Photo courtesy of the Nunn Center
ElmerOne of the projects of the Nunn Center for Oral History is a chronicle of the bourbon industry. Interviews include the late, great Elmer T. Lee from Buffalo Trace Distillery.
The process of recording oral history seems simple enough. There is a story that needs to be told and heard. An interviewer records the story. A transcriptionist types the story. But that’s not the end of the story.
“When you do an interview, it only has the potential to make it to the historical record at that point,” says Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky. “It’s great. You’ve saved the story, but unless it goes into the archive and [is] put into a system that someone can easily work with, it hasn’t fulfilled its original goal.”
When Boyd became director of the Nunn Center in 2008, he says there was a collection of about 6,000 interviews that were “in crisis in terms of preservation.” Technology had advanced through the years, with early interviews recorded on reel-to-reel tape and later interviews recorded on cassette tape, which sometimes has a tendency to bend, break and warp. Working with graduate students and transcriptionists, Boyd has been able to transcribe and digitize many of the interviews, saving thousands of hours of oral historical record.
And when researchers came into the Nunn Center looking for information on a certain topic, Boyd could point them in the direction of 300 interviews that contained a wealth of information. But who has the time to listen to hours and hours of interviews to get to just one piece of information? Boyd asked.
Not long ago, Boyd had a conversation with his 10-year-old daughter about a cassette tape they ran across when cleaning out some boxes. He explained how, in generations past, people would put a cassette tape into a player and push buttons to move the tape forward or backward to listen to a certain segment on the tape.
“So you have to forward through and find things?” she asked Boyd. “I just want to click on it.”
Boyd says moments like these help distinguish the digital natives from the digital immigrants and show the vast amount of change from previous generations to the current on-demand generation’s approach to life and research. Dr. Terry Birdwhistell, dean of libraries at the University of Kentucky and former director of the oral history collection, says younger people have never known any other way to access material. “People are so used to Googling and getting information that way, and what we are doing from the academic side now is working very hard across the spectrum of our resources and special collections to get these materials digitized and accessible.”
The Nunn Center moved from having an onsite oral history collection to an online oral history collection that included both the transcribed version and the audio version of the story. While this was more accessible, it still was a giant leap away from the “I just want to click on it” generation.
“What I tried to do was construct a way where we could actually bring the transcript together with the audio,” Boyd says. “If you search on the word revolution, every time the interviewee mentions it, it takes you to that place [in the interview] and, with a click, it takes you to the moment. What would have taken you hours to find is done in seconds.”
This technology was created right on the UK campus and is available through an online program called the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS System for short), an open-resource program made possible by grant funding through the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Not only does it connect researchers with keywords, or hashtags, in an interview, it also can connect to key ideas or concepts that are indexed by student workers and time coded. And, Boyd says, because of the explosion of the Internet and global accessibility, workers from the Nunn Center also are able to provide hyperlinks to map features or photographs or other interviews with one simple click.