Oral History Interactives: Going beyond the interview to create multimedia experiences

Ty Pierce, Ohio History Connection, USA, Phil Sager, Ohio History Connection, USA


The power of oral history lies in its ability to turn an event or topic into a personal experience between two people: the interviewee and the user. Digital oral history collections, however, are usually presented as a long-form video and a separate transcript or index document. This disconnect between the transcript document and the audio/video recording makes for a disjointed and time-consuming user experience, undermining the potential of oral history to connect users with historical narratives. This paper accompanies a how-to session that gives an overview of the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer and the work the Ohio History Connection’s Multimedia Services team has done to create a new distribution platform for "Oral History Interactives." It discusses the challenges of producing high-quality oral histories and the additional challenges of producing them as interactives, and gives workflows developed to meet these challenges. This include such topics as on-location scanning, portable studio setups for artifact photography, and efficient ways to collect narrative descriptions to use as metadata.

Keywords: Oral history, Interactive, Oral history interactive, Personal narrative, storytelling, open source

1. Introduction

In 2013, the Ohio History Connection hosted “The Wall that Heals,” a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. As part of this weeklong event, two oral history stations were set up to give veterans the opportunity to talk about their service. A block of half-hour sessions was put on the schedule with an open call to anyone who would like to discuss his or her service. Many who chose to participate related that this was the first time they had really spoken about their time during Vietnam and that they found the experience cathartic. Likewise, the experience made very clear that the “solitary” nature of service during Vietnam and the political climate our soldiers returned home to have kept a trove of valuable information buried.

This experience prompted us to invite several of them back for proper oral history interviews, which ranged from two to three hours in length and were conducted as open-ended life histories to include their childhood, service, and life after Vietnam. The resulting set of six interviews was nothing short of incredible. Listening to these veterans recount their time during the Vietnam War and seeing the photographs, awards, and letters they kept for so many years—despite the terrible memories often associated with them—was a privilege.

In reflecting on the project and determining next steps, four things became apparent:

  1. Our organization needed to renew its commitment to oral history.
  2. To do so, we needed to obtain or develop a digital distribution platform that could provide access and a user-friendly experience.
  3. Our practice of oral history had to go beyond the interview itself and rejoin the personal artifacts, photographs, and documents as an integral part of each person’s narrative.
  4. Oral histories would benefit from a more “holistic” approach to presentation, where they are included as part of a larger library that allows researchers to move laterally through additional resources of relevance.

2. A new digital platform

The problem of obtaining a digital platform was quickly solved by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky. Doug Boyd, Ph.D., director of the Nunn Center, and his team developed the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) to solve many problems in producing, distributing, and accessing oral histories. With the raw materials of a video, transcript, and/or index in hand, oral historians can quickly marry the elements together into a user-friendly presentation. Since OHMS is an open-source platform and can use YouTube as a streaming server, the costs of adoption are negligible, which helps ensure that resources don’t disappear when initial funding runs thin.

One feature that warranted further exploration was hyperlinking. The OHMS provides for one external hyperlink per index segment, allowing historians to reference supplementary materials in the presentation of an oral history. To truly succeed at Goal No. 3, however, we needed to extend the use of hyperlinks into the transcript itself. This would not only remove limitations on how many supplemental resources could be included, but also mimic the de facto Internet experience by including hyperlinks directly in the text, surrounded by the context and recollections germane to that particular resource.

Phil Sager, our Special Projects developer, rose to the challenge and adapted the OHMS viewer’s code to extend this functionality into the transcript (figure 1). While some work remained to improve the administrative side of producing the transcript with the integrated links, we now had a way to remove the segmentation of resources and present video, text, and visual elements as a more comprehensive resource that we have termed an “Oral History Interactive.”

Displaying the addition of hyperlinks to the transcript module of OHMS (Prototype feature by the Ohio History Connection)

Figure 1: prototyping the addition of hyperlinks to the transcript module of OHMS

Additionally, the decision was made to integrate our Oral History Interactives with the Ohio Memory digital library. Each supplemental material is uploaded as a stand-alone record in Ohio Memory with pertinent metadata, keywords, etc. This integration means that someone researching a particular oral history record can follow links from a single interview into related records from Ohio Memory, which at the time of this writing includes more than five-hundred-thousand images. Likewise, users searching “Vietnam War” may be completely unaware of the oral history collection but can find their way into these oral histories from search results and related links, which expands the accessibility of oral history resources exponentially.

3. Producing Oral History Interactives

Producing oral history is a lot like playing guitar: it’s easy to do poorly, but takes a lot of time to do well. By its nature, collecting and publishing oral histories is extremely resource intensive, and producing an Oral History Interactive is even more so. The following are some of aspects of production we took into consideration and our decisions on how to proceed.

Screening interviews

Given the resources necessary to produce an Oral History Interactive, being selective about what interviews you agree to becomes a necessity. While we would love to throw the doors open and say “Yes!” to every interview request we receive, it is unfortunately not feasible at this time. We have chosen to reach out and find specific interviewees on a project-by-project basis and then work unsolicited interview requests into the production pipeline as schedules allow.

Audio versus video

Personally and professionally, I am a huge proponent of the idea that audio-only oral history should go the way of reel-to-reel recorders. As humans, we want to see other people and know who’s talking; otherwise we would have been content with radio and never invented television. Anyone who can be trained to do audio oral history well can be trained to work with video equipment. The price gap between the two has closed significantly, and ultimately if the audio quality is the same, even poorly produced video can provide an additional, interpersonal connection between the interviewee and the end user that is so critical to this work.

It takes two

Since my previous paragraph so successfully convinced you that oral history projects should be on video, I’ll now say that you should have two people on set for each interview: an interviewer and a producer. I’ve spent my entire production career developing lean workflows to produce high-quality content as a one-man band, and I can say without equivocation that proper oral history deserves two people. Partially, this is a production consideration—the producer can focus on the technical side of things, take notes that streamline the editing process, and form the basis of a draft index for the interview—but it’s mostly for the interviewees’ benefit. They are trusting you with their memories and legacy, and that trust deserves your utmost attention. As an oral historian, your job is to turn the interview into a conversation. Any time you spend glancing at the camera’s viewfinder, fidgeting with settings, or jotting down time code can create a disconnect, or it may risk diverting your attention from a gesture or expression that warrants further prompt and exploration. If the interviewee is comfortable and at ease, the resulting recollections will be all the better for it, so position your interview for success and separate the historian from the producer.

Open-ended life history

Be flexible with your questions. The questions you create prior to the interview should serve as a starting point, rather than a rigid structure, for a discussion. Great interviews are great conversations: they meander, ebb and flow, bring up new questions, and take detours and side roads. Encourage these tangents in your interviews. Allow the interviewee to determine the course of conversation, and always listen for new depths to plumb. Often, the best moments aren’t the ones you researched and planned for.

Portable scanning and photography

In addition to taping the interview, we’ve now added an additional layer of work in producing high-quality digital versions of the supplemental materials to create the Oral History Interactive. For interviews we perform in our production studio, we also schedule a session with our Digital Services department to digitize materials from each interviewee. These scanning sessions are also recorded for sound, as the descriptions of each item are used to create the metadata entry in Ohio Memory for each resource. For off-site interviews, we are in the process of creating a portable scanning station that travels with the team for each interview and can digitize materials before or after the interview. This also means that we need to plan for…

Additional time

Additional time for scanning and metadata is an obvious addition to the required resources. Of particular concern is how the additional time impacts the interviewee. People of any age can feel mentally and emotionally drained after a multi-hour interview session, and in the case of interviewees of advanced age, there can be physical limitations to how much time they can devote at once. This may require planning a break in between the interview and scanning sessions, or even splitting the sessions across two days and doing the scanning work at a later date.

Index and transcript

Indexes are great. They’re much faster to generate, which helps get your interviews online more quickly. They allow the producing historian to weave in additional context and information for greater accessibility. Dr. Boyd often uses the example that an interviewee may talk about separate lunch counters and color barriers for three hours but never actually say the term “segregation.” They are also significantly less costly than transcription, which can cost several hundred dollars per interview. That said, for an interview with extensive supplemental materials, the ability to link multiple resources via the transcript is an enormous benefit and better fulfills our goal of presenting a more cohesive resource. Our recommendation is an iterative approach to publishing: generate a transcript from the production notes and sync it using OHMS, then turn attention to creating a full transcript and fleshing out the Oral History Interactive more fully.

4. Recommended workflow

With these considerations, the production of Oral History Interactives can quickly balloon into an enormous resource sink. To keep this in check, we’ve developed the following workflow to streamline the process as much as possible.

During the interview

  • Producer notes the time code for each question, any stops or production-related pauses that will need to be edited out, and any mentions that may link to specific supplemental materials.
  • Historian takes notes with a focus on additional questions that arise during the course of the interview and impressions about the interviewee’s personality and story.
  • Producer takes a still photo of the interviewee to represent the Oral History Interactive in Ohio Memory (can use a still frame exported from the video, but a bona fide portrait is often a better representation).

During the scanning session

  • Producer ensures that audio recording is of good quality and takes time-code notes on which image, document, etc. is being discussed.
  • Historian takes notes on the interviewee’s descriptions and additional recollections, probing where necessary and noting the order of each item discussed.
  • Producer scans two-dimensional materials and takes photographs of three-dimensional materials.


  • Producer edits any stops or issues out of the footage and exports an MP3 of the audio for transcription.
  • Producer also outputs an MP3 of the scanning session audio for reference.
  • Historian combines his or her own notes, Producer’s notes, and additional material from the scanning session to create index segments, a brief bio/abstract of the interviewee, and descriptions for each supplemental material.
  • Producer then performs any chroma key, graphics, color correction, or audio work necessary to finish the interview, exports a master at 1080-pixel resolution, and uploads to YouTube.
  • Historian begins the transcription process or, as funding allows, sends the reference audio to a contracted entity for transcription.
  • Producer cleans up the supplemental materials and outputs high-resolution stills.
  • Historian pairs the digital image of each supplemental material with its description and uploads into Ohio Memory.
  • Historian performs a quality-assurance check on the transcript, then adds links to the supplemental materials where applicable.
  • Historian loads the transcript, index, and video into OHMS for synchronization and distribution.

5. Looking ahead

Although our team is still working to refine and maximize these workflows for our own productions, we are also looking toward future developments to improve the experience even further. Currently, we are working on different methods to create a “resource window” inside the OHMS Viewer that will display supplemental materials in a seamless, single-window experience (figure 2). Additionally, Mr. Sager has made strides with TimelineJS, which creates timelines from CONTENTdm collections like Ohio Memory. Our hope is to combine this functionality with the interactive index component of OHMS to develop timeline-based navigation for oral history records. This visual chronology will not only provide a new way for researches to access and interact with oral history interviews, but also enable us to “untangle” the non-linear chronology that can result from interviews in which the conversation returns to previous events or themes for additional recollections. Overall, we are excited about the potential for Oral History Interactives to change the way people view, access, and consume oral history narratives and look forward to improving the platform in the coming years.

Fig. 2 – Design mock-up of a potential single-window design for OHMS with an integrated resource window to display supplemental materials.

Figure 2: design mock-up of a potential single-window design for OHMS with an integrated resource window to display supplemental materials

Cite as:
. "Oral History Interactives: Going beyond the interview to create multimedia experiences." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published February 1, 2015. Consulted .