oral history

Integrating Digital History into the Classroom, by Matthew Ferraro

As an aspiring social studies teacher, I recognize the importance of integrating digital history into the classroom. Students have grown up in the digital age, and, as such, consume a majority of their information online. Gone are the days of searching through a library for primary and secondary sources to support a historical argument or reading a newspaper to discover that day’s events. All this information, and more, can now be found online. This vast availability of information has greatly expanded the possibilities for studying history, which presents us, as educators, with a unique opportunity to integrate digital history into our classrooms. By doing so, we will enable students to utilize digital media to advance historical analysis and understanding. To do this, however, we must first provide students with models of digital history. What follows are several examples of digital history projects that could be used in classrooms (and beyond) to equip students with the skills required to contribute to our knowledge of world contexts in a digital way.

1) History Matters

HistoryMatters is a digital history project that resulted from collaboration between George Mason University and the City University of New York. The project began in 1998 with the intent of providing teachers and students with digital resources that could improve their instruction and understanding of United States history. It was funded by the Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. There are over a thousand primary sources on a variety of topics that range from photographs to text documents to audio files, all of which can be used with students to help them construct a narrative of the past. What’s unique about this project is that it takes full advantage of the digital space by using audio files from everyday Americans to help participants co-construct the history of the United States as well as from scholars on how to teach major aspects of US history. In addition, since there are over a thousand primary sources available, there is a “full search” feature that was developed to assist in locating resources by time, topic, or keyword. With the large number of primary sources available, this digital history project would be an excellent resource for students to use for research papers. Students could use this project to develop a research question based on an area of inquiry, examine primary sources related to their topic, arrive at conclusions based on their research, and publish their findings in order to advance our understanding of history. Doing so would expose them to conducting research digitally while also developing their ability to think critically, evaluate evidence, and articulate their thoughts clearly.

2) Mapping Inequality  

Mapping Inequality is a digital history project that was created through the collaboration of three research teams from the University of Maryland, the University of Richmond, Virginia Tech, and Johns Hopkins University. This project showcases 150 maps that were drafted by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) from 1935 to 1940. These maps were color-coded to show the credit-worthiness of different neighborhoods in each town. Mortgage lenders then used these maps to determine whether someone would qualify for a loan. This project was developed to show that, when these maps are compared to the layout of neighborhoods in the United States today, it becomes apparent that many of the racial and class inequities that exist are a direct result of the HOLC’s maps. In fact, many of these maps were produced such that they were to codify racial segregation into real estate practice. This project could be used with students for multiple purposes. For example, when teaching about the New Deal, students could use the site to determine how the HOLC reflected a problematic legacy of the New Deal. Students could also be asked to cite specific examples from the map of how the HOLC’s practices led to the racial and class segregation that is seen today. For example, if they examined the areas around Hartford, Connecticut, they would observe that the HOLC deemed that West Hartford had the “best,” most credit worthy neighborhoods, whereas Hartford had the “hazardous,” least credit worthy neighborhoods. If this map is compared to today’s, it becomes evident that the HOLC’s maps led to racial and class segregation, with West Hartford and Hartford reflecting mostly unchanged neighborhoods. In addition, showcasing a digital history project of this nature in class would familiarize students with what digital history can look like. Through this project, teachers could expose students to some of the digital tools and resources—such as mapping software and online databases—that would be required to design it. This would create incentives to work collaboratively with other scholars—especially those who could provide the digital resources for projects like this.

3) The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War

The Valley of the Shadow is a digital history project constructed by the Virginia Center for DigitalHistory at the University of Virginia. This project narrates the countless stories of two different communities from the American Civil War—one from the North and one from the South—through letters, newspapers, diaries, speeches, and other primary sources. The project is organized through a series of image maps that direct the viewer to various search engines. This project functions similarly to the HistoryMatters project—they are both databases of primary sources that employ search engines to enable the viewer to locate information—but there is a key difference between the two worth mentioning: while HistoryMatters contains a large amount of primary source information on a wide variety of topics across United States history, this project only provides information that is relevant to a specific time and topic. The narrow focus is relevant to the work historians do on a daily basis, as most of a history scholar’s research explores questions in a specific niche of the past. As such, teachers could use this project to show students how they might approach a digital history research project. This would help transition students away from the traditional way of communicating their thoughts on history through a research paper and, instead, provide them with the opportunity to disseminate their ideas digitally. For example, rather than writing a paper about the significant World War II battles, students could create an online timeline that lays out those events chronologically while also providing descriptions of the significance of each battle. Exposing students to and allowing them to engage in this sort of work would enable them to practice the craft of a historian in a very familiar context and equip them with the skills to pose their own questions about a certain niche of the world.

Matthew Ferraro is a masters’ student in the Neag School of Education’s Integrated Bachelors’ / Masters’ (I/BM) Program. He is currently interning at Conard High School, where his research interests include how to best integrate human rights education into social studies classrooms. He is studying to become a social studies teacher at the high school level. He can be reached at matthew.ferraro@uconn.edu.

Oral Histories and the Tech Needed to Produce Them, Part 2: Microphones, Accessories, and Editing Software, by Nick Hurley

Welcome back! To pick up where my last post left off, I’d like to discuss some of the accessories and optional equipment you can use to augment your basic interview “kit,” as well as several editing programs that can be used for post-production work on your footage.

The Microphone

An external microphone might be a good investment if you’re interviewing multiple people at once and want to ensure you are recording clear, distinct audio for each person. Almost all of the microphones you’ll come across will fall into one of two categories: dynamic and condenser. The difference has to do with how each converts sound vibrations into electrical signals. In addition, condenser microphones require a power source, provided by batteries or whatever device they’re plugged into (this is known as phantom power).Within these two broad categories, there are a number of different patterns in which microphones record sound.

True to their name, omnidirectional mics pick up sound in every direction equally. This pattern is utilized by many lavalier (aka lapel) microphones, the “clip-on” types you’ve probably seen on TV and elsewhere. If you’re going to go with a lavalier, make sure whoever you’re working with is comfortable wearing one. It seems like a trivial concern, but it could be significant depending on the circumstances of your interview. One of my participants had never been interviewed before, and was visibly nervous before we started. In cases like that, the less invasive you are, the better.
In addition, an omnidirectional lavalier isn’t ideal for multiple-person interviews; in these circumstances, a cardioid microphone is a better choice. Named for its heart-shaped sound pattern, cardioids will capture audio well from the front and sides, and, though they’re usually a bit more expensive, cancel out ambient noise better than an omnidirectional mic. There are also shotgun microphones, named for the linear pattern by which it picks up sound. Like a shotgun, it must be pointed directly at its “target” in order to properly record it. This results in a “tighter” sound when compared to a cardioid mic, but again isn’t ideal for multiple-person interviews, where you will have more than one source of audio.

Accessories

There are plenty of options out there for camcorder tripods, ranging from the too-cheap to the ridiculously expensive. Unless you’re going to be conducting the interview outdoors or will be moving around with your subject while he/she talks, you don’t need anything heavy duty. Just make sure you get one that breaks down easily and is relatively compact.

Bags and cases are another instance where you don’t need to go too crazy. Overseas I was able to fit everything I needed (minus the camera tripod) in a padded laptop case. If you’re going to invest in cases, buy them for the camcorder and audio recorder, although in many instances one might be included when you buy these items.

In a perfect world, you’ll be able to have your camcorder plugged into a wall outlet for an indefinite power supply while conducting an interview. Since that won’t always be feasible, you should look into a spare battery. A tip: if you use a Canon device, purchase a decoded battery for your backup. These batteries are manufactured by a third party and don’t have the Canon microchip to track things like number of shots, battery charge, etc. but otherwise behave exactly the same as their name-brand counterparts—and cost significantly less. Make sure you read the reviews however, as not all decoded batteries are created equal and some manufacturers are more reliable than others.

Editing Software

I’ve used Adobe Premiere Pro CC for most of my post-interview editing. While truthfully a bit more than

what I needed, it offers a lot in terms of manipulating audio tracks and syncing them up with video footage. Burning DVDs is easier as well (the software you need will be included in your Premiere subscription). Another upside to Adobe is the flexibility of their subscription plans. Individuals have the option of choosing which apps from the “Creative Cloud” they’d like to utilize or subscribing to the entire package, and can sign on for an entire year.

If you’re just looking to apply some simple edits like a title slide, transitions, and captions, you may be able to get away with using free video editing software like Windows Movie Maker. Here’s a short clip I put together to illustrate what can be done with that program:

If you simply need to import your audio files into a program where you can listen to them, transcribe, and do some basic editing, I would recommend Audacity. It’s free, relatively easy to use, and available on a number of operating systems.

Future Plans

Tech challenges notwithstanding, I found my entire project to be an incredibly worthwhile endeavor. Because the Second World War had until recently been somewhat of a taboo subject in post-war Germany, most of my participants had never discussed the topic at length with anyone. The fact that I was the first to hear, record, and preserve these stories made every ounce of effort worth it. I’m still not quite sure what I’ll do with the 5+ hours of footage I collected, but I could see using it as material for a series of small “episodes” featured on a personal website, a longer documentary, or a written collection of oral histories or narrative work.

I wish others similar success in their oral history endeavors, and I hope that these two posts will help simplify the process when purchasing the necessary equipment. Please feel free to contact me with more questions, or if you’d like to know more about anything I discussed here. Thanks again for reading!

Nick Hurley is a Research Services Assistant at UConn Archives & Special Collections, part-time Curator of the New England Air Museum, and an artillery officer in the Army National Guard. He received his B.A. and M.A. in History from the University of Connecticut, where his work focused on issues of state and society in twentieth century Europe. You can contact Nick at nicholas.hurley@uconn.edu and follow him on Twitter @hurley_nick.

Oral Histories and the Tech Needed to Produce Them, Part 1: Cameras, Audio Recorders, and Media Storage, by Nick Hurley

Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.19.45 PMLast summer I had the pleasure of spending several weeks in southwestern Germany, visiting family and conducting interviews with five local residents who lived through the Second World War. In doing so, I fulfilled a goal I’d had in mind ever since the death of my great-grandmother in 2013. She had been one of a host of relatives and family friends that regaled me with stories from “back then” every time I’d come to visit, and her passing made me realize that I had to do more than just listen if I wanted to preserve these memories for future generations. This time around, I would sit down with each of the participants—the youngest of whom was in their late 70s—record our conversations, and eventually send each of them a copy of their edited interview on DVD. While I had a clear idea of why I was undertaking the project, and had done a lot of reading on oral history practices (including this fantastic online resource), I was less confident in just how I would go about carrying out the actual interviews. I was inexperienced with audiovisual equipment or video editing, and the seemingly endless number of tech-related questions I faced concerning things like cameras, microphones, and recording formats left my head spinning.

It took a significant amount of research and self-instruction before I was comfortable enough to purchase the necessary gear I needed. These two posts are my attempt to share what I learned and hopefully save other oral history novices some of the headaches I endured putting together an interview “kit” which, at a minimum, will consist of a camcorder (possibly), your audio recorder, and a way to store your footage.

The Camera

You’ll need to decide early on whether or not to record video as well as audio for your oral histories. While choosing the latter option will greatly reduce the amount of equipment you’ll need to buy, it really depends on the nature of your project. If you do decide to film, steer clear of mini-DV and DVD camcorders, as these record on formats that are quickly becoming obsolete. Your best bet is to go with a flash memory camcorder, which utilize removable memory cards that can be inserted into your laptop for easy file transfer.

High definition (HD) camcorders are fast becoming the norm over their standard definition (SD) counterparts, and they’ve become affordable enough to make them a viable option for amateur filmmakers. In terms of capture quality, AVCHD usually means a higher quality image but a bigger file, while MP4 files are compressed to reduce size and are a bit more versatile in terms of how they can be manipulated and uploaded. Either way, you can’t go wrong, and will get a great looking picture. I’ve shot exclusively in AVCHD so far with my Canon camcorder and have had no issues.

The Audio Recorder

If you’re going to splurge on anything, it should be this. You may or may not elect to include video in your project, but you will always have audio, and the quality should be as clear as possible—especially if you plan on doing any kind of editing or transcribing. There are a few things to consider when choosing a recorder:

  1. Whichever model you go with should have at least one 3.5mm (1/8”)Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.10.03 PM stereo line input, to give you the option of connecting an external microphone, and one 3.5mm (1/8”) output, so you can plug in a pair of headphones to monitor your audio.
  2. If you know you’re going to use an external microphone, having one or more XLR inputs is a plus. XLR refers to the type of connector used on some microphones; they are more robust than a 3.5mm jack and harder to accidentally unplug, making them an industry standard.
  3. Some recorders are meant for high-end professional use and have a plethora of features and buttons you’ll simply never use. Look for one with an easy to use interface.
  4. WAV and MP3 will be the most common options you’ll see format-wise, and many devices can record in either. WAV files are uncompressed, meaning they contain the entire recorded signal and are therefore much larger than MP3 recordings, which are easier to move and download but sometimes experience a slight loss in audio quality.

Media Storage

The three main types of memory cards that you’ll encounter are SD (Secure Digital, up to 2GB), SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity, 4-32GB), and SDXC (Secure Digital eXtended Capacity 64GB-2TB). Almost all cameras, computers, and other tech manufactured after 2010 should be compatible with all three types, and the cards themselves are fairly inexpensive. Useful as they are, memory cards shouldn’t be considered a means of long-term storage for your files. For one thing, you’ll run out of room fast; while things like compression and format will determine the exact amounts, for planning purposes you can expect to fit only about 5 hours of HD video on a 64GB SDXC card and 12-49 hours of WAV audio on a 16GB SDHC card. Even if you’ll only be doing one or two short interviews, you should still plan on migrating your files to a more secure storage media as soon as possible after you’re done recording. Cards can be broken or lost, and digital files, like their analog counterparts, will “decay” over time if simply left sitting.

Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.12.54 PMMy raw footage is stored on two external hard drives. Any editing work is done using one of them, while the other is stored in a separate location as a backup. Edited interviews are likewise copied to both hard drives once they’re completed. (This practice of having multiple copies of the same material stored in separate locations is known as replication, and is an important aspect to any digital preservation plan; for more info, check out this great page from the Library of Congress.)

Again, these three pieces are the minimum you’ll need to properly record and store audio and (if you desire) video footage. Depending on the circumstances and scope of your project, however, you may want to utilize some optional gear and accessories, which I’ll bring up in Part 2. Until then, feel free to contact me with any questions, and thanks for reading!

Nick Hurley is a Research Services Assistant at UConn Archives & Special Collections, part-time Curator of the New England Air Museum, and an artillery officer in the Army National Guard. He received his B.A. and M.A. in History from the University of Connecticut, where his work focused on issues of state and society in 20th-century Europe. You can contact Nick at nicholas.hurley@uconn.edu and follow him on Twitter @hurley_nick.