"Oral Histories of the American South" began as a small collection (21 interviews) developed to experiment with the online presentation of oral history interviews. For this project, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library built an interface to simultaneously display audio and transcripts from interviews so as to make the collection more useful to historians, students, and the general public.
For the pilot phase of the project, the UNC Library endeavored to take unique and valuable oral history interviews conducted by the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) and publicly available at UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Historical Collection and publish them online. We sought to present oral histories in a way that would allow users to locate relevant interview segments as well as review entire interviews. We also wanted to connect the text transcripts to the audio files in a way that would help users easily locate audio portions that interested them. In November 2005, we made our prototype version available, and we continued to improve our Web presentation as the project matured and evolved into its present form. This initial experimental effort was made possible with funding from the University Library.
In September of 2005, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) granted the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill funding for a far more ambitious project: the digitization of 500 oral history interviews covering a variety of topics. Over the next three years (2005-2008), scholars in southern and oral history selected from the over 4,000 interviews conducted by the SOHP; topics included focus on specific localities, civil rights, southern politics, and southern women. These selected interviews have been digitized and presented online along with materials to assist use of the oral histories in the classroom.
The Southern Oral History Program, founded in 1973, has conducted over 4,000 interviews throughout North Carolina and the American South on a variety topics, including civil rights, women's issues, politics, and environmental transformations. The tapes and available transcripts of the SOHP interviews reside in the Southern Historical Collection in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where they are processed, preserved, and made available to students, teachers, scholars, and general public. For this online collection, technicians at the Southern Folklife Collection have converted the audiocassette recordings to digital formats.
"Oral Histories of the American South" is intended not only to increase access to the Southern Oral History Program's interviews, but also to accomplish a qualitative advance in making these interviews useful.
Digitization has prepared these oral history interviews for the online environment. Programming work allows users to move easily through text and audio. Abstracts and annotated excerpts give the interviews context. And keyword assignments give them additional depth of degree of definition, making interviews searchable and legible. Our interviews are also searchable by interviewee, interviewer, interview topic, or a combination thereof.
Before assigning interviews and the excerpts within them their keywords, SOHP historians had to create them. Led by then-Associate Director Dr. Joseph Mosnier, SOHP historians developed a series of categories and subcategories, known as a controlled vocabulary. We first identified six broad subject areas, or clusters, which we believed described our interview collection:
"Charlotte, NC" includes those interviews conducted in Charlotte, the focus of a series of oral history interviews about the Queen City, with an emphasis on school desegregation, resegregation, and consolidation. "Civil Rights" includes segregation-related interviews from elsewhere in the South, as well as interviews about African American freedom movements, Native American rights, community leadership, economic justice, and more. Interviews in the "Piedmont Industrialization" cluster tell the history of southern industry, from the rise of the furniture, tobacco, and textile economy to its struggles to meet the challenges of globalization, through the memories of laborers and CEOs. The "Southern Politics" cluster includes interviews with political leaders, journalists, and others reflecting on the southern political landscape after World War II, a period of vast change that saw a region struggling to adapt to an influx of new voices into the political process. "Southern Women" includes the voices of women: mill workers and physicians, mothers and wives, activists and community organizers. These five clusters joined "Environmental Transformations," the subject of the pilot project that launched OHAS, which includes interviews on farming, environmental change, and natural disasters. Many of our interviews appear in more than one cluster. We also added a "General" cluster to account for frequently addressed topics not tied to a subject area.
Today, users can browse through the OHAS interviews by cluster, but the collection offers another level of depth. In addition to assigning each interview to a cluster, SOHP historians assigned each interview a series of category-subcategory pairs, both on the interview level and the excerpt level. Each interview, then, is identified broadly by cluster, more specifically on the interview level, and then granularly, excerpt by excerpt. SOHP historians developed the category-subcategory scheme, or controlled vocabulary, guided by a deep understanding of the program collection and with input from a variety of scholarly resources, from the indices of published monographs, to other oral history collections, to Library of Congress keywords.
The result was the Category/Sub-Category Matrix.
On the excerpt level, historians assigned these category-subcategory pairs in order of priority, helping steer users toward excerpts that will meet their needs. For example, in a 1974 interview, former Arkansas governor Orval Faubus complained that busing was an illegal and wasteful practice. The SOHP assigned this excerpt two category-subcategory pairs, both under the cluster of "Race and Civil Rights": Race and Education K-12 > Busing and Race and Education K-12 > Desegregation Maintenance. "Busing" was given priority because Faubus specifically addressed it, but "Desegregation Maintenance" was included, with second priority, because busing was one way of enforcing desegregation.
Keyword assignment and prioritization required making judgments. This kind of scholarly intervention is ubiquitous. After all, primary sources do not exist in a vacuum. They are selected for library cataloging or digitization, housed in one library or another, chosen for use by one historian and not by another. Even before the processing that these interviews underwent to join OHAS, they were shaped by their subjects' memories and choices, and their interviewers' questions. We do not imagine these interviews as untouched resources. We offer them both as interviews and as works of interpretation, chosen and enriched by historians, to be used and enjoyed on a variety of levels.