral history interview? What must we know about a person, in order to understand his/her story? Age? Gender association? Occupation? Religion? What must we know about the staging or context of an interview? What about the relationship between the interviewer and narrator? What about the interview equipment and technical details of the interview files? What, what, what?
Discussions about metadata have been pushed toward librarians and archivists, as though only those professionals are equipped to be conversant on the topic. I believe this perception must change. Metadata is not about cataloging; it is not about schemas; it is not about standards or structures. Metadata is about communication. It is about wrapping an object—in this case, an oral history interview—in a cloak of information that tells important details, in order to get that interview stored, preserved, uncovered, and then unwrapped by persons who need to receive the informational content.
Every person who cares about oral history, who believes in the power of first-hand revelations, has a stake in the metadata game. Here is my stake: I manage the oral history program at a small, public library for local history in Boulder, Colorado. Through dedicated (and trained) volunteers, we create single interviews as well as interview collections that document our community. Nearly all interviews are transcribed; we create separate catalog records for each interview; and we make the audio + transcript publicly available via a dedicated website. We have been in existence since 1976, and since that time we have modified, tweaked, enhanced and corrected process steps at every stage of the oral history life cycle. We change things on the fly, using the best judgment available at any given time.
And time has taught that our best judgment would be made better through collective wisdom. Over the years, we’ve neglected to capture pieces of information that would have been extremely helpful—either to our behind-the-scenes work or to our users’ experience—simply because we didn’t imagine the importance. I believe that other programs (or libraries, or universities, or organizations, or community groups) would make this same statement. All of us can benefit from pooled effort, collective wisdom, and a wider net of imagination.
So here are remaining questions: Do you participate in the creation of oral history interviews? Do you have interviews in your care/possession? Are you a researcher who is interested in ways to discover interview content? Or do you believe that a person’s story is worth sharing and that the world could be improved if more people paid attention to individual experience? If any of the above resonates, then you have a stake in the metadata discussion.
Recently the OHA approved a Metadata Task Force that will steer efforts to establish what is important to know about an oral history, to make an interview discoverable, understandable, available, and usable into the future. The Task Force has not convened to decide on a metadata standard; rather, the group is designed to create/facilitate a process for gathering input that will inform good discussion and decisions. You will be able to learn more about the Task Force at the 2016 annual conference in Tampa, during a round-table discussion (http://bit.ly/1VbdLYq). Related task force case studies are also on the OHDA website (see links at the end of Lauren Kata’s essay).
I believe that personal narrative, in the form of oral history, is both instructive and compelling. I believe that individual stories authenticate our picture of the human experience and build our framework for understanding human actions and aspirations. I believe that we have an opportunity to connect more people to more interviews.
Just don’t use the word metadata.
Not Another Schema: Describing Oral Histories
by Lauren Kata
“The best way [to] gain a handle on the vast amount of information within oral histories,” writes Nancy MacKay in her OHDA essay Oral History Core, “is to develop standards for collecting and organizing this information that institutions of all kinds and sizes can easily adapt.” Her idea for such a solution is “a metadata scheme for oral histories with the working title ‘Oral History Core.’”
Answering MacKay’s call for an oral history-specific metadata initiative, and addressing the interests and needs expressed through the years by Oral History Association (OHA) members, in 2014 the Oral History Association organized a new “Metadata Task Force.” This essay introduces the Metadata Task Force, its concerns and its goals, and provides examples of two different oral history metadata experiences in the form of mini essays written by current Task Force members.
Members of the oral history community responsible for making oral history accessible have been concerned about whether oral history has specific needs when it comes to descriptive metadata. In the absence of a defined, specific metadata standard, attempting to fit multidimensional sources such as oral history into descriptive templates originated for other types of sources can be challenging, especially as technology evolves and new ways of sharing oral history are introduced. This is the concern that has led MacKay and others to move toward developing metadata standards and best practices that are specific to oral histories.
Metadata Task Force Background
How did we get from concerned oral historians to an OHA Metadata Task Force? Since at least 2010, but most likely before that, many have gathered, discussed, and tried to spread the good word (“metadata”) out into the larger oral history community. Then we listened, recorded, and discussed some more. A few of us held brainstorming sessions with small focus groups attempting to answer the question “What’s important to know?” and on flipcharts sketched out the who, what, when, where, why and how of oral history.
Not surprisingly, from these discussions we’ve discovered that practitioners’ experiences with metadata covers a broad range, and are situated in a variety of contexts, from large institution to solo interviewer and all levels in between. Even for those established programs that have adopted existing metadata protocols, when it gets down to details for specific projects, choices must be made about which fields to include, and why.
Not Another Schema!
Early on in our discussions, Metadata Task Force members agreed that the solution to meeting the challenges of improving oral history description and accessibility was NOT to develop and introduce yet another standard or metadata schema. Many institutions and especially those connected with libraries and cultural heritage programs have long established protocols and selected systems for making their resources available. There is quite a list of existing and vetted metadata standards out there. We believe that asking practitioners to learn and adopt yet another schema or set of data standards would be an inefficient and less-than-ideal way to contribute to the overall conversation. It also, in our opinions, misses the point.
Our point is to acknowledge and reinforce to those creating, curating and disseminating oral history the importance of metadata, and to continue to consider ways to help practitioners improve the way they describe their oral history projects and collections. We find value in the process of mindfulness around metadata decision making, and believe that the OHA is poised to serve as a resource by organizing and offering guidelines on how to make decisions about what’s important to know about oral history, and how to map that to existing systems or protocols. Preparing those guidelines is the primary purpose of the OHA Metadata Task Force.
The case studies offered by Metadata Task Force members Steven Sielaff and Jaycie Vos are meant to offer individual examples of oral history metadata experiences, and illustrate some different approaches and perspectives in our community.
- Metadata at BUIOH: A Case Study, By Steven Sielaff
- New Roots: An Oral History Metadata Case Study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by Jaycie Vos
The Task Force welcomes feedback and additional examples to complement these case studies. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Oral History Association Metadata Task Force, 2014-Present:
Council Liaison: Doug Boyd
Appendix: Origins of the OHA Metadata Task Force
We trace the origins of the OHA Metadata Task Force through the following moments:
- 2010 Nancy MacKay (San Jose State University) started a working group to explore the idea of metadata for oral histories. First gathering was at OHA 2010 in Atlanta. Ideas led to MacKay’s formal contribution to the OHDA project, “Oral History Core: An Idea for a Metadata Scheme.” Participants in this initial group began taking the idea out to other spaces. Nancy’s enthusiasm has influenced several OHA conference sessions (e.g. “Love Metadata? Let Your Geek Tag Fly!”- 2012), spurred presentations at regional meetings and encouraged discussion about creating a formal working group within the OHA.
- 2010-2011 Cyns Nelson (Colorado Voice Preserve) brought the idea of an OH Core to the Society of American Archivists Oral History Section annual meetings. Through SAA, she began a collaboration with archivists and fellow OHA members Natalie Milbrodt (Queens Library/Queens Memory Project) and Lauren Kata (The Archives of the Episcopal Church).
- 2012 A Metadata session at OHA annual meeting was standing room only, indicating this is an issue with many interested parties. THATCamp OHA 2012 participants also hosted metadata sessions, which led to the creation of a community shared document meant to kickstart the development of a shared thesaurus.
- 2012 Oral History in the Digital Age project is launched, and includes two important essays on metadata by authors Nancy MacKay and Elinor Mazé (Baylor University)
- 2012-2013 Jaycie Vos (UNC-Chapel Hill) conducted research on metadata practices across U.S. oral history repositories, and from her research, created a standard OH schema for broad consumption, with accompanying crosswalks compliant with other descriptive standards. Her findings were presented at the OHA annual meeting.
- 2013 Cyns, Natalie and Lauren conducted OH Core “metadata brainstorming sessions” at various regional/local meetings and workshops, in order to cast a wide net in gathering practitioners’ experience and opinions on what needs to be captured about oral history. These metadata brainstorming experiences were presented at both the Archives Interest Group gathering and during a regular session chaired by Nancy MacKay.
- 2014 Cyns, Natalie, Lauren and Jaycie teamed up to pursue a formal Metadata Working Group, identifying goals and objectives, and next steps. Would we really attempt to define a new standard and ask partners to adapt?
- 2014 OHA conference in Madison: idea for an OH Metadata Working Group was presented to the Archives Interest Group, which supported a proposal to establish a Metadata Committee/Task Force within OHA. Steven Sielaff joined the staff of Baylor University, picking up Elinor Mazé’s metadata torch.
- 2014 Steven proposed the OHA Archives Interest Group’s Metadata Task Force idea, and President Stephen Sloan and OHA Council authorized the group to move forward in an initial planning year. Doug Boyd was appointed as OHA Council Liaison.