Oral History Online
Created and maintained by Alexander Street Press.
Reviewed May 20–21, Oct. 12–13, 2004.
Oral History Online is an Internet gateway/directory to 2,000 oral history collections in English with keyword searching to 129,000 pages of text, interviews of 4,300 individuals, 1,400 audio and video files, and 10,000 bibliographic records. Access to the full site is by subscription; nonsubscribers can view a list of collections. Alexander Street Press plans to expand the site to 300,000 pages by the end of 2004.
The Web site contains a wealth of information about oral history collections that have descriptions available on the Internet. Like most complex databases, it has strengths and weaknesses. After using the tour of the site, there are several ways to access collections. (1) The “Repositories” section takes searchers to a list of repositories with links to their Web sites. I found it confusing and difficult to navigate. Many links take searchers to concise repository descriptions, but others take searchers to the home page of a large organization, leaving searchers on their own from there. Other links are out-of-date. (2) The “Collections” index provides summary descriptions of collections with links to repository Web sites and collection and repository details. While the index was helpful, I was confused at times about what constitutes a collection rather than an interview. (3) The “Interviews” index is more straightforward. It lists 10,265 interviews that can be sorted by collection, narrator, or interview year. (4) The “Date” index provides access to interviews by ten-year spans. (5) The “Geographic” index provides access to interviews by twelve geographic subdivisions. (6) “Historical Events” provides links to interviews about important historical events, in chronological order. (7) “All Subjects” provides a linked list of subject terms. It also indicates if text, audio, or video is available. Despite some duplication, this final means of accessing collections should prove helpful.
There are also two search functions: (1) “Find Collections” allows searches in several fields at the collection level. The search engine worked well on my test terms. (2) “Search Interviews” provides a similar function at the interview level. These searches proved more problematic. When I entered a term, I often received multiple hits to the same citation, greatly inflating the number of collections I had to work my way through.
I looked in depth at the collections I know best, from my own institution, the Smithsonian Institution. The results were worrisome. First, the site lists only a small proportion of Smithsonian interview collections and fails to connect you to the archival catalog that contains descriptions of most collections. Second, the entry for Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives does not link to that repository’s interviews but rather to six collections of the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History, a different repository. Organizational titles were also inaccurate.
Alexander Street Press has compiled a great deal of information to create a searchable, updatable gateway to oral history collections. Its strength is in its capabilities to search and capture updates at the collection and interview level. However, I am not sure how much more helpful this catalog is than general and specialized search engines and resources such as the Research Libraries Group Union Catalog of archival and cultural materials collections, History Matters's annotated guide to history Web sites, and Google.
Pamela M. Henson
Smithsonian Institution Archives