2013 OHA Conference Report

The official theme of this year’s annual Oral History Association Conference, held in Oklahoma City, was “Hidden Stories, Contested Truths: The Craft of Oral History.” However, the unofficial theme was on moving oral history into the digital age. Earlier this year the Oral History Review published a special issue entitled “Oral History in the Digital Age” and the ideas, challenges, and questions which were raised in its pages were at the forefront of the conference. Many presentations focused on using digital technology to conduct, promote, process, and make projects accessible online; some of these sessions included “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free,” “New Approaches to Bringing Community Histories into Public Space in an Urban Region,” “Campus Oral History Programs,”and “New Answers to Old Questions in the Digital Age,” and the Saturday plenary session on “Oral History and the Documentation of American Foodways” demonstrated how integral digital technology is in the application of their work.

The first session that I attended, “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free,” focused on the OHMS [Oral History Metadata Synthesizer] system, an open source platform for coding and indexing oral history interviews. Doug Boyd from the Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History walked the audience through the conceptual and practical foundation of OHMS. Baylor University Institute for Oral History (BUIOH) and the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) were both selected to pilot the OHMS system before it is made public; Steven Sielaff from BUIOH and Sady Sullivan from BHS discussed how their oral history programs run, the way in which they used OHMS to process interviews, and the strengths and weaknesses they experienced in using the system. Dean Rehberger from Michigan State University, who works on OHMS with Boyd, talked about the future of system.

The audience asked relevant questions that illuminated issues other oral history programs face and the practicality of using OHMS. Overall, this session provided people with issues to be carefully considered when deciding whether to use OHMS when it is public.

“New Approaches to Bringing Community Histories into Public Space in an Urban Region” featured a collaborative project between Erie County Public Library, Randforce Associates, and locally-based community groups in Buffalo, New York. The project, which was originally funded by an NEH digital start-up grant but grew into a large multi-year effort (which is on-going) funded by an IMLS grant, is showcasing their archival collection by connecting issues from the Depression Era to contemporary life in Buffalo. This project combines digital technology, such as Omeka and Interclipper, with low-tech tools, such as the posters and photographs, and uses available resources like the physical space of the library and the knowledge and network of their community partners to bolster their work. A component of this project is a series of public programs that intend to engender dialogue among professional experts and community members while featuring archival material. Their project involves forward-thinkers who are thoroughly addressing the needs of both the library and the community. Their decision to combine the use of new technology and existing resources is a creative solution that enhances the project. This was a great example of a complex project that could serve as a model for other collaborative projects.

Panelists from Louisiana State University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Baylor University, and UCLA presented at the “Campus Oral History Programs” session. They each gave examples of their specific projects, the way in which their programs run, and an overview of issues they face. They are dealing with similar issues: fundraising, outreach, public engagement, digital access, and campus politics. Some of these programs have solved their problems by re-assessing their needs, creating work plans that are often re-visited or revised, using students in the production and editing process, and utilizing cheap digital resources. Most of all, they are struggling with how best to bring their collections and future work into the digital age. The audience asked many questions that revealed most oral history programs are dealing with the very same issues.

Though these are just a few highlights from the 2013 OHA Conference, there were many other dynamic presentations and examples of robust and tangible oral history projects. My biggest takeaway was that the field seems to be yearning for a solution to their issues surrounding digitization and is looking for some guidance. People want to engage in dialogue about challenges associated with the digital technology, especially those affiliated with campus or established oral history programs. This is the perfect time for us all to work together as a community and share our solutions (and failures) in order progress the field and push our work into the digital age. I look forward to next year’s conference in Wisconsin, where there will hopefully more discussions on such topics.

Shanna Farrell, ROHO Historian