In less than six hours, the polls in Maryland will open for the 2012 general election. Here on ‘election eve’ in the United States of America, I wanted to share some records of those who fought to gain the right to vote for all throughout the USA. Some of these you may have seen before – but I did my best to find images, audio, and video that may not have crossed your path. Why do we have these? In most cases it is because an archive kept them.
Of course I couldn’t do this post without including some of the great images out there of suffragists, but I bet you didn’t know that they had Suffrage Straw Rides.
These records just scratch the surface, but at least they give you a taste of the hard work by so many that has gone into gaining the right to vote for all in the United States. If you are a registered voter in the USA, please honor this hard work by exercising your right to vote at the polls Tuesday!
The first oral history project that combines old family pictures with the stories that go with them, Centropa has interviewed more than 1,350 elderly Jews living in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Sephardic communities of Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. With a database of 25,000 digitized images, we are bringing Jewish history to life in ways never done before.
Their fleet of 140 individuals conducted extensive oral interviews and digitized thousands of old family photos. They are quite intent on clarifying that they do not create videos during their sessions with their interviewees. Instead, they record audio of their multi-hour sessions, transcribe these sessions and combine them with the digitized family photos to create their movies.
The amount of detail provided with each posted interview is really incredible. Biographies, detailed notes on each photo, the study guide, a family tree and a currently grayed out but promising link to “Discuss Movie”. This site has clearly given great thought to how to support teachers and has followed that vision through in the form of tons of supporting materials. Centropa has chosen the path of quality over quantity with the 17 movies currently posted.
Upon further reflection, I realize now that the movies are an outgrowth of the database of photographs and biographies. The detail was not added to support the videos – but rather the videos are the next step of evolution beyond the photos and interview transcripts.
Reading Centropa’s claim that they are the first to combine the use of family photos and oral histories made me recall the University of Alaska Fairbank’s Project Jukebox. This project launched back in 1988 and aims to ” integrate oral history recordings with associated photographs, maps, and text.” The original was written using Hypercard!
They have a map showing all the communities in Alaska currently included as part of the project. A good example of an individual photo with accompanying narration is Harry Cook in his Garden from the Kiana Village History Project. No – it isn’t as elegantly assembled as the Centropa Movies, but the intention is much the same. They use old photos as a catalyst for helping individuals being interviewed and then combine the audio and images to improve end users’ understanding of the context of individual photos.
I have signed up with Centropa to be notified when they launch the promised ‘Add Your Family Photos’ feature. Until then I will keep scanning my own family’s photos, such as the one below featuring my grandfather (back row on the right), and working my way through all the Centropa Movies and their supporting materials.
Archives do their best job with records produced in the process of carrying out tasks related to business or personal life, and many of those who are living in the greatest poverty aren’t generating (or saving) their own records. Is being documented by photographers, news articles and the Census Bureau the same thing as telling your own story through an oral history or having your photographs, personal papers or other life documents archived? One of the most fascinating things about primary source materials in general, and archival records in specific, is the first hand view that it can lend the researcher. That sense of stepping into their shoes – of having a chance to retrace their steps.
There are certainly institutions whose records cast light on the lives of those in poverty such as homeless shelters, social service agencies and health clinics – but I would put forth that we are rarely capturing the first person voices of those living in poverty. I am realistic. I know that those dealing with the basic issues of food, shelter and personal safety are likely not thinking about where to record their oral history or how to get their personal papers into an archive or manuscript collection. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish there wasn’t a better way. These are people who deserve to be represented with their own voice to the people of the future.
I am enamored of the idea of recording people’s own stories as is being done in each of the following examples:
I want to end my post with an inspirational project. Photographer Camilo José Vergara has been photographing the built environment in poor, minority communities across the United States since 1977. He has re-photographed the same locations many times over the years. This permits him to create time lapse series of images that show how a space has changed over time. He has published a number of books (the most recent of which is American Ruins) as well as having created an interactive website.
The Invincible Cities website documents Harlem, NY, Camden, NJ and Richmond, CA. After selecting one of these three locations you are greeted by a map, timeline and photographs. You can walk through time at individual locations and watch storefronts change, buildings get demolished and fashions shift. The interface lets you select images by location, theme and year. My description can’t do it any justice – just go explore for yourself: Invincible Cities. The site explains that his next goal is to create a ‘Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto’ (VE for short) that covers all of the United States.
“Once photography at its best and most prestigious became art and the rewards went to photographer artists, the field became uninterested and unable to significantly contribute to the creation of a historical record, that is to the making of an inventory of our world and to illustrate how it changes,” asserts Vergara, adding that the Internet is an ideal way to bypass traditional museums. “You can realize a larger world that can support a different kind of photography.”
The Internet is especially well-suited to housing a multi-layered history of the ghettos’ evolution. Advances in technology allow the designers to arrange images in complex ways: links take the viewer to a page that gives census data; click on a color-coded street map on the left side of the screen to pinpoint exact addresses of panoramic views, artifacts, architectural details, building interiors or street-level views. “These kinds of things were unimaginable when I started the project,” he says.
Can we expect projects like this to give individuals of the future a real taste of what life was like for the poor in US cities or around the world? Should part of our efforts at diversity of representation in the historical record specifically address preservation of the records and manuscripts of those living in poverty? Lots to think about! I hope this post has introduced you to new resources and projects. Please share any I missed in the comments below.
The Manuscript Transcription Assistant is based at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and is described as “a tool to assist transcribers in creating transcriptions, and incorporate meta-data about each image and transcription that can then be used to search through an electronic library of transcriptions”. I found mention in the FAQ of the desire to create a community so that “transcribers will be able to collaborate their work by rating the quality of other user’s transcriptions. By ranking the transcriptions, specific versions of transcriptions will emerge as an authority for that manuscript. ” Unfortunately, a lot of the links on that site are broken and my attempt to register gave me an error. It is not clear to me that this project is actually still active.
Soldier Studies is a website dedicated to posting transcriptions of civil war letters and diaries. This is not a tool for transcribing, but is clearly a repository targeting specifically transcriptions (see their Mission Statement for more information).
After examining what was out there, Ben concluded that what he wanted didn’t exist – so he started to build it himself. He gave us a demo of his “very beta” software. His goal is to build a web based tool to support collaborative manuscript transcription and annotation by individuals without a strong technical background. In its current (and private beta) state the software supports transcription, an innovative approach to linking individual words or phrases to collection defined subjects and some basic community tools to let his virtual team discuss transcription issues. Ben is working hard on the software – if you are interested in his project, definitely get in touch with him.
Travis Brown showed us his creation: eComma. eComma aims to “enable groups of students, scholars, or general readers to build collaborative commentaries on a text and to search, display, and share those commentaries online”. He showed us how users could tag or add comments on individual words or phrases of a loaded text. Take a look at the eComma page for Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare. The words highlighted in blue are those which are tagged or have comments associated with them. If you highlight ‘the eye of heaven’ in line 5 you will see that it is tagged as a metaphor. Travis reported that he will have 2 other programmers working on eComma with him this summer and has his eye on improving some interface issues and adding a few more features.
While on the DoHistory site I also found the Try Your Hand At Transcribing page. This page shows the challenge of transcribing handwritten documents by giving you the chance to try it yourself and then lets you check your transcription with the click of a button.
We talked a bit about the technology behind eComma (forgive me Travis for not having enough details in my notes to explain your current architecture here) and the challenges inherent in wanting to annotate overlapping sets of words. Though he isn’t using it in the current implementation of eComma, Travis mentioned the Layered Markup Annotation Language (LMNL) which the tutorial page explains as:
…LMNL documents contain character data which is marked up using named and occasionally overlapping ranges. Ranges can have annotations, which can themselves be annotated and can have structured content. To support authoring, especially collaborative authoring, markup is namespaced and divided into layers, which might reflect different views on the text.
I can definitely see how LMNL might be an interesting framework for building transcription and annotation software.
This was a great session. The small group gave everyone a chance to contribute and take over the keyboard in order to show off their favorite sites. It was immediately after the Text Mining session, so our minds were already full of all the great things one could do with text once it is transcribed.
I am excited to watch the evolution of group transcription and annotation software. If you know of other transcription or annotation tools or projects – please post them to the comments.
As is the case with all my session summaries from THATCamp 2008, please accept my apologies in advance for any cases in which I misquote, overly simplify or miss points altogether in the post above. These sessions move fast and my main goal is to capture the core of the ideas presented and exchanged. Feel free to contact me about corrections to my summary either via comments on this post or viamy contact form.
What sorts of memoirs are they looking for? In their FAQ they say they want “pretty much anything you remember that someone else might conceivably find interesting, now or in 500 years”.
I spent some time exploring. I read a very moving memorial titled Death by Aids The Goodbye Party, 1992, by Jay Blotcher (ed note: Jay emailed me with the correct title for this memoir). I wandered through some 9/11 memories. Eventually something dawned on me. Maybe it is the fact that I am spending most of my days lately thinking deep thoughts about metadata and classification — or maybe my archives course work is to blame — whatever the reason, I realized that I wanted more information about the storytellers. Right now it appears that each memoir includes Who, What, When and Where data – to whatever degree the contributors choose to furnish such information. Categories are also available and seem to be frequently employed.
But I want to know more about the individuals who are telling the stories. I appreciate that some posts will be made more powerful through anonymity, but for those cases that an individual is willing to share additional biographic information it would be great to have an easy place for that information to be captured.
I think the most interesting aspect of the Memory Archive to the archives community is the Memory Archive Affiliate Program. The theory behind this program is to support the collection and archiving of personal histories online. It is described as being of interest to the following types of organizations:
historical societies (urban, state, or national)
institutions interested in recording their own history (a club, society, or military unit)
educational institutions teaching history (high school or college)
public history projects (oral history gathering, or document collection)
This is a powerful idea. Any time you can accumulate a critical mass of of a single type of information on the web (in this case, memoirs) you have the chance of becoming a destination. There is also the added benefit of enabling smaller organizations to launch an online memoir collection initiatives without needing to worry about the technology, costs and people-power that would usually be required.
There does needs to be an easy way for the Memory Archive Affiliates to download these born digital memoirs for offline use and preservation purposes. This could be accomplished by an ‘export’ or ‘format for printing’ button on each memoir page, or perhaps some form of bulk download for all memoirs collected for a single affiliate’s project. I will say that the default print format isn’t bad. It seems to already do some special reformatting (such as displaying URL links in their entirety). I still also would want more metadata, though perhaps the definition of attributes to be collected could be customized per project.
I am curious to see the overall quality of the memoirs a year from now. I suspect that memoirs collected is association with a topically focused program may be more compelling than the average ‘man-on-the-net’ first person narratives. That isn’t to say that there is no value in the memories of someone who feels compelled to share their story – but a collection created around a theme would have the additional power of that common thread. The affiliate program memoirs would also be more likely to come with some contextual background explaining the source and origin of the solicited accounts. I am a fan the existing thematic memory sites, such as The April 16 Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. I love that the Omeka software used to create these two example sites is open source and free. Unfortunately, I don’t think the average small historical society or public history project is likely to have the resources to build and support a site like this even with free software. I think that a program like the Memory Archive Affiliate Program (or something like it) could bridge the gap for these smaller organizations and make the creation of online memoir collection projects a reality.