A Google for Oral History Recordings

It sounds like something you might find on the Starship Enterprise but the oral history metadata synchroniser (OHMS) could transform the way oral history collections are accessed worldwide.

OHMS is the brainchild of Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, who first began to think about broadening access to oral history interviews while he was an archivist at the University of Alabama. When he moved to Kentucky he got together with the head of the university’s digital programme and together they came up with OHMS.

The programme enables researchers to search through an oral history recording using keywords, and to be taken to the exact moment that the keyword is spoken. It means researchers do not have to scroll through hours of tape or pages of transcript before finding the topic they are interested in.

Boyd, who will be leading a workshop on OHMS at this year’s Oral History Society conference, says: “We have always talked a good game about oral history putting the stories on historical record but the reality was recordings sat on shelves and did not get used very often. We took the web usability approach and figured out a way to enhance access to oral history.”

Boyd says that OHMS has increased access to his archive of about 9000 interviews. The archive was lucky if 500 people visited it every year but since the OHMS was launched in 2008 around 8-10,000 people access interviews every month. “If you put the interviews out there people will use them,” says Boyd.

Originally, OHMS was designed for in-house use but Boyd and his team realised its potential for other institutions. With a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services the Nunn Center developed an open access, open source system that could be used by any oral history archive around the world. OHMS was launched to grant partners in 2013, before its official launch in 2014. Now 100 institutions in 10 countries are using it.

OHMS is free to use and should be accessible to the majority of oral history organisations. All that is needed is a website and a server and it works with the majority of content management systems. Boyd believes that it will help oral history move away from reliance on transcripts, which are expensive to produce and discourage interaction with the audio.

With OHMS the oral historian creates an index of keywords, which are tagged alongside the recording. The index can also include GPS coordinates and hyperlinks to enhance and broaden the experience. Boyd’s dream is to link all the institutions and organisations using OHMS together – a kind of Google for oral history recordings – so that a researcher can search for a term such as gay rights, and be taken to all the recordings around the world where this term is used.

But while Boyd is an enthusiastic user of technology his sole interest is in how it can enhance the practice of oral history.

“Oral history is this interaction between two people, or an interviewer and a group of interviewees. It’s a dialogue. It requires thoughtful questions and background research. We have to find the balance between where technology is most useful and where it is a hindrance,” he says.

Doug Boyd is one of the keynotes speakers at this year’s Oral History Society annual conference, where he will be talking about the use of technology in oral history. He will also be leading a workshop on OHMS. For more information and to book please go to the link below.

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