A Global Voice: The Bronx African American History Project and Digital History

by Jacquelyne Thoni Howard
PhD Student, History Department, Fordham University

       In August 2013, I was assigned as the graduate assistant to The Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). The project provides a digital voice to African Americans who lived and contributed to the Bronx, and it seemed an exciting opportunity to me. After the first meeting with Dr. Mark Naison, Professor of African and African American Studies and founder of the BAAHP, I concluded this was no usual desk job. My project responsibilities include managing the digitalization of the oral history interviews and the student workers who have been hired to help.  Dr. Naison directed me to a cabinet which stored the entire project and suggested I start with an audit.  Keeping this in mind, I created a 10-month project plan, and started the audit. From there, the challenges began.

Finding Solutions to the Challenges

The Media. When conducting the first audit, I found a plethora of media in different formats. This cabinet, a time capsule of the media era, illustrated how the project adapted over time to new media. Thus, VHS, cassette tapes, mini-cassettes, CDs, DVDs and digital media via iTunes housed the approximately 300 interviews of Bronx residents. Many of the interviews existed in different, and duplicate formats. Summaries and transcripts, if they existed, had been saved in different places and formats. I could not begin the digitization until all the material—almost 900 pieces—was first placed in a logical order. I created an organizational system using Microsoft’s SkyDrive, which allowed me to inventory each item and its components (interview, transcript and summary) for future upload into the library’s Digital Commons, a digital research repository. In the past six months, our student workers replaced or created missing summaries and transcripts, and readied over 30 interviews based on establishing and creating missing components.

The Platform
. I worked with Fordham University’s Walsh Library at Rose Hill to set up a space for the collection in Digital Commons. This digital repository stores media and document sources for research purposes. The library staff helped set up the site and customized it with project bios, pictures, folders, and established naming conventions. But herein lies another challenge. Whenever I need to make a change to the project, I have to go to through the library staff. Sometimes it may take weeks to make changes because the staff has many other obligations in addition to managing Digital Commons

Management. A large, digitized project such as The Bronx African American History Project presents the challenge of needing an overseer with both project and people management skills. This project provided opportunities to hone my project management skills, and to improve my people management skills. As a project manager, I ask questions and provide answers, and track benchmarks. As a manager of people, I’m concerned with the daily interactions of the workers. I also conduct meetings, manage work times and assignments in person, via phone, email and Google+.

The Workers. I confront another problem involving the constant rotation of student workers and graduate assistants. A good project plan helps the next group pick up the pieces in an environment with an revolving workforce of people. Therefore, I create clearly defined turnover reports and attempt to organize the project for easier turnaround. However, establishing standard operating procedures and organizational systems takes time away from the actual production of digitalization.

Also, workers and assistants need to be trained on how to utilize the technology to load the media sources consistently. In other words, I need to determine beforehand within the system how and where to place digitalized information so that it is coherent. I train students to place information in specific, though sometimes illogical places (For example, we place the full name in the First Name data field box. By manipulating data fields to meet a certain criteria, our project achieves a certain look. However, this approach challenges the accuracy of the project now and in the future.) To ensure quality, after students load the interview into Digital Commons, I check it before publishing to the web.

Additionally, each of the student workers possesses different strengths and interests. I provide them with additional responsibilities to keep their motivation up, which sometimes ends up stalling the project. This experience, however, reaffirms that it is okay to take risks to empower workers, and to refocus the project when the risks do not take the intended path. Whenever I refocus, I propel the project forward by revising my project plan and in the process created a better organizational system for the next graduate assistant.

Other Challenges. Other challenges include departmental researchers, such as faculty and graduate students, who place holds on interviews they do not want published. This presents additional questions regarding how to organize this additional data set. The volume of the interviews and corresponding media makes these holds difficult to honor. This makes organizing media more challenging, considering that many media components, such as transcripts, summaries and the actual interviews, are missing. To combat this problem, the student workers load everything that is ready, regardless of its “hold” status, but we do not publish it until the hold is lifted. This approach allows for the time-consuming work to be completed upfront even though the students’ labors are not seen right away.

The last challenge deals with advertising the repository for future researchers. The answer lies with social media, Google and the BAAHP website. By posting strategic messages within these media formats, we connect followers to the repository. Additionally, googling The Bronx African American History Project, or specific interviewees’ names, also provide access. I am still considering other ways to communicate the repository beyond these outlets. Promotion suggests a common problem in digital archiving. How do institutions with digital collections indicate what they have available so that researchers have access to ongoing digital additions? Is posting a catalog on the institution’s website enough?

Linking Challenges to a Larger Discourse in Digital History

     For digital history projects, careful planning such as creating project plans, entrenching organizational systems, and authoring current and future communication strategies, are essential. However, student workers need proper management from the graduate assistants, by providing them with smaller chunks of information and directions, and taking risks in order to motivate and empower them.

Using the BAAHP as a case study, digital archiving emerges as an important field. While it is true that research methods change as researchers bring the digital age to the field of history, the actual logistics of creating access to research materials also need to adapt. Archivists and institutions must force this change through careful planning. Digital archiving means housing sources so that materials are more accessible, providing tools that makes research more efficient, less costly and time-consuming, and keeping history meaningful in a world where values are changing.

The BAAHP provides an accessible voice to a group of people who might not possess other communication outlets within a historical context. It provides valuable research information to researchers. Additionally, this project provides an example of how to manage a large-scale digitization project. Lastly, it also contributes to the on-going discourse questioning the challenges, goals, risks, rewards and ethics of digital history.

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