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The wondrous world of the UW Digital Collections

By Caitlin Tyler-Richards

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation on archiving commemorative African fabrics, through the course of which I learned about the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Collections Center. As a historian-in-training and digital archive enthusiast, I became immediately intrigued by all the resources and projects described by Melissa McLimans, a digital librarian who works with the Center and helped digitally archive the fabric. After the talk, I decided to reach out to Melissa via e-mail to learn more about the UW Digital Collections Center. I also spoke with the Center’s resident audio expert, Steven Dast. I do work for the Oral History Review, after all.

First thing first, how did the UW Digital Collections begin?

Steven: I started working at Memorial Library some 24 years ago as a student camera operator in the microfilm lab. After graduation, I continued working there in a combination of Library Services Assistant and Microfilm Technician positions. When the Library acquired its first digital camera in 1995, it was housed in the microfilm lab and we used it for a variety of early experimental digital projects. Then, in the run up to the ‘98 Wisconsin sesquicentennial celebration, the library was awarded a grant to create a significant online collection of readings and images from Wisconsin history, using material from the Library, the UW Archives and Wisconsin Historical Society. I was hired to manage that project, other projects followed, and the Digital Collections Center kind of grew up around me.

And what does Digital Collections look like now?

Melissa: Since its official founding in early 2000, the UW Digital Collections Center has continued to work collaboratively with UW System faculty, staff, and librarians to create and provide access to digital resources that support the teaching and research needs of the UW community, uniquely document the university and State of Wisconsin, and provide access to rare or fragile items of broad research value. The Center has also partnered with cultural heritage institutions and public libraries throughout Wisconsin to create digital resources.

Resources within the collections are free and publicly accessible online. They are loosely organized into collections that span a range of subjects including art, ecology, literature, history, music, natural resources, science, social sciences, the State of Wisconsin, and the University of Wisconsin. Digital resources include text-based materials such as books, journal series, and manuscript collections, photographic images, slides, maps, prints, posters, audio, and video.

dictaphoneIn working with all the sources you describe, our managing editor and the UW’s Oral Historian Troy Reeves told me you handle a number of oral histories. Could you talk a bit about that? Are there any collections our readers might enjoy?

Melissa: The UW Digital Collections has several collections that are exclusively or include significant numbers of oral histories. We do work with Troy and the UW Archives team to make available online interviews with campus administrators, staff, and students as well as faculty in the UW-Madison Campus Voices collection. The interviews have been submitted thematically to highlight important eras, events and people on the UW-Madison campus. Another particularly compelling oral history collection can be found in the World War II Veterans of Mount Horeb collection. Public librarian (and past UWDCC staff member) Jessica Williams sought out the World War II veterans in her community and interviewed them about their time spent in and out of service.

Steven: Actually, my first direct work with audio came when we worked with the Area Research Center (ARC) in Green Bay in about 2001 to digitize a series of interviews that had been done in the mid-1970’s to document the history of Belgian immigrants to that area. And the following year we embarked on a major project to digitize Professor Harold Scheub’s field recordings of South African storytellers, about 1700 hours of audio recorded from 1967 to 1976. The Scheub project is large enough that, while we’ve digitized all of the recordings, we’ve only added about a third of it to the online collection.

So, the Center is clearly comfortable handling oral histories. Are there any difficulties unique to audio sources that you face when working with these and other audio-heavy collections?

Melissa: Well, the two examples I referred to earlier have different levels of description, which is one of the great difficulties for digital libraries and I would imagine oral historians. In some cases there are full transcripts, and in others, only time codes. Either of these scenarios can be dealt with, but it is extremely helpful when the descriptions or metadata have been applied consistently to the oral history recordings. Consistency means we can automate some of the work, making it quicker, easier and ultimately more cost effective to add to the digital collections.

Steven: The biggest difficulty I face with audio, and oral histories in particular, has to do with providing useful interfaces. It’s rarely a matter of simply providing an audio file to download or play online. Oral histories come with topical indexes or full transcripts or both, and ideally you want to be able to display those alongside the audio and have there be a fluid mechanism for moving between them. We don’t generally have the technology resources to custom build a system just for delivering oral histories, so we have to try and fit the content into systems that were designed for things more like image collections and scanned books.

Steven, as audio expert, do you have any advice for those working with audio files?

Steven: Academics who have audio in analog formats should be thinking seriously about getting it converted to digital. When converting, it’s best to stick with uncompressed formats, so .wav rather than .mp3. Compression introduces a small amount of distortion which, although it may not be audible, may become a problem for future uses. Fortunately, storage space is much more available and inexpensive than just a few years ago, so storing uncompressed audio is not a great burden.

Beyond that, good archiving practices for audio are largely the same as good archiving practices for any other digital file. Keep good backups. Record good metadata and save it with your files. Keep your final versions in a separate directory or otherwise isolated from intermediate versions, excerpts, and other temporary files. If you do store or access your files through some kind of indexing or content management software, make sure there’s a way to extract the files and the metadata. Ideally, these will be stored as plain files on your hard drive somewhere, so you can always get to them even if the management software fails.


So, there you have it, folks. While I know most of you are busy running around the 2013 OHA Annual Meeting, consider taking a break to check out the UW Digital Collections Center. Not only does it house a number of fantastic sources (many more in addition to the ones Melissa and Steve mentioned) it’s also an excellent example of a large, well-organized multimedia digital archive. See, it can be done!

Caitlin Tyler-Richards is the editorial/ media assistant at the Oral History Review. When not sharing profound witticisms at @OralHistReview, Caitlin pursues a PhD in African History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research revolves around the intersection of West African history, literature and identity construction, as well as a fledgling interest in digital humanities. Before coming to Madison, Caitlin worked for the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.

The Oral History Review, published by the Oral History Association, is the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history. Its primary mission is to explore the nature and significance of oral history and advance understanding of the field among scholars, educators, practitioners, and the general public. Follow them on Twitter at @oralhistreview, like them on Facebook, add them to your circles on Google Plus, follow them on Tumblr, listen to them on Soundcloud, or follow the latest OUPblog posts via email or RSS to preview, learn, connect, discover, and study oral history.

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Image credit: dictaphone isolated on white background, selective focus on nearest part. © Kuzma via iStockphoto.

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  1. […] received another plug from the Oxford University Press blog on Friday. Blogger Caitlin Tyler-Richards of the Oral History Review interviewed Melissa McLimans […]

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