Digital Migration: pathways to tools, metadata and discovery

14 Feb

I am up late listening to the Bracero History Archive oral history interviews thinking about how this project about Mexican migrant workers uses digital methods that have shaped the practice of oral history. I am listening to the interview with Robert Borrego who was from Santa Paula, California. The interviewer asks about the history of his parents, both born in Mexico, and how they met and how they moved to California in the early 1900s. It is important to think how these stories are important with current events surrounding immigration and border control. Stories of migration will always be important to share in American history. And the fact that I can listen to Borrego’s story from my living room in Indianapolis, Indiana is a testament of how digital methods and communications have changed the practice of oral history.

The internet makes it possible for more people with access to an internet connection to listen to oral history projects from around the world. An expanded audience which removes the archivist as “gatekeeper” of oral history interviews leaves many historians to grapple with the ethical issue of uploading oral history interviews that took place before the internet.[1] In most cases, the archives have copyright over the material, but there is an ethical question that must be answered as to whether this material should be made available to a larger audience with fewer controls.[2] Archivists, historians and institutions involved in the decision to make available an oral history interview on the internet should make the attempt to notify the narrator of the interview to gain their consent.[3] Borrego’s interview took place in 2009 and a signed contract by him would need to explicitly state that the interview will be made available online.

The Densho Project began in the early days of the internet. The aim of the project is to share oral history interviews of Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II. The aim is to spread the message of democracy in a time when democracy and due process were denied to Japanese Americans. Densho Project presents the oral histories of Japanese Americans with the intent of preventing this type of discrimination from happening again to other groups of people.[4] As the project grew and lead to the creation of a website providing open access to the interviews, the project managers had to contact narrators to gain their permission to upload their interviews and explain the intended use of the website.[5]



A content management system makes it easier for oral historians to upload their work online. Oral historians need to find a means to present their work in the best way that makes sense to their project. Oral historians need to first answer the question of why put oral history interviews online? The time spent to create a website to simply store oral history interviews may be too labor intensive. In this case, the oral historian should consider storing her information on an offline server. [6] The Bracero History Archive is housed at the Roy Rosonzweig Center for History and New Media which developed Omeka software.[7] Omeka is designed as an open-source, user friendly software for library, museum and history projects to be featured online.[8] The Bracero History Archive utilizes Omeka software to educate Americans on the guest worker program between the United States and Mexico from 1942 to 1964. A similar guest worker program was explored recently between the two nations and researchers found this chapter in history of the Bracero Program relevant to present their voices and share their stories.[9]

What oral historianmetadata_is_a_love_note_to_the_future_8071729256_croppeds must keep in mind in order to keep their work relevant into the future is providing the necessary metadata. The Metadata has to provide a researcher in the future with relevant information to be able to find the information.[10] Metadata is the researcher’s key to unlocking buried treasure online. Websites can come and go in many of the digital humanities projects. Especially as faculty move around and projects are no longer cared for and taken offline. Yet, helpful finding aids of the oral histories held in archives and libraries can keep the voices of the past alive well into the future even as websites with digital exhibitions go offline and technologies go obsolete.[11] The metadata will make the voices of the past discoverable to new generations providing new meanings, interpretations and spaces for reflection.

A recent review of “I Am Not Your Negro” in the New York Times states that the documentary film presents itself as a “posthumous collaboration” between writer and social critic James Baldwin and director Raoul Peck. Peck utilizes the words of Baldwin that speak to Baldwin’s era and our present time concerning race relations in America.[12] Utilizing emerging digital tools, oral historians have the same ability and obligation to collaborate with the diverse narrators and communities that helped shape our past.


1. Larson, Mary. “Steering Clear of the Rocks: A Look at the Current State of Oral History Ethics in the Digital Age.” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (May 25, 2013): 36–49.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. “About Densho.” Densho: Japanese American Incarceration and Japanese Internment. Accessed February 13, 2017.

5. Boyd, Douglas A. Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement. Edited by M. Larson. 2014 edition. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

6. Rehberger, Dean. “Getting Oral History Online: Collections Management Applications.” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (May 25, 2013): 83–94.

7. “About.” Bracero History Archive. Accessed February 13, 2017.

8. Rehberger, Dean. “Getting Oral History Online: Collections Management Applications.” Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (May 25, 2013): 83–94.

9. “About.” Bracero History Archive. Accessed February 13, 2017.

10.“Metadata » Oral History in the Digital Age.” Accessed February 13, 2017.

11. Ibid.

12. Scott, A. O. “Review: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Will Make You Rethink Race.” The New York Times, February 2, 2017.


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