How to conduct Digital Oral History with the USC Shoah Foundation Video Database


On May 28, the kick-off lecture of our new DTU Lecture Series “Digital History and Hermeneutics” was given by Jakub Mlynář of the Malach Center for Visual History in the Luxembourg Centre of Contemporary and Digital History. He spoke about the Sociological Aspects of Oral History in the Digital Age.

The entire session was divided into two parts; the first was the more theoretical lecture and the second part was a workshop with practical demonstrations of the USC Shoah Foundation Video Database. Jakub Mlynář demonstrated the historical significance of personal memories in a clearly structured argument to the audience.

Participants also learnt about the intersections between Oral History (OH) and social sciences and their common development in the 20th century. New facilities and advanced equipment allowed OH as sociocultural practice to take a digital turn in 2000. This technical milestone offered numerous possibilities to efficiently maintain and store all analog-recorded testimonies. The digital turn lead to growing numbers of online oral history databases, as a result of “process-oriented” oral history projects (i.e. life story interviews conducted without specific research questions). Large amounts of data had been deposited in archives. The material became accessible not only for secondary analysis by researchers who did not participate in the initial data collection, but also for other social actors like teachers, educators, and documentary makers.

Mlynář described new trends and pertinent issues typical of Digital Oral History (i.e. information overload, interpretative work and secondary analysis). He argued that it was important for researchers to take into account the growing number of online OH databases that might provide a great amount of highly sensitive data. Although they would certainly enrich relevant projects, at the same time they would also carry the risk of being stored inappropriately to moral standards and violating data protection regulations. Dealing with testimonies inevitably would lead to ethical and moral issues, Mlynář explained, once you wanted to publish a part of them. In case of the USC, Mlynář pointed out that it would be necessary to understand the differences between the American and European legal systems. Although USC regulations are less bureaucratic, it is questionable whether they sufficiently protect all recordings stored there.

Mlynář also talked about the search efficiency of the individual search engines for interdisciplinary inquiries and argued strongly for the significance of context for each individual interview.

He demonstrated this point by illustrating the different settings of some interviews. The interviewees often sat next to the objects that were likely to mirror their values and believes, i.e. scholars sat in front of bookcases or religious people were placed next to Jewish objects such as candle-holders. At the same time the intention of the interviewer would also be relevant in trying to create a convenient environment for their narrators, for example, keeping in mind a future audience.

Mlynář also showcased some video interviews that were conducted rather unprofessionally by interviewers asking inadequate questions and opposing the interviewees during debates.

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In the hands-on workshop Mlynář introduced the participants to the USC Shoah Foundation Video Database (USC). He explained how to set filters concerted to the research question and how to search for individual testimonies. The participants set up their own profiles on the USC repository and tried out some example recordings employing various filters and indicators in order to shortlist their search results.

Soon problems became apparent such as missing subtitles and transcriptions associated with the narrator’s speech. The discussion revealed that this is indeed a burning problem of most video history archives because the interview transcription would facilitate work of many scholars over lengthy time periods and common methodological standards would also change.

Eventually, the workshop was concluded by a fruitful debate on the topic of video history archives and their potential in particular projects.

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