Oberlin Heritage Center Blog

Posts Tagged ‘archive’

Digitizing the Oral History Archive: Winter Term 2013

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

For a few years, I have conducted a self-designed research project using oral histories and the Oberlin College Archives. Never before had I considered working on the other side of the archive, or to be the person who preserves these historical documents. After a month of serving as an oral history processing assistant at the Oberlin Heritage Center, I now better understand the process of preserving the history I’ve been studying for so long. I have always viewed historical research as one big puzzle where I find little pieces of a story that seem unrelated, but then I find links that tie them all together. I never saw archiving as a puzzle, or even like research, until I started working at the Heritage Center. One month later, I really regret my dismissive attitude toward the hard work and problem solving that preservation and archiving entail.

My Winter Term project consisted of taking the oldest tapes of Series I of the oral history archive and digitizing them so they can be preserved much longer than they can be on tapes. Over the month, I digitized all of the tapes from 1979 and 1982, as well as some of the 1983 collection and an occasional later tape. I spent each day playing the entire oral histories in a converter that created a digital file from a cassette tape. Afterward, I edited the file to take out large breaks between the sides of the tape and in the beginning of the interview. Some days, this task went smoothly. On other days, I regretted thinking it was so simple. There were a few days that I spent trying to solve a mystery, like tracking down tapes or finding out if an interview was really only 8 minutes long or why a tape stopped playing after so many minutes. I quickly realized that archival work was not just a mundane task that was necessary so that researchers could do their work. It is its own kind of research and problem solving; there are still pieces to fit together.

In addition to better understanding preservation of oral histories not recorded in digital format, I also learned more about Oberlin’s history. Although I have been researching Oberlin for a few years, my topic is very specific. With little time to finish my research project each summer before I must present it, I haven’t had the luxury of learning a lot of historical context, especially about the town. My project has always focused heavily on Oberlin College rather than the town, and only in the 1960s and 70s. I have learned some things about businesses in the town from alumni with whom I’ve spoken, but never about the 1950s or earlier. Listening to the Series I oral histories at the Heritage Center allowed me to learn more about Oberlin life, such as dating, racial tensions, and the depression, which helped me situate how and why the 1960s happened as they did—though perhaps, I’ve gotten even more confused and need to do more research!

A 1982 interviewee, Mildred Haines, said that when she left in 1920 and returned in 1975, one of the biggest changes was the appearance of the students, but that underneath, they were just as smart and dedicated as they were decades before. After only hearing the students’ side to the story, hearing a town impression of Oberlin College students was really interesting and highly relevant to my own interests even before I came to the Heritage Center. My research emphasizes that Oberlin’s history reflects and contributes to American history. After listening to oral histories of about 30 residents, I have a much more holistic—but hardly complete—view of Oberlin’s history. I used to think that an archivist’s job was to aid researchers. Now I realize that there is so much more to archives and places like the Oberlin Heritage Center and that they have a very rightful place next to researchers.

Brittany Craig, OC ’13