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Digital Humanities and Digital Archives:

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project as a Model

Christa Whitney

“This would have been a completely different conversation ten years ago,” I remember our consultant Dr. Jayne Guberman saying when we first began talking about starting a digital oral history project at the Yiddish Book Center.

New to the field of oral history at the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. Now, five years into a “born-digital” video oral history project (that is, one that’s been entirely digital from its inception), I feel the difference most starkly when I attend academic conferences and hear discussions about the challenges of digitizing analog and paper archives. The fact that the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has been in digital format from the start places us in a new generation of collections – not without tsores (problems), but different tsores than collections that are focused primarily on the preservation and digitization of paper archives rather than on ways to make those assets accessible. A born-digital project is, in a sense, a step ahead; we are able to focus our attention on the issues of digital preservation and longevity—issues with which all archives, once digitized, will have to grapple.

We record our video interviews — which explore topics of Yiddish and modern Jewish identity — in our studio in Amherst as well on fieldwork trips around the United States and abroad. We make sure the original recordings are of the highest quality possible, as the quality of future derivations of the interview depend on that original.

The bulk of our work takes place after the interview. Each interview is logged in our editing software, creating a list of time-coded markers that indicate each question and topic in the interview. The full interview is then branded with our watermark and title cards, lightly edited to remove any technical errors (or segments the narrator has requested we strike), and posted to our online archive. The Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library that is also home to the Center’s digitized Yiddish book collection, serves as our free hosting site. This has both financial and technical advantages: the Internet Archive stores our access copy (and automatically generates derivations in various formats) free of charge and allows us to embed its player on our website.

From each interview, we also identify several highlight excerpts from which we create separate video clips. These excerpts allow us to feature the best parts of each interview to be shared on social media and in exhibitions, newsletters, and the Yiddish Book Center’s magazine, Pakn Treger. We use YouTube as our free hosting site for these excerpts, which doubles as a social media platform.

Because we have only one or two full-time staff members at any time, we rely on interns, temporary staff, and volunteers to help with our work. Our internship program has two tracks: cultural and technical. Interns in the cultural track have a background or strong interest in Jewish studies and work on indexing and identifying excerpts, which requires cultural knowledge. The interviews are then handed off to our technical interns —who have backgrounds or interest in film editing — to edit and then upload the material. This division allows interns to focus on the aspect of the work best suited to their interests. A very detailed documentation of our workflow and the stability of core staff members training new interns allow us to maintain consistency despite turnover.

We recognize that even advanced undergraduate students have limited knowledge and a particular generational perspective. So in addition to our internship, we have adult volunteers (typically recent retirees) who work on longer-range processing of the interviews. These volunteer shraybers (writers) watch interviews that have already been posted online, then write narrative abstracts and identify additional keywords and excerpts. These volunteers also supplement the limited access we have to interns who are fluent in Yiddish. By tapping into multiple generations, we hope to ultimately provide descriptive metadata and content in a way that will be of interest to the broadest audience.

Our reliance on volunteers and interns creates its own challenges, from staff turnover to a relatively high rate of attrition among volunteers. Despite this, it is through the division of labor that we are able to completely process most interviews within just eighteen months of their recording.

Over the past five years, we’ve conducted more than 500 oral history interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds – from cultural leaders, scholars and artists to yidn fun a gants yor (everyday Jews) – in many locations around the U.S. and beyond. As of this writing, we’ve posted online 345 of these those interviews, along with 2,019 excerpts. I invite you to take a look at our collection at:

Christa Whitney is director of Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project.