Project Boosts Access to Personal Stories of History

The individual stories of more than 500 Southerners, describing their personal experiences of history, will be heard around the world, thanks to a federal grant to the University.

The $505,232 award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services will allow UNC to post the recorded interviews, which are among more than 3,700 collected by UNC’s Southern Oral History Program, to the University Library’s historical Web site “Documenting the American South.”

Instead of having to travel to UNC’s Wilson Library to hear the tapes, interested parties will be able to listen online upon completion in 2008 of the three-year project, “Oral Histories of the American South.” The project was one of 10 that the institute funded last year, chosen from among 55 applications.

“We’re going to be able to convey to people the power of the voices that are in this collection, and that is something that has always been difficult for oral history collections,” said Jacquelyn Hall, Julia Cherry Spruill professor of history at UNC and director of the Southern Oral History Program, which began in 1973.

The project also will enable further development of new information technology pioneered by the University Library. The tool synchronizes the voice of each storyteller with a scrolling transcript. Posting sound on the Web is not new; pairing it with text in this manner is.

“Everyone [in the digitization field] is trying to do this,” said Natalia Smith ’95 (MSLS), principal investigator for the project, UNC digitization librarian and the chief architect of “Documenting the American South.”

“No one else has finished a project, to our knowledge.”

The grant’s third focus will be establishing new curricula for K-12 students that are based on the interviews online – the focus of project collaborator Cheryl Mason Bolick, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Education.

Having the recorded voices and transcripts online will be a boon because:

  • Instead of listening to an entire tape or reading all of a paper transcript to determine whether an interview explores certain topics, researchers will be able to search transcripts – and the entire database of stories – by keywords;
  • If listeners can’t understand a speaker’s words, they can read the transcript to find out what was said;
  • Conversely, a user who is reading a transcript will be able to mouse-click on a portion of it to hear accompanying audio, thereby gaining a better understanding by hearing the expression in the speaker’s voice;
  • Users who lack sufficient time to listen to an entire interview – they average an hour and a half in length – will be able to mouse-click on parts of the transcript to hear audio for that section; and
  • Internet keyword searches may bring the interviews to the attention of new audiences.

ibiblio at UNC, a free public library of digital material on the Internet, provides server space for “Documenting the American South” and will add the oral history project, said Paul Jones, ibiblio director and a clinical associate professor in two UNC schools: Information and Library Science, and Journalism and Mass Communication.

When the oral history project’s technical advances are complete, Jones said, other organizations will be able to use the software, modify or improve it.

Making the interviews searchable on the Internet will aid scholars in using the stories to write history texts and analyses, said Joseph Mosnier ’89 (MA), associate director of the Southern Oral History Program who also earned his doctorate from UNC in 2005.

“They will investigate oral history as a primary source in their scholarship much more routinely,” Mosnier said. “They will use simple, copy-and-paste keyboard strokes to capture text, full citations and audio segments for incorporation in their scholarly products, greatly increasing their overall research productivity. Taken together, these innovations represent a true revolution for the field of academic oral history, and historical scholarship more generally.”

Plenty of the stories are told by ordinary people, instead of the officials and leaders quoted in many history texts.

“These people’s voices give us immediacy,” said Harry Watson, UNC history professor and director of the Center for the Study of the American South, of which the oral history program is a part. “They tell us what really happened to real people, not just textbook data.”

Bolick believes the personal stories will bring history to life for K-12 students, who also may write stories or poems about them in language arts lessons.

“This is going to be a great resource for teachers,” she said. Bolick plans to align the new curricula she creates with state requirements, then post them on the classroom page of “Documenting the American South” as well as the School of Education’s LEARN-North Carolina Web site of teaching resources. She also plans to share them with teachers during her summer workshops on how to use “Documenting the American South” in their classrooms.

A pilot project of 21 interviews, funded by the library, is available online. These Southern Oral History Program interviews, including many of Hurricane Floyd victims’ stories of loss and survival, share the theme “Environmental Transformations in North Carolina, 1985-2000.” They comprise the ninth collection within “Documenting the American South.” The collection will expand gradually as the full oral history project goes online.

The project also will address race and civil rights, women, Southern politics, the Southern economy from textiles to high-tech and Charlotte as a geographic region of interest. Scholarly advisers, who are choosing which interviews will be included, are Hall, Mosnier, Watson and William Ferris, history professor and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South.

“Documenting the American South” has grown steadily since it began in 1996. Two of the collections were funded by the communications company Ameritech through the Library of Congress; two by the State Library of North Carolina; one by the National Endowment for the Humanities; one by the University Library and the Office of the Chancellor at UNC; and three, including the oral history project, by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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