Reports from the Annual Meeting of the Oral History Association; Implementing OHMS: Multi-Institutional Perspectives

21 Nov 2014

This article details the OHMS system currently being developed out of the University of Kentucky’s Louie B Nunn Centre for Oral History, directed by Doug Boyd. Over the next few months and into the new year, the Oral History Centre is seeking to integrate OHMS into its digital workflow and create a richer online database from its own collections. Flagship projects launched through OHMS will become available later this year and more projects will join as the collections are completed.

This session was a great way to begin the conference on an exciting note. It wasn’t a revelatory experience regarding OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer), as we have been experimenting with this system at the OHC for several months now. Rather it was an opportunity to see how other institutions and organizations are working toward using OHMS to manage their own collections. Presenters included Christian Lopez, University of Georgia Libraries, Steven Kent Sielaff, Baylor University; Sarah Milligan, Kentucky Oral History Commission; and Kopana Terry, University of Kentucky Libraries – all of whom are in the midst of integrating their respective collections into OHMS in an effort to make interviews (and other related documents such as transcripts and photographs) accessible to communities and researchers. Hearing throughout the session, about the success with which the presenters are implementing OHMS, and feeling the enthusiasm with which they presented their progress, was both motivating and reassuring. 

In listening to the presentations I couldn’t help but draw connections between the experiences of those presenting and our own experience at the Oral History Centre and I left the session feeling delighted with our own accomplishments, as well as with those of the presenters. While I got the impression that the teams from Baylor and University of Georgia are going about their own transition with the support of technical and records management teams, at the OHC our team of three (Kent Davies, myself; and Chris Hopgood) have had considerable success in integrating OHMS into our interview post processing rituals. Kent and I contribute what we can, when we can, as needed, while Chris has towed the technological line in implementing the system and ensuring it works as it is intended to. While the OHC does not yet have the volume of projects that universities such as Baylor do (If I recall correctly, Steven Kent Sielaff noted that Baylor has in the neighbourhood of 3500 transcripts!) implementing OHMS has been a significant undertaking for us. Our team of three has, in between our varied other responsibilities, managed to get this digital architecture in place, and also integrate a pilot project composed of a variety of records, into the system.

While Kent and myself have been supporting players in getting OHMS off the ground at the OHC, the hours that Chris has put into implementing the system deserve to be noted. Although I have come to understand more about his efforts over the last several months, the opportunity to think about this while listening to others speak to their own successes and obstacles gave me a moment of pause to stop and appreciate this in a larger, comparative context. Chris took the initiative to inquire about and sign up to participate in the OHMS project. He has since customized the OHMS interface to fit with the look and feel of the OHC’s web presence, has taught our staff and co-Directors the ins and out of how OHMS works and how to work it, gathered, organized and entered project metadata into the system, taught the rest of us what metadata is and why it’s non-negotiable; and is now working toward integrating OHMS into an online catalogue which can be accessed through the Oral History Centre website. As some of the presenters had, Chris has also grappled with (and conquered) other obstacles such as how to export transcripts as suitable Unicode documents so that they remain consistently formatted when integrated into OHMS. I suspect there have been other technical obstacles that Chris has spared me from, in light of my inevitable failure to fully or partially understand them. All that being said, I feel like I should now stress that OHMS isn’t particularly difficult to use in terms of adding content. My bit-part in our pilot project was uploading and time-stamping transcripts, and entering session summaries. After a quick tutorial I was able to navigate the process without any difficulty whatsoever.

Although the OHC does not yet have a voluminous archive, the exercise of integrating a pilot project into OHMS has allowed us to figure out what the process entails. With the integration of a pilot project we have determined a workflow for all aspects of the process, and calculated realistic estimates as to how much time it takes for preparation and integration (it’s remarkably efficient!) so that we can move forward consistently and with confidence. Adopting OHMS early in the life of the OHC has meant that we get to proceed without a lot of the back-tracking and reformatting that has been necessary for institutions such as Baylor and University of Kentucky, who have had to prepare and reformat their existing collections for integration into OHMS. What I am particularly excited about with the Oral History Centre’s pilot project is that while OHMS is a functional interface regardless of how many or few pieces of an oral history project one might possess, we have chosen to put all of OHMS’ capabilities to the test. Our pilot project contains transcripts, multiple levels of indexing, interviewer’s notes, and links to photographs, documents, and maps. 

The process has certainly not been without challenges, but making mistakes, stumbling across bugs, and discovering what else we need the system to do for our Centre, are worthwhile obstacles on the way to ensuring that using OHMS for managing and accessing to oral history collections works to the advantage of both records managers and end users. In theorizing about, and working toward, “accessible” oral history interview collections, I don’t think the value of a consistent end user experience can be understated. From the management side, there are varying international archive standards and a myriad of different organizational possibilities that are variable without limit. Following, as those accustomed to archival research know, locating materials, deducing the logic of how they are organized, finding your way into a collection or specific interview, and locating the various components of a collection as a researcher is a time consuming reality often tacked onto the already time consuming work of researching using existing oral histories. OHMS brings collections together into an online environment, making it easier to listen to interviews, access documents, and to connect thematic threads across collections. While each speaker presented her or his progress, I sat imagining the possibility of accessing collections from multiple institutions using one functional interface. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I find the idea enormously appealing.

The motivating part of this session was hearing about how these other centres have had experiences remarkably similar to ours in implementing OHMS; they are putting OHMS to the test in their own ways, making similar discoveries, and overcoming similar difficulties. (You can follow the institutional links above to see the progress they are making.) The reassuring part—underscored by having Doug Boyd, Director, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and visionary behind OHMS moderate the session—is that the ensuing discussion after the presentations made clear that the OHMS development team is active; they continue to take on the responsibility in ensuring OHMS works for those who have adopted it by maintaining communication, making improvements, and addressing concerns. It was interesting to hear about the many common points in technological problem solving that have occurred across institutions, and promising to hear that these experiences will contribute to the enhancement and continued development of online resources that are available for those who wish to use OHMS.