For decades veterans, wartime laborers and refugees from around Wisconsin have told their stories of bravery, hardship and grief. Many of these stories are captured on cassette tapes, film reels and DVDs at community libraries, museums and historical societies, but these records of the state’s history could be lost to time as the years take their toll on the film and plastics containing them.
The Wisconsin Library System and Recollection Wisconsin, with funding from a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, plan to collect about 1,100 of those stories to digitize them, making them available to anyone with internet access and preserving them for many years.
The $135,000 is the project’s second grant — the first was for the yearlong planning stage starting in May 2016 when a staffer identified the recordings to be preserved.
Among the recordings located that will be digitized are interviews with Wisconsinites about life during both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. With this grant, director Emily Pfotenhauer and a grant-funded staffer over the next two years will gather the identified archive materials, pay for a specialist to digitize them and create an easily searchable online archive.
Making the recordings available online “gives an opportunity for the collections from smaller communities to shine,” Pfotenhauer said. “Wisconsin has a lot of these great records outside of Madison or Milwaukee, and we can make some of them more visible.”
Dana Gerber-Margie was hired as a temporary staffer for the planning period. She traveled around Wisconsin to assess oral history archives in 22 facilities from Superior to Milwaukee, from Antigo to Richland Center.
Preserving these stories and making them available can help deepen the understanding of the conflicts. Gerber-Margie said World War II is often boiled down to a battle between the bad guys and the good guys, but listening to the stories of the people involved shows the intricacies of war. It also reminds people that there was tremendous loss and pain felt even by the winners.
Gerber-Margie said audio and video oral histories provide more detail than written documents because the emotion can be heard or seen through the words the people speak in those interviews.
“The story that they’re telling might sound almost banal on paper, but hearing that story, you can really hear the emotion in it,” Gerber-Margie said. “It’s really moving and heartbreaking and you just feel so much empathy when you see someone start to break down in an interview.”
Many of the analog recordings are reaching the end of their lifespans as time erodes the film and hardware, but digital files are also at risk, Gerber-Margie said. Small libraries may have a single file of an oral history with no backups, she said, and those files can be deleted or moved accidentally to other folders or servers where they are forgotten.
File formatting for digital recordings can also complicate the preservation process, Gerber-Margie said. Some files are created using specific software and that same software is needed to read those files. Quite a lot of programs from the earlier days of digital recording are no longer available.
Recollection Wisconsin will gather all the recordings in Madison before they are shipped to George Blood LP, an audiovisual preservation firm in Philadelphia, to be digitized.
Blood said he has a wall of machines that are used to play different types of analog files like cassettes, open-reel film and others. Sometimes the recordings come in bad casings, like brittle plastic on a cassette, but he can usually take the film from those recordings and place them in new casings, while some bigger problems, like distorted film, might not be redeemable.
Once the files are digitized and returned, Pfotenhauer said searchable metadata for the files will be added on recollectionwisconsin.org. With the metadata included, users will be able to search terms like names of the speakers in the oral histories, dates and locations of the interviews, conflicts the speaker was involved in and more.