April 7, 2015 by Alexandra Troxell
Reservoir of Memories was created in 2011 as an extension of a student group project at Brown University. The course was entitled ‘Oral History and Community Memory’, and the work centered around a community known locally as the Reservoir Triangle (surrounding Mashapaug Pond). I was drawn to the site because it reminds me so much of our class project. It was created in Omeka, and visitors can browse public items, specific collections, or student created exhibitions.
Similar to our Omeka site, the homepage of Reservoir of Memories explains the nature of the site and project as student work and lists the goals of the site as follows:
We hope this site will:
-help continue the conversations about these neighborhoods beyond our classroom and build on the community collection exhibit we installed at the Church of the Mediator in Providence in December of 2011, as well as our ongoing Reservoir of Memories traveling bus exhibit.
-allow a wider audience to learn about the history of these neighborhoods, the story of the Gorham Manufacturing Company, and present-day efforts to clean up Mashapaug Pond.
-provide an opportunity for visitors to our exhibit to take a second look at the objects on display, or spend some more time with the vivid stories that our interviewees have shared.
I found their goals to be well founded and met with a reasonable degree of success. The site seems to be a virtual extension of the physical exhibit listed above. On the ‘exhibits’ page, that is the only one listed. The exhibit takes you through three parts, with introductory and explanatory information for each and then transcriptions of oral history interviews to support each theme. One of the three- focusing on the industrial legacy of Gorham- seems to be faulty. Under that theme, there is only one item link labeled ‘Gorham silver’ that takes you to a blank page. The third theme- about environmental issues in the area- also contained only one item link, but the transcription for that interview was present on the page. The first theme, “Neighborhood Memories and Folklore”, is the most thoroughly expresses part of the exhibit. It contains five interview transcriptions to give it a well rounded view.
The other portions of the site confused me a bit. The collections page makes sense- it organized the items into types, including Interviews, Research Papers, and three different categories of photographs. However, when browsing and searching all the items, a search for still images brings up nothing- while the collections page shows a plethora of photographs. Likewise, looking at the interview pages shows only 30-60 second clips of sound and transcription while the pages in the exhibit show several questions and answers that do not even include the clips on the item pages. I’m sure the interviews were more extensive than either view appears to be, so I’m not sure why there is not a way to listen to a full recording or even view a full transcript. Even if that’s not possible for some reason, it seems that the page should say that it is only a portion of the interview. Also, as listed in the exhibit, there is only partial transcript and no sound clip whatsoever. I think that is a missed opportunity for multimedia engagement.
In thinking about our class, I’m sure I’m a more critical visitor coming from our class discussions about digital history compared to their course focused on oral history and merely using this digital site as an output option. I found myself critical of the way they present their site. It seems like a community archive at first, but the entire site is really built around the single exhibit. As a student project with no funding or professional input other than the professors, I would say it is a pretty nice site. It looks clean, it’s easy to navigate, and has a reasonable amount of content of good caliber. It does appear to be an addition, an extra output, rather than the intentional end result of the course or project, and as such maybe lacks some of the attention to detail or time spent on the input and appearance of the site. Stepping back to think about how much these students had to do in a single semester- choose their project, find narrators to participate, conduct interviews, transcribe, and then put together a physical exhibition and digital history site- it is a bit easier to understand why the site is not more thorough (and also why it has not been updated since 2012 even though it is described on the homepage as a work in progress.
Thinking about our recent readings, this site shows one version of what community involvement in local history can look like. Oral history interviews could be described as a longstanding, respected version of citizen historians. Without willing volunteers from that community to participate in the interviews, the project would go nowhere. Oral history could also be compared to what we now call crowdsourcing. While I’m not suggesting that oral history fits the definition exactly, there are some notable similarities. Large scale oral history project rely on multiple perspectives from different people to create a robust basis of knowledge. As I mentioned, this particular exhibit was most successful in the areas where it presented multiple interviews as evidence for its themes.