Oral History and the JWA

The rise of Oral History is one of the most exciting developments in the fields of History and Cultural Heritage Studies. Oral histories bring about new voices and sources to fields and allow us to look at the past in new ways. However, creating and preserving oral histories presents us with a number of new challenges as well.

As a relatively small cultural heritage repository, the JWA has taken on a role as both a repository of oral histories but as a guide for others who wish to conduct and preserve oral histories as well.

Oral history allows a number of different people to participate in creating narratives of the past. The JWA recognizes and encourages this kind of participatory action research. They have created a guide for conducting oral history, In Our Own Voices: Conducting Life History Interviews with American Jewish Women. About the guide, they state, “Designed for use by individuals, as well as community groups, the guide invites readers to become “makers of history” by using oral history to capture and preserve the stories of their mothers and grandmothers, teachers and colleagues, community members and friends.”

An important thing to note is that In Our Own Voices is licensed under Creative Commons and available for download as a free PDF on the JWA website. By creating resources such as this guide, the JWA is not only encouraging others to conduct oral history interviews, they are directly engaging in a discourse that promotes access to and sustainability of cultural heritage.

Preserving oral history can be particularly difficult as it dictates that the recordings be maintained carefully across their (hopefully long) lifespan. The JWA has an oral history archive that they are working to make easily accessible to the public while ensuring that the materials remain preserved. According to their website:

“For over a decade, the Jewish Women’s Archive has been conducting oral histories. Parts of these interviews have been used in various exhibits on our website. Now we have embarked upon an ambitious program to preserve the interviews by digitizing and maintaining them, along with edited transcripts and other digital artifacts, in a secure repository. Over the next few years we will be increasing access to these materials and making them easier to find and search. We are also developing tools so that teachers and students can use the interviews, selected clips, images, and other primary documents to create online displays and presentations. We began podcasting from this resource in the fall of 2008, and the first full oral histories were moved to a digital repository in winter 2009. We are currently seeking funding and support to make contents in this repository publicly accessible as we continue our work to assure its long-term preservation.”

According to Ari Davidow’s report on the work he and his colleagues are doing at the JWA oral histories, preservation and sustainability of materials like oral histories can happen for small institutions when they turn to cloud computing and open source software. The JWA has turned to Drupal and Fedora in this effort. Davidow states, “In this project we approached long-term Digital Asset Management by accomplishing just enough work with Fedora so that our most urgent assets could be ingested and managed. At the same time we directed development in Drupal, an open source content management system. So that as we develop our public web ‘face’ we are also developing the common ways of working with data and displaying digital objects. Soon, Drupal, an excellent CMS which has no particular digital asset management affordances will be ready to serve as the front end to Fedora, an excellent Digital Repository Framework with enviable digital asset management hooks, but no interface of which to speak.”

Through collaboration with different communities, the JWA is working towards solutions for digital sustainability and a historical landscape with and increased plurality of voices.


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