A collaborative, searchable oral history of New York City

The New York Public Library collects stories from around the city

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We spoke with Brian Foo, a developer for NYPL Labs, whose team is using Pop Up Archive to create an innovative, collaborative, fully searchable oral history project.

As part of its Community Oral History Project, the NYPL first started working with Pop Up Archive on Visible Lives, a collection of stories from New Yorkers living with disabilities. Over 60 community members have recorded 150 interviews and counting at NYPL branch libraries. The NYPL wanted to create an interactive listening experience for all audiences.

Why transcribe? To create rich, accessible listening experiences.

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Brian and his team built a transcript player and editor that programmatically accesses timestamped transcripts via Pop Up Archive’s API. Visitors can play audio alongside transcripts and the player enables the library community to correct transcripts, picking up where machines leave off.

“The original impetus [for transcripts] was just to have it accessible for people who are hearing-impaired, but in addition to that, we want to have it as a starting point to explore ways we can extract interesting information from the interviews via the transcripts, as well as try to leverage the community to help improve the transcripts.” —Brian Foo

Leveraging Pop Up Archive tags and community knowledge

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The NYPL Labs team plans to build even more fine-grained methods for search and discovery of audio collected by the Community Oral History Project. Using crowdsourced annotations along with Pop Up Archive tags – created using a process called “entity extraction” – Brian intends to connect each interview with themes across collections.

“We wanted the interviews to be more discoverable, searchable, and in an ideal world, to have it in structured data where we can make queries to the collection, [such as] ‘Give me all the interviews where people mentioned Harlem in the 1940s.’

We can start to extract place names, people names, and dates, and then we can start to make interesting connections between the interviews themselves as well as connections to other collections in the library or beyond.”

Visible Lives is just one of many collections already available on the New York Public Library’s Community Oral History site, which is composed of more than 600 interviews from all around the city. With new neighborhood recordings and crowdsourcing events on the horizon for 2016, this ambitious project is one to watch.

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