Bringing Oral Histories to Life at the National WWII Museum

By Lindsey Barnes
Senior Archivist/Digital Projects Manager, National WWII Museum

Many interpretative institutions today increasingly make use of narratives, storytelling, and the personal experiences of historical and everyday figures to educate their visitors. At the National WWII Museum, we use first-hand accounts to further our mission to tell the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world—why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today—so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn. Since it was founded, the National WWII Museum has been dedicated to collecting and sharing the stories of the citizen soldiers and home front workers who served and sacrificed for our country during WWII. IMLS helped the museum toward this goal by supporting innovative and unique ideas for access, description, and navigation of our video oral histories.

WWII Survivor being interviewed.

IMLS awarded the museum a National Leadership Grant to support the project, “Bringing Oral Histories to Life: Unlocking the Power of the Spoken Word.” Partnering with the Randforce Associates and National History Day, the project’s goal was to provide deep and meaningful access to our oral history collection online for researchers and students of all ages, beginning with 150 of the museum’s video oral histories.

A key component of access was achieved by creating a vocabulary focused on describing these stories and experiences. The vocabulary needed to be more attuned to the particularities of narrative rather than static subjects. This meant including action words, such as experiencing, interacting, and overseeing, in the vocabulary terms. The experience, rather than the subject, became the search term. These terms provide the researcher with a better sense of what they can access within the museum’s collections of stories. We then used segmented video to narrow down larger videos even more. The website provides users with the ability to tag, comment, and create their own collections. We hope that users will develop a greater intellectual and emotional connection to the museum’s oral histories through the opportunity to interact with selected video segments.

Screen shot of the National WWII Museum website.

As the photograph digitization goals of the museum grew along with this grant project, we decided to apply this vocabulary to our photographs as well and incorporate them into the site. Check out the museum’s collections online. We hope you will take the time to view some images and listen to the stories of those we chose to honor in this important project.

Lindsey Barnes is the Senior Archivist/Digital Projects Manager at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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