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With the ubiquity of the internet, particularly in research settings, a surge in the multimedia primary source materials available online is inevitable. Opportunities to collect, share and discover histories, cultures and perspectives in audio-visual formats are practically infinite, and progressively important, in a digital world.
One exemplary example of this content is the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive.* Survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides have shared their stories and experiences in this collection of 53,000 two-hour audio-visual interviews. The intimacy of these first-hand accounts embody the personal and the far-reaching impacts of genocide, as well as the political, cultural, and social context surrounding these atrocities.
Much attention in the genre of primary source video has been given to the more technical aspects of recording oral histories. Most of the focus revolves around putting them on the web and making them easily and broadly accessible. Interest is turning toward how researchers engage with these materials, giving rise to such questions as:
- What are the advantages and challenges of listening to primary source materials?
- What are the implications of making these resources available to a vast, diverse, global audience?
- How will these resources be used in the future?
- How might oral history collections be improved to invite deeper and more impactful engagement with researchers?
One Expert’s Perspective
Steven Cohen, a cognitive psychologist at Michigan State University (MSU), explores these issues in his article “Shifting Questions: New Paradigms for Oral History in a Digital World” (available via ProQuest Central). Cohen has been a project evaluator on several large oral history grants, including the Oral History in the Digital Age (OHDA) Project.
The OHDA Project was a multidisciplinary collaboration between MSU and the MSU Museum in partnership with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, American Folklore Society, and Oral History Association.
Cohen acknowledges the project, “was effective in providing the expertise to create, curate and disseminate the media” for online oral history collections. However, he adds, “important questions remain about what it means for people around the world to listen and how they might react to the histories they choose to see and hear.”
In his thoughtful analysis, Cohen delves into how the minds of those who listen to oral histories are being influenced, and what are the responsibilities that come with offering global access. In particular, Cohen looks at two traditional standards for measuring the importance and merit of an oral history collection: 1) the size of the collection and 2) and number of hits the collection receives, and wonders how much these numbers actually convey about a collection’s worthiness.
These measures, he points out, don’t actually reveal anything about the meaningfulness of a researcher’s engagement with an oral history collection.
“Dissemination of oral history is about considerably more than hours and hits; it’s about access to meaning for the world of casual visitors,” Cohen writes, adding that the conventional measures “will rarely offer a valid sense of how oral history in the digital age is helping users acquire perspective on culture heritage and the human condition.”
So, how in the world do we measure that?
Listening is hard
This statement might seem an oversimplification, but it’s a point Cohen makes repeatedly: listening is hard.
Think about all of the distractions, biases, cultural assumptions, personal experiences, values and belief systems that color and construe the ways we process and (mis)understand information. These are all facets that people bring with them when they visit an online oral history archive.
Cohen says many of these web hits might be considered “false positives” – they count toward a collection’s statistical success, but they don’t measure any benefit acquired by a user. Access to information does not equal access to meaning. If a user is unreceptive to what is being conveyed in an oral history, if a user experiences a lack of connection, the potential consequences might include a deepening of divisiveness and ignorance.
“Some visitors will fail to find meaningful connection between their own ways of thinking, and the stories they hear; their preconceptions may collide with the interviewee, history or culture they hear,” Cohen warns. “Visitors might only draw from the oral histories that the stories are irrelevant to their own lives and experience, perhaps meaningless, unimportant or worse.”
In order to encourage visitors to find meaningful connection with an oral history, Cohen makes the case that key measures need to be established, not to gauge a collection’s statistical success, but to evaluate:
1) Why do some people cherish this content?
2) What in the content triggers the realization that at least some of the content is relevant to their own lives?
Appealing to an inclusive audience
When Cohen wonders, “Can a single set of metadata serve as a window into an oral history for a global audience?” the short answer is, of course not. Creators of metadata have infinite factors to take into consideration in the process of defining tags and filters and keywords that will be useful to 7 billion potential users.
The previous section mentioned the personal and cultural dimensions that affect an individual’s experience of listening to oral histories. By extension, these elements also color how helpful metadata is in enabling researchers to discover the information they are seeking:
“Citizens of different cultures, their personal filters reflecting ideas, perspectives and beliefs drawn from parochial experience,” Cohen explains, “may not find in an oral history what the metadata and keywords suggest they ought to hear.”
Not only would metadata ideally need to appeal to an infinite combination of different cultures, life experiences, etc., but take into consideration time period as well. Metadata created at this particular moment in this particular era in history won’t likely have the same meanings and interpretations they will for users in the coming decades.
How will oral histories be used in the future?
Cohen goes on to point out metadata will also need to take into consideration other groups and the unique ways they might employ oral histories in the years to come. He mentions two potential groups who’s “uses will grow beyond the scope of metadata as we know it.”
One of those groups is social and behavioral scientists, who will likely find a fount of supplementary data to be gleaned from digital oral histories. This information might help scientists account for more variation in forming theories about human behavior. In addition, oral histories “can be part of analyses that investigate change and human development and play a role in studies that are rerun and revalidated over time,” Cohen points out.
But just as oral history collections might provide a trove of information for researchers, new challenges will certainly surface. In particular, ethical concerns, regarding privacy and methodology. Even so, Cohen finds it very likely that oral histories will be a part social science research, therefore, “This is an audience that metadata needs to accommodate; it is not one example, it is an entire field, an interdisciplinary group.”
The second group Cohen suggests will have unique demands for metadata is the futurists. He cites a 2009 TED Talk by Google Director of Engineering and expert on artificial intelligence, Ray Kurzweil. His lecture explored the likelihood of merging minds with machines.
While the concept might seem a little far out, there are several examples of the direct connections between humans robots happening now. What might the implications for these innovations have in the realm of experiencing oral history? What kinds of metadata will be required in the direct connection of audio-visual content to a person’s brain?
“And,” Cohen asks, “how will traditional metadata be used to help select oral histories and prime users for what is to come?”
Better design = better dissemination?
Going forward, Cohen hypothesizes, aesthetics will likely prove crucial to how people engage with oral histories and how open they will be to extracting meaning from what they hear. Could a more engaging, pleasing design disarm users who might be defensive or biased or distracted into a more emotional, significant experience with an oral history interviewee?
Traditionally, aesthetics have been treated with less importance than technology in making oral histories accessible to users. However, Cohen explores examples of oral histories that are visually appealing in such a way that they encourage the user to relate more personally to the people who share their stories.
These audio-visual recordings offer “something surprising,” he notes, “that brings out salient information in humanist and aesthetic ways and invites interest on several levels.”
“My hypothesis,” he concludes, “is that these designs make it easier for someone to peruse the stories, decide to listen, and hear what an individual has to say.”
Cohen talks about how his work with the OHDA Project proved valuable and informative with regard to technological standards in oral histories, but the research stopped short of the more personal impacts of these histories on such a vast and varied audience. Cohen calls for a science that explores and examines these impacts and takes into account the challenges he outlines, which he notes “are actually opportunities.”
“These issues, if they apply to oral history,” Cohen theorizes, “probably will apply, in part or whole, to other fields that are migrating from analog to digital and building online collections.”
*ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive to offer this material in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies. Learn more and see the testimonials.