From the Director: July 2018

A Few Words from the OHC’s Director, Martin Meeker 


Where we’ve been, and where we’re headed in the digital age


The Berkeley campus has a quiet buzz during the summer months. Fewer people mean a shorter queue at the coffee bar, slightly easier parking, and a general calm among the undergrads throwing frisbees on Memorial Glade. Yet the campus is not asleep, and that is especially true at the Oral History Center. We run on all cylinders in the academic off-season. In addition to wrapping up some big projects and planning for others, we are busy dreaming up plans for the future of oral history at Berkeley and are taking the steps necessary to realize those ambitions.

Sometime before the end of this calendar year, the Oral History Center will launch a new search interface for our entire collection of some 4000 interviews. In a future column, I’ll provide a step-by-step walk-through on this new build-out, but it will entail two important innovations for us: first, researchers will be able to conduct a full-text search across the entire collection and, second, some oral history audio and video will be streamable, and synced with transcripts using OHMS, or the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer. We are beta testing the functionalities now and even as we work out the kinks, we’re excited to share our advances with you. They will provide scholars, students, and all those interested in the seemingly limitless topics covered in our interviews robust new tools to find and engage with the information, the stories, the remarkable first person accounts.

These steps forward aren’t always easy, and we’ve had to contend with our share of challenges. Funding is always tricky for us, but we found a great partner in the National Park Service who wanted to see our Rosie the Riveter/World War II homefront interviews — transcripts and original recordings — made more easily accessible. We don’t have the technical expertise in the office to implement these changes, so we needed to work with our Library Systems Office. The Systems Office has been a great partner and we work together to solve pressing issues around storage space (we always need more), programmer expertise (their time is precious), security (we have important obligations to our interviewees), and access (we take our mandate seriously).

While we were able to get most of the “hoped-for” functionality, compromises were made — and there are important pieces of the puzzle that will happen in the next, as-of-yet unfunded phase. These still “hoped-for” pieces include a portal designed expressly for high school teachers and their students. We think oral history interviews mesh well with common core standards so we’re just now starting to engage with teachers who will hope will help us build out this feature. And, although we’ll have a new search interface, we know that the structure of the OHC website itself breaks several “User Experience 101” rules (hello 3 search menus?!). Some problems are less a matter of funding, more of diplomacy with the larger institution!

As we plug away and attempt to build toward the future of oral history at Berkeley, we welcome dialog and partnership with our friends in oral history — and throughout the academy, journalism, digital humanities, information sciences, you name it. If you’ve got ideas, let’s talk.