Archive of Immigrant Voices: Final Project Reflection

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For my project I created the Archive of Immigrant Voices using Omeka. Created in 2012 by the Center for the History of the New America (a history department center for which I am one of two graduate assistants), the Archive has remained largely undeveloped. Currently, the Center owns ten oral histories, all conducted as part of an undergraduate final project for the UMD course HIST428N Immigrant Life Stories: An Oral History Practicum (held Spring 2014 and sponsored by the Center—more of these from an additional class are forthcoming), yet only one was uploaded to the Archive.

 

After creating the new Archive page on Omeka, my initial plan was to upload all ten of the oral histories (with tags, metadata, and transcripts), create an about page, an education page (including one lesson plan), and pages on conducting oral history and immigration history. All four of these pages and a sample lesson plan were created. Only five oral histories, however, are currently included in the Archive.

The education and immigration history pages were of particular importance to my supervisor, executive director of the Center, Dr. Katarina Keane. I brainstormed many ideas with Dr. Keane about what kinds of resources and information we wanted to include on the site in order to effectively convey the place of the Archive within the mission of the Center, and highlight the importance of contemporary immigration history. In order to meet these goals, we settled on offering on the immigration history page a basic background overview of the significance of post-1965 immigration and the role of the Archive in sharing individual stories of contemporary immigration. Within this page, I also chose to include additional information and web links on immigration history, other immigration centers and programs, and a recommended bibliography. The choice was made to include links and information like this so that users could investigate immigration/migration history further without being overwhelmed by a long historical narrative.

On the education page I decided to provide an overview of the education mission of the Center, and the ways in which the Center, and now the Archive, are fulfilling this mission. While contributing to the goals of the Center, the Archive itself is focused particularly on oral history, so I wanted the Archive education page to reflect that. Because of this I chose to include links for educators to other immigration/migration oral history projects and lesson plans, and information on the Archive’s plans for future education resources along with a sample lesson plan that includes objectives aligned with C3 standards.

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The oral histories themselves were the most challenging—and surprisingly time-consuming—aspect of this project. While I originally hoped to upload all ten of the interviews, space constraints within the webpage, along with incomplete metadata information, prevented me from doing this. In the end, I have currently uploaded five interviews. I included tags and metadata for all five of these. They are all, however, in different formats, and some do not have transcriptions. Others that I chose to not upload were video interviews (requiring more space) and/or did not include any metadata.

Throughout the process, Dr. Keane, my fellow graduate assistant, and other graduate students in the history department, used the website and offered advice on how to improve layout and content. From these comments, I worked to simplify titles of pages, rearrange content, and edit down wordy background information. I was unable, however, to do any user testing of the website and lesson plan with educators. At a Smithsonian-led interdisciplinary meeting on education a few weeks ago (for a different project I am working on for the Center) I was able to speak with multiple public school K-12 educators and administrators on the particulars of effective lesson plans and resources. Dr. Kathy Swan, associate professor of social studies at the University of Kentucky and co-author of the newest version of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, spoke with me at length about what educators actually need/want in lesson plans and resources from cultural institutions, subject experts, etc. She adamantly argued that these kinds of educational tools should provide teachers a framework for instruction and incorporate content in different ways, but they do not have to align directly with state or national standards. The teachers themselves should be able to do this, she argued. Because of this, I edited my lesson plan to also include objectives not explicitly aligned with standards, but instead highlighting the specific content within the chosen oral history and larger questions about immigration and migration. Dr. Swan also explained that the C3 stresses inquiry and critical thinking as the most important social studies skills for K-12 education. Because of these, I worked to make sure that these overarching skills were present throughout the lesson plan and will serve as central ideas governing further educational resources created by the Center.

Moving forward, I plan to work with Dr. Keane and Prof. Castillo on collecting further metadata for the rest of the interviews, as well as alter the size of files to improve access. Compressing the audio/video files to much smaller mp3 files will standardize the formats and allow for additional interviews to be uploaded. Dr. Keane and I have also discussed paying for additional space and plugins from Omeka in order to accommodate more interviews and allow users to contribute their own oral histories. I also hope to create additional lesson plans for other grade levels and engage public school teachers, and undergraduate professors in user testing. More feedback from users on the oral histories themselves (exploring them, listening, contributing interviews, etc.) will also be helpful in improving the Archive as it grows.

A Whole New World: Oral Histories in the Digital Age

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Oral histories have long served as a way to capture the individual stories and perspectives of historical events. These first-hand interviews chronicle for the future the lived experience of the past. As Michael Frisch notes, “there are worlds of meaning that lie beyond [the] words” (2). Employed for centuries as a way to better understand and preserve history, oral histories are nothing new. The digital age, however, presents significant implications for capturing, preserving, analyzing, and providing access to these interviews.

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As Doug Boyd’s article, “Designing an Oral History Project: Initial Questions to Ask Yourself” proves, much preparation needs to go into conducting a successful oral history interview. When designing an oral history project, a clear focus and goal are necessary, as is knowledge of the technologies, equipment, and budget needed to conduct and complete the project. You must also acknowledge your own technology skill level, research the topic you will be interviewing about, decide upon an archival strategy for curating your project, and consider the legal and ethical questions associated with oral interviews. These questions only become more complex and necessary as one considers, and incorporates, the various technologies associated with born-digital material and audio and video recordings in the digital age. Kara Van Malssen’s article on digital video preservation discusses the varying formats of video digital files and the differences in capturing, preserving, and providing access with digital files.

But digital also means more than just changes in file size, video capture, and preservation.  Frisch asserts in his article, “Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility,” that oral history audio and video collections are rarely organized or indexed, making them unsearchable in any useful way. For this reason, most users choose to study the transcribed text associated with each interview, rather than struggle to work with the audio or video files. The digital revolution, he contends however, has profoundly changed this because not only can all files expressed in digital form be organized, searched, and extracted equally, but also any place within digital data can be accessed instantly. These factors mean that users can now locate the deeper meanings within the audio/video materials themselves, no longer relying heavily on text versions. Furthermore, this kind of accessibility allows for content analysis in different ways and on a different level than previously possible. Frisch explains that audio/video oral history content has normally been characterized as “raw” documentation, meaning that it is “almost impossible to search or navigate analytically,” and becomes “meaningful, sharable, and usable only when it is ‘cooked’—in the form of a documentary selection or arrangement then served up to consumers” (13). New digital tools, however, can create new non-linear paths for discovery and research. “Because audio/video indexing means the entire content can be usefully, intelligently, instrumentally searched and accessed at a rich level,” Frisch argues, “it becomes a great deal more than a ‘raw’ collection,” providing access for anyone to “continually ‘cook’—to explore a collection and select and order meaningful materials” (16). With digital tools, in other words, new understandings can be gleaned from not only the content of oral histories, but also the audio and video files—actually creating ways to investigate those “worlds of meaning that lie beyond [the] words.”

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Wendy Hsu echoes Frisch’s arguments by proposing an expansion of the definition of digital ethnography, changing the “focus of the digital from a subject to a method of research.” She contends that digital technology can and should be used as a platform for collecting, exploring, and expressing ethnographic materials. Like Frisch, Hsu explains that digital tools can calculate and reframe information with precision and speed previously unimaginable. This means that new patterns regarding how we understand and sample culture and how we analyze the relationship between the macro and the micro can be revealed. “A deepened engagement with cultural content in multiple registers,” she argues, “could enable us to identify patterns of social linkage and cultural meanings that are otherwise inaccessible in participant observation methods.”

So what does all of this actually mean? And is anyone actually putting into practice the kinds of digital analysis of oral histories outlined by Frisch and Hsu? If so, are new understandings of history, historical events, and culture being revealed? The School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin and the Illinois Informatics Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received an NEH digital humanities grant to plan and host HiPSTAS, an institute on High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship. This institute was created in response to the increasing need for more accessible sound archives, and the demand to provide scholars and students with new modes of analysis for exploring the important cultural expressions and historical research embedded within oral history audio and video files. Oral histories and sound recordings, the HiPSTAS website explains, hold extreme cultural significance, but scholars have limited access to spoken word audio and are unable to conduct new research and share methodologies and findings because of current modes of access. HiPSTAS’ work hopes to change this by exploring what important historical research is hidden in sound files. Hundreds of thousands of hours of “culturally significant audio artifacts” have been digitized, and sophisticated systems of computational analysis of sound have been developed, they explain, but “there is no provision for any kind of analysis that lets one discover, for instance, how prosodic features change over time and space or how tones differ between groups of individuals and types of speech.” By bringing together a group of humanities scholars, graduate students, and librarians and archivists interested in these modes of sound recording analysis HiPSTAS hopes to analyze current practices, develop new tools, and advance the research on audio analysis. Their end goal is to develop an open-source, “freely available suite of tools supporting scholarship on and using audio files.”

The new possibilities for historical research and conclusions provided by digital analysis of oral histories is extremely exciting. Like our discussions on distant reading, text analysis, and visualization, doing oral history in the digital age allows us to change our understandings of previously explored topics. We can and should employ digital tools to not only make planning and implementation of oral history projects easier, but also to expand the cultural and historical significance of oral histories and sound and video recordings. I wonder though as well, what new challenges will this also bring? Do you all see any downside to or difficulty for implementation of this kind of computational analysis?  Do you think that projects like HiPSTAS will be the most effective in the push to save sound archives?

9/11 Digital Archive and the Bracero History Archive: A Review

The September 11 Digital Archive and the Bracero History Archive are two collaborative digital history archives projects that work to record and preserve the experiences of two important chapters in American history. These sites collect and archive oral histories, interviews, images and other documents related to the events of September 11, 2001 and the Bracero program, a “guest worker initiative that spanned the years 1942-1964.” Both of these sites are extremely informative and interactive, and allow easy exploration of a mass of materials, representing exciting examples of how digital archives can be done well. As I reviewed them both, however, I also noticed some other major similarities and differences in how collections are organized, how these archives are representing historical events (and what their historical timing means for both the archive and the user), and how each site is using this digital archival material to foster education and provide additional resources regarding these historical moments.

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What struck me most about both the September 11 Digital Archive and the Bracero Archive was the wide breadth of resources available on each site.   The Bracero Archive contains over 3,000 oral histories, images, documents, and contributed items, and the September 11 Archive holds more than 150,000 items, including more than 40,000 emails and electronic communications, over 40,000 first–hand stories, and more than 15,000 digital images. As Jamie discussed in her post, one of the most exciting possibilities of digital collections is the potential to take everything—to not be bogged down by the difficult appraisal decisions of what to keep, what matters most, and what can be tossed. These two digital sites certainly succeed in creating richer stories by using new tools and contexts to make fonds an argued thing of the past and instead providing access to as much archival material as possible.

It was also very clear while exploring these archives that in order to successfully undertake a large-scale digital initiative such as these, collaboration is key. Neither site is the sole creation of one organization, rather they are both co-created projects funded and supported by a variety of grants and sponsors. The Bracero Archive is a collaborative project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for the History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, nad the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso, with funding provided by the NEH. Similarly, the September 11 Digital Archive is a product of the RRCHNM and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York, along with a permanent partnership with the Library of Congress. These partnerships not only allow for necessary resource funding, but also help ensure the long-term preservation of these archives and promote awareness of the importance of such projects.

While both sites contain similar layouts and information—including tabs on the background of the projects and staff, collections, and instructions on how users can add their own stories, etc.—they also differ in some ways on format, context, and content. For instance, both sites allow users to view all collection items at once, or sort them by topic, but I found the September 11 Archive to be less easy to navigate. Some of the items were not labeled (only having “??” as their titles), and some items, such as email communications, are presented in unfamiliar formats and often do not contain all the identifying metadata, such as sender, recipient, etc. Both sites do not always include full metadata for every item, and dates, creators, and descriptions of photographs, correspondence, and interviews are sometimes missing. I recognize that sometimes this information is not known, and therefore cannot be included, but what can these content and contextual changes mean for research? How does the digital archive affect the dissemination of this kind of information? Additionally, how does the born-digital aspect of these items affect this? While the Bracero Archive contains digital oral histories, and obviously other digital information, these items are not always born-digital and they are most often memories and experiences recorded and shared years after the program ended. In the September 11 Archive, no emails and other material is obviously born-digital, and often created within weeks, or even moments, of the actual event. How does this affect how content is presented and organized in the digital archive?

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Another feature that differs between these two archives is the way in which historical background information and additional resources are presented. The Bracero Archive contains extensive information on the background of the Bracero program, including a history summary and a large bibliography of selected related scholarship. It also features resources, including video tutorials on how to navigate the site, and three lesson plans outlining how educators can use the collection to teach students about America immigration and labor history. The September 11 Archive, on the other hand, does not contain bibliographies, educator resources, or a historical background narrative, but rather includes a tab on “FAQ’s about 9/11” that contains a timeline of the attacks, the immediate response and consequences, rebuilding efforts, the 9-11 Commission Report, and information on memorials. Both sites feature news related to the archive, but this tab on the 9/11 archive contains more up-to-date blog posts and information. These features show the additional resources that become possible—and more easily created and accessed—with digital archives. I was somewhat overwhelmed by how much information was available, and so easily navigated, on both of these sites. The possibilities for more resources like these seem endless, and extremely attractive, when imagining how to create and improve these kinds of digital public history pages. What do we think is the most useful? How should archivists and other creators of these sites best take advantage of the capabilities of digital archives to provide additional information?

The Archive of Immigrant Voices (Digital Project Proposal)

Founded in 2011, the Center for the History of the New America—through UMD’s history department—provides an institutional home for interdisciplinary research on the long history of the American immigrant experience. The Center contributes to and distributes information on immigration and migration scholarship to a broad public through academic publications, presentations, conferences, and mass media. A large focus of the Center is on contemporary United States immigration and migration. Since 1965, legal changes have allowed for increased immigration into the United States, transforming American society and continuing to inform understandings of global change, migration, and the American experience.

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One aspect of the Center’s push for continued research and scholarship on this “New America” is the Archive of Immigrant Voices. Established in 2012 the archive is intended as a digital repository of oral history interviews documenting the experience of migration. Its purpose, as explained on its current website, http://newamerica.umd.edu/voices.php, “is to create, accumulate, and preserve a repository of memories that will not only reveal living history and features of the recent past, but will also document the fine lines of social change that might otherwise be ignored or lost to history.” Since 2012, however, only a handful of interviews have been conducted, and the webpage remains a largely undeveloped piece of the Center’s larger site—containing only one oral history and a short abstract on the project.

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For my digital project I propose to re-create the Archive of Immigrant Voices website using the content management site Omeka. The six oral histories that currently exist will be uploaded, along with abstracts/bios of the interviewees, full transcripts, and Dublin Core description. Students in Dr. Anne Rush’s Spring 2015 Course, HIST428M: Selected Topics in History; Foreigners as Citizens: Recording Oral Histories of Immigration, will also be submitting additional oral histories and transcriptions for the archive in May of this year. I will also work on creating tags for topics, names, places, etc. mentioned within the interviews. Additional webpages within the site will also be created, such as an “about” page to explain the project, its history, and goals. The Center for the History of the New America will also be linked to the archive website, and a page on immigration history will be included in order to describe the archive’s place within the Center and its importance in facilitating new understandings of the immigrant experience—specifically past 1965.

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A key aspect of the Center’s larger mission is education. As such, teachers and students serve as the primary audience, not only for the Center at large, but also for the Archive of Immigrant Voices. In order to facilitate this mission, I hope to include an education page on the archive website. This will contain resources on conducting oral histories (including sample interview questions, how-to’s on audio and video recording, examples of permission agreements, etc.) and links to other useful organizations related to oral history and the immigrant experience (such as the Oral History Association, the Ellis Island Oral History Project, and the Arab Immigration Oral History Digital Collection). In conjunction with the executive director of the Center, Dr. Katarina Keane, I will also to create lesson plans and educator and student resources more tailored to the archive’s collections and the oral histories of immigrants in general. These will focus on using oral histories as way to gain new understandings of the immigrant experience within America. We hope to align these with standards in the National Council for the Social Studies’ C3 Framework for Social Studies Standards. In our efforts to draft ideas for lesson plans and education resources, we are also researching how other institutions have created specific student projects related to oral history and immigration. For instance, we have been reviewing the Library of Congress’s lesson plans on “Immigration and Oral History,” and PBS’s lesson plan on Immigration Oral History and the “New Americans.”

As the Archive continues to grow and more oral histories are collected, I hope to organize interviews alphabetically and into more specific topics, such as geographic location, interview subjects, age of interviewees, etc. Dr. Keane and I also want to make the Archive a collaborative effort, such that individuals interested in sharing their migration and immigration stories can upload interviews, photographs, and bios through the website. We hope to increase community, faculty, and student participation and awareness by publicizing the ongoing creation of the new Archive of Immigrant Voices through the Center’s main webpage, listserv, and social media accounts. A new abstract about the Archive—and how people can contribute—will also be created and put into our bi-annual newsletter to be distributed at events and conferences in the upcoming year. As participation increases and the Archive grows, we hope to promote the original mission of the Center and the Archive itself by preserving memories and histories that further document the immigrant experience.

Local History Education and Digital Media in Historical Societies (or I haven’t come up with a catchier title yet)

Cultural institutions, archives, and museums have often incorporated educational initiatives into their mission statements and organizational activities. The dissemination of these resources in the teaching of history, however, has changed with the proliferation of technology and digital media.[1] More and more, these organizations are offering educators online lesson plans, access to digitized collections, and interactive exhibits and tours. Specifically, a strong focus has developed on providing interactive online resources and information for K-12 teachers and students. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig note that “online lesson plans have become so ubiquitous that no one has yet cataloged them.” While it is clear that digital teaching and learning tools are increasingly becoming standard for cultural institutions, it is less clear how these resources are aligning themselves with actual educator needs. How are online resources designed and to what extent are they serving local and national educational requirements?

For my print project I am interested in analyzing the educational resources of three particular institutions: the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the New York Historical Society, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. I am interested in exploring how these three local state historical societies use digital media and educational resources to teach national history from a local perspective; and more particularly what each institutions’ goals are in teaching history through digital media. How are digital tools employed? Is the educational content of each site more often packaged lesson plans or interactive activities students can engage with?[2] What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? How are these different teaching tools changing history education? As Orville Burton asks “Will the partnership [between history education and digital technologies] revolutionize the ways in which history is taught and researched or will it simply offer additional tools to improve traditional practices?”[3]

I am also interested in analyzing each institutions’ view of educators (and their goals in meeting actual educator needs). Are these sites aligning their online educational content with required state social studies standards and frameworks? If so, how? Are they simply creating digital educational content to deliver further information about their own collections, or are they working instead to actively meet local and state education requirements? Are these societies providing easy to implement/packaged units or are they more basic resources that teachers can use themselves to create their own lesson plans, etc.?

I hope that through investigation of the digital educational resources at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the New York Historical Society, I will gain a better understanding of the ways in which digital content can effectively aid in the teaching of local and national history.

 

[1] Orville Vernon Burton notes in his article “American Digital History” that “U.S History and Computing have had a long history of partnership in teaching and research,” see, Burton, “American Digital History,” Social Science Computer Review 2 (Summer 2005): 206. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig dedicate a section of their book, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, to teaching and learning. They note that “the web reaches unprecedented numbers of K-12 students and teachers” and “a very large percentage of websites, regardless of their primary focus, have incorporated teaching materials and advice.”

[2] Cohen and Rosenzweig note that “Most teaching websites offer resources (especially primary sources) and advice (for teachers on how to teach, for students on how to work with evidence). What has been talked about endlessly but has been much harder to achieve is interactive learning exercises.” See Cohen and Rosenzweig Teaching Digital History.

[3] Burton, “American Digital History,”abstract.