This semester I used the content management service Omeka to build an oral history archive of Middlesex County, Virginia. The idea for the project began in 2014 when I was home for Christmas. My mother saved an article from our county’s newspaper about a group of University of Florida undergraduates who did field recordings of Middlesex residents. After speaking with a local museum employee, I learned that there were no plans to make the recordings available online. My goal for the Middlesex County Oral History Project was to make these recordings accessible, and to encourage residents to engage with their own history by directly submitting stories, photographs, and comments of their own. Hopefully, as the collection builds, a larger picture of our community will emerge from these micro stories that will prove valuable for residents.
After speaking with the director of the University of Florida program as well as Middlesex Museum staff, I created a project proposal for the scope of LBSC 708D. Below is a comparison of promised deliverables vs. what actually happened by the project’s deadline:
After learning that the UF field recordings would not be available until June, the immediate need became creating content and access. I conducted an additional oral history using the iphone app “Call Recorder” and created Youtube videos (at Trevor’s suggestion) to engage site visitors in interviews that were in some cases over an hour long.
Friends and family involved in user testing had many helpful suggestions, such as changing the homepage layout, the order of item pages, reporting broken links, reporting item submission bugs, and in general telling me if something “looked weird”.
Although I was happy with the site’s development, my worry was that Middlesex residents wouldn’t submit oral histories either because it was too time consuming or seemed too intimidating. I also knew that I needed more content to encourage people to submit, but the very act of interviewing people gave the oral histories a professionalism that seemed unapproachable. Fortunately I had the pleasure of hearing Todd Wemmer, a Communications professor at Endicott College, discuss his project Photos Die at the 2015 Personal Digital Archiving Conference.
After setting up a voicemail service through Skype, Wemmer encouraged users to call and leave a short oral history that he would later capture and share through Soundcloud. So far his strategy has been successful, especially with elderly storytellers who are not familiar with digital environments. By adopting Wemmer’s idea as an additional method of storytelling, my hope is to appeal to a wider group of Middlesex County residents on their own terms.
Although I’ve completed this project for the scope of our class, the long-term success of the project will be based on the number of site visits and the amount of content submitted. This summer, I plan to begin a promotional campaign for the site, including a write-up in local newspaper The Southside Sentinel and public presentations at both county libraries. I will also promote the site to teachers at Middlesex High School who might be interested in teaching a unit on oral histories.
Although I’m enthusiastic about the potential of this online archive and have spent many hours on its development, the website’s appearance seems simple and sparse. I’m eager to start promoting the project, collecting content, and improving the archive’s value for community members.