Case study: searchable audio archives in action

Student research comes to life through Wisconsin oral histories

Foundry Workers at Fairbanks, Morse & Company, Beloit, WI, 1925 (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Established in 1846, the Wisconsin Historical Society hosts a rich multimedia archive that stretches back decades, and they are frequently asked questions about family genealogies in Wisconsin. Before they started using Pop Up Archive, WHS archivists might spend hours or days digging through media stacks in search of a record about someone’s long-lost relative.

Now, some people are answering their own questions simply by entering their relative’s names into a search bar. Emerging Technologies Archivist Paul Hedges cites one WHS patron who was able to hear his uncle’s voice for the first time after a search led him to a recording indexed by Pop Up Archive. That’s the power of searchable audio archives in action.

As they digitize audio, WHS wants it to be as accessible as possible both to researchers and the wider public. They need a web platform to help them easily transcribe, store, and share audio from their rich and varied collections. Since getting started with Pop Up Archive in 2014, WHS has contributed several public archival collections, including dozens of oral histories on topics like labor, art, and civil rights.

Digital oral histories in the classroom

Professor Michelle Kuhl, who teaches an African American history course at UW Oshkosh, wanted an easier way for her to share the stories of 20th century African American residents of Wisconsin with her students. Before Pop Up Archive made the recordings and transcripts accessible online, Kuhl had distributed CDs to her students featuring audio from two collections: Beloit Bicentennial Oral History Project Interviews, 1919-1976 and Janesville Bicentennial Labor Oral History Project, 1976-1977.

Assigning students oral histories from the CDs was a logistical nightmare. After WHS uploaded these recordings to Pop Up Archive, the searchable web-based archive proved to be both a convenient and resonant new way for students to access the oral histories.

Josh Ranger, Archivist at UW Oshkosh, describes how the Pop Up Archive collections helped students conduct research for projects on the Great Migration:

“Students read about this population movement in Ira Berlin’s book, The Making of African America, but their experience really came alive by using the archives for their research papers…[Pop Up Archive] gave these students a far better method to connect their reading with a live voice from a local area. This technology took our learning to a deeper level.

History professors are trained to teach skills like context, change over time, and periodization, but it is harder to transmit important qualities such as passion and empathy. Hearing the Beloit oral histories helped Oshkosh students identify with and care about historical subjects in a new way.”

In the future, according to Hedges, WHS will have students correct Pop Up Archive’s automatically-generated transcripts, improving search accuracy for future researchers.

Explore more WHS collections on Wisconsin History and Pop Up Archive

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