Middlesex County Oral History Project (Digital Proposal)

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As a part of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, Middlesex County is bordered to the north and south by the Rappahannock and Piankatank Rivers, and to the east by the Chesapeake Bay. The earliest record of the County is from explorer John Smith’s journal in 1608, when he and his crew ran aground near the mouth of the Rappahannock River by the town currently known as Deltaville. Smith was excited by the large amount of fish in the area and began spearing them, only to be stung in the arm by a cow-nosed stingray. The injury was so painful that Smith’s men prepared a grave for him, but a doctor in his crew successfully treated the wound and Smith survived. “We called the Isle Stingray Isle after the name of the fish,” the explorer wrote, and the name survives 400 years later as “Stingray Point”.

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Middlesex’s geography continued to play an important role in the County’s development and culture, creating opportunities in the crabbing, oystering, and ship-building industries, while safeguarding the county from the destruction of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (our courthouse still holds it’s original records from 1679). It’s geographic isolation, and the effects of several large hurricanes that destroyed it’s shoreline and farmland in the 1930s, slowed the County’s development over the 20th century, while preserving a distinct regional identity.
Although the county is rich with stories from the Tidewater, efforts to collect oral histories have been done sporadically in print form through local newspaper The Southside Sentinel, and several books available through the Middlesex County Historical Society’s website.
The Middlesex County Oral History Project (MCOHP) is an effort to create an online archive of user-contributed oral histories in audio, video, and text formats.

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Following in the footsteps of regionally focused oral history archives such as Philaplace in Philadelphia, the Maria Rogers Oral History Program in Boulder, and Old Dominion University’s Tidewater Voices project , MCOHP will serve as a resource for historians, linguists, educators, and most importantly, Middlesex County residents.

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The site will be hosted by Omeka, an established content management system for many small cultural institutions. Residents will be able to upload oral histories, transcripts, and photographs through the website, and Museum staff will process the digital files with Dublin Core description and local tags such as names, places, and subjects mentioned in the history. Digital files and metadata will be preserved and stored using Omeka’s cloud-based server, and the Museum will keep additional copies of all material on their local server.
The Museum will work with Middlesex High School teachers to create lesson plans for the site that meet Virginia’s Department of Education Standards of Learning, and will provide user-friendly documentation for recording oral histories, such as a sample permissions agreements, interview questions, and suggested recording formats. Several workshops have been planned with the Deltaville and Urbanna Public Libraries to promote the site and educate the public on responsible oral-history creation.

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As submitted histories increase, the MCOHP may organize them into topic or town-based collections. Select histories will be used in conjunction with Museum exhibits, mobile tours, and as content for the Museum’s blog. In the future, the Project would like to move it’s website and collections to a locally based server for increased administrative  and creative control.

The Middlesex County Museum and Historical Society hope that this archive will promote Middlesex County as a research destination. We also hope it will become a source of pride for our community members as it facilitates a deeper understanding of our home, and creates connections amongst residents as they explore the variety of voices that make-up our County’s identity.

4 Replies to “Middlesex County Oral History Project (Digital Proposal)”

  1. So this is a really neat idea and I’m really interested in how the isolation of the area affected it’s social development. Do you think it would be possible to tag interviews as they’re created with the secondary effect – the primary being the thematic organization you mention – of temporally mapping how certain idioms and traditions evolve over time? This in turn could lead to a sort of evolving controlled vocabulary that could then inform future additions to the collection and the development of other local resources by defining terms that an incomer mightn’t be familiar with.

  2. That sounds like a good idea but I don’t think I fully understand. Could you give me a hypothetical example? Also I wonder if this kind of analysis will intimidate or affect storytellers’ willingness to submit?

  3. Your project sounds great, I like that it is part of an ongoing effort and in that vein your work will fit into something that is likely to be useful and used. It is great to hear that there are outreach efforts around this as well. You do a nice job setting up the historical context and connecting the project to other related projects. It makes sense that you are using Omeka and I think given your context going with the hosted version is a solid plan.

    If you do go forward with this as your project (which I imagine you are) there are a few things that it would be great to have you expand on. Feel free to just add a comment to the post that expounds on this.

    The part that is missing here is what exactly are you planning to accomplish/deliver on this project for this course. It would be great to have you spec out things like how many oral histories you think you can have in the system etc. Related, it would be great if you could put a plan in place to do some user testing, or creating some of the outreach materials or handouts that will go along with this. So, what I would like you to expound on a bit is exactly what you think you can accomplish during the course of the semester.

    Aside from that, there is a minor point I’ll bring up. I’d suggest that you have a separate plan for preservation of content than saying that Omeka will preserve it. Omeka is primarily an access mechanism and platform and it is viable to count having materials in their environment as one of your copies of the content but you should also put them in a few other places. We have some readings on digital preservation in the future digital oral history week so just look ahead to those at some point. It’s not critical for your project, but I just wanted to point out that if you say “Omeka” and “preservation” together there is a good chance that it will raise eyebrows 🙂

  4. “The part that is missing here is what exactly are you planning to accomplish/deliver on this project for this course.”
    – Sure thing! I know you said you wanted us to be able to show the way our concepts would work, so by the end of this semester I will have: 2 oral histories with transcripts, tags, and photographs, 2 lesson plans on the “resources” or “for educators” tab, an “about” page, and a submission page that provides resources for doing oral histories as well as directions for how to upload them. User testing is also a great idea. I’ve been doing that informally with friends and family, but I could take a page from Brown and do it more methodically.

    “I’d suggest that you have a separate plan for preservation of content than saying that Omeka will preserve it.”
    -Great suggestion. I had discussed this with museum staff, but should have put it explicitly in the proposal. Digital assets on the website will also be stored on the Museum’s server and in Google Drive. Item folders will be organized by storyteller name, and will include all files attached to the item as well as metadata downloaded from Omeka in an xml file. If lossless versions of audio files are available (for example, ones that we record ourselves on museum equipment), they will also be stored in these backup folders.

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