This week, as my class explores how to effectively use metadata on the history web, I examined the following two websites that present oral histories documenting African American history to evaluate their use of metadata.
Behind the Veil
Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South is a website I first learned about last semester in my oral history course. The site allows you to browse all 410 interviews if you desire to do so, but also helpfully categorizes the interviews based on their metadata to make them more useful to users. Users can type in a keyword search browsing this collection or several related collections, or they can search tags categorized by state, interviewee, birth state, gender, occupation, interviewer, and series. The metadata page for each interview provides useful entries for each of these categories, as well as information about the interviewee’s occupation and the like. A brief bio of the interviewer and interviewee, or maybe a short abstract of the interview would enhance the navigability of these interviews for researchers, but the subject category provides some assistance. Although users cannot necessarily contribute to the available metadata, there is a comment section beneath the metadata of each interview where users may contribute their reactions, insights, observations, recommendations, or related research, creating the opportunity for a richer wealth and repository of information not only of the interviews, but of how people today have used, valued, or responded to these interviews. Users may also submit questions to the site’s creators and research team.
Voices from the Days of Slavery
Like the Behind the Veil project, Voices from the Days of Slavery, an oral history collection on the Library of Congress website, contains ample metadata, but is not necessarily as search and research-friendly as the material on the Behind the Veil site. Like Behind the Veil, one may browse the collection through the Audio Interviews, Song Titles, Names, Subjects, and Places categories, but the available metadata is buried beneath several links, difficult to navigate, and provides very little contextual information. The metadata contains little more than the title of the interview (listing who was interviewed) and the repository location for the physical audio tape. It appears that some valuable metadata is missing from the site. Some related pages provide contextual information about some of the interviewers and interviewees, but not all of them, leading to a skewed and incomplete knowledge of the context of the interviews and interviewer-interviewee dynamics. For instance, biographical information is available for all of the (mostly white) interviewers, but only for a handful of the interviewees. Nor is this material directly linked to the specific interview to which it pertains.
The Library of Congress site has a standardized system for its use of metadata and does not appear to allow user contributions. This may be a detriment to the project, but not necessarily so. Too much user-contributed content may further hinder smooth searchability and research on the site, rather than aiding it.
Sometimes, however, metadata can be distracting if one is trying to use the web to present an online exhibit or some other theme-centered history media. Users may get lost in too-specific information about an image or item they don’t need when they just want an overview of a historical topic. Maggie, Fazila, and my upcoming Evanston Women and the 19th exhibit endeavors to make metadata available but keep it from distracting from the theme, storyline, and contextual content of the exhibit by interpreting our collection material using an interactive chronological timeline divided by local, state, and national contexts. Visitors to the site can click on each entry to the timeline to view more information about an event, which will connect thematically to other entries on the timeline. Timeline entries will also contain images, audio, video, and other primary sources that the user can click on to obtain more information. A “Read More” button on the entry will direct users to our Evanston and the 19th Omeka site, which will provide metadata for each item in the collection for those interested in more detailed information or research material. Users can browse material in the site more effectively using the tags and record type links, as well as the keyword search, which enables users to narrow their search more specifically.