This case study describes the origins and development of the Civil Rights Movement Oral History Survey Project, which created an online information resource on collections of civil rights-related oral history interviews held in repositories around the U.S. In particular, it focuses on the digital tools and means of communication that made such an extensive collaborative undertaking possible.

A critical first step in any research project, and an excellent means for gaining at least a beginning form of intellectual control over one’s subject, is to survey the research that has already been done on the topic. This case study summarizes a recent national effort of this kind, the Civil Rights Oral History Survey Project (CROHSP), carried out by an electronically networked team of four scholar-researchers whose work has led to an online information resource for scholars and the public (http://www.loc.gov/folklife/civilrights/survey/index.php), an articulation of “oral history in the digital age.”

In February 2010, the American Folklore Society (AFS), the U.S.-based professional society for the field of folklore studies, received a contract from the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress to manage the CROHSP. The project originated the previous year when the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 111–19, known as the “Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009.” This act instructed the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to “undertake a project to collect oral histories of individuals from the Civil Rights Movement so future generations will be able to learn of their struggle and sacrifice through primary-source, eyewitness material.”1 The act did not specify a methodology for carrying out this project or a division of labor between the Library of Congress (which, in turn, had designated the AFC as the library division to be involved in the project) and the Smithsonian. After several months of meetings, the two agencies determined that before new Civil Rights Movement-related oral history interviews were done, a major national effort was necessary to comprehend the (apparently vast but still incomplete) extent of such work that had already been accomplished. They determined that the library would undertake a survey to discover what oral histories had already been recorded and the location and condition of those collections and supplementary material. The baseline established by this work would then help the Smithsonian determine priorities for the additional interviewing it would undertake to round out the historical record. Next, the AFC sought outside contractors, eventually selecting AFS, to fulfill its responsibilities. Seen in this context, the CROHSP was designed to inform the AFC and the NMAAHC about extant repositories and collections of Civil Rights Movement oral histories, provide public information about such collections, and help identify potential interviewees as a foundation for future work to collect new oral histories of participants in the Movement.

In early 2010, the AFS carried out a national search to recruit its research team by soliciting applications in the fields of archival and library science, folklore, history, and oral history. This search resulted in 110 applications from across these fields and from around the country. The process of application review and interviewing that followed led to the formation of the final team of four young scholars: Andrew Salinas, a librarian and archivist with folklore training on the staff of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University; Will Griffin and Elizabeth Gritter, two historians, then completing PhD work at the University of North Carolina, with special expertise in oral history and the Civil Rights Movement; and Danille Christensen, an Indiana University folklorist with specialties in ethnographic project planning and management and database work.

At the same time, AFS subcontracted with Dr. Kim Christen and a Washington State University-based team to develop a customized open-source database into which research team members would input data about the oral history collections and repositories they identified. To meet the needs of the project, this database needed to have multiple metadata fields and a straightforward graphic user interface, allow multiple simultaneous users and various levels of user and administrative access, and be able to be exported to a future public site (the one cited earlier, now available through the Library of Congress’s website). The database development team provided hands-on training to the research team members and AFS and AFC staff in late May 2010.

During May 2010—and especially during a three-day, in-person meeting at the Library of Congress—research team members, along with the staffs of the AFS and the AFC, also developed a research plan and a methodology for the survey. The team divided the country geographically, so as to investigate potential archival holdings in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, and individual researchers were responsible for researching all categories of repositories within their assigned regions. The team also created a project wiki to serve as a day-to-day communications medium, message board, and shared space for posting queries, suggestions, tips, and useful documents, whether discovered during research or created by team members.

Throughout the summer of 2010, team members gathered information about repositories and collections nationwide, identified (wherever possible) Civil Rights Movement participants whose experiences had never been documented or needed further documentation, and entered all such information into the database. They carried out this work by building upon initial Internet research with follow-up e-mail exchanges and phone conversations with repository staff. From August to November 2010, they continued this work, gathered and input item-level information on selected collections, and made on-site visits to a number of specifically targeted repositories to refine their initial survey findings. The four team members spent only five days working together in person: the three-day Washington, DC, meeting in late May and a two-day gathering as part of the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting in October 2010. However, team members stayed in touch on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis via the project wiki, e-mails, and monthly conference calls (which included AFS and AFC staff).

The database populated by the team’s efforts now contains records for more than 900 collections (most of which include multiple, and in some cases dozens of, individual interviews) held by 466 repositories in 49 states and the District of Columbia. (Only North Dakota seems to lack such collections.) The database indexes these collections by almost 1800 subject headings, which are based on the Library of Congress subject headings that are the standard for most libraries in the U.S. In addition, the team identified 117 individuals who played significant roles in the Civil Rights Movement in their communities but who had not yet been interviewed.

At the conclusion of their work, the team delivered the database to the Library of Congress and Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress has made a version of it with a friendly and accessible graphic user interface available online to scholars and to the public (at http://www.loc.gov/folklife/civilrights/survey/index.php). We expect that this resource will be enriched over time by data from later Smithsonian Institution interviewing and by possible additional repository and collection research, including information submitted by repositories whose collections are missing from the resource or are not adequately described.

Project researchers and AFS staff also collaborated on the preparation of a final report, specifically for the Library of Congress. This report contains sections on each team member’s regionally defined research, including site visits and essays on four overarching topics:

  1. An overall characterization of the nation’s archival holdings of oral history recordings related to the Civil Rights Movement, in terms of coverage, access, and preservation status;

  2. A description and evaluation of the project’s research plan and methodology, including the original division of labor along geographical lines, the remote but networked process by which the team carried out its research, and the various electronic means through which team members communicated with one another;

  3. An evaluation of the benefits to repositories and to the communities they serve and of researchers’ work on this project, including remote research and site visits;

  4. Recommendations for future work, including interviewing, any second-phase research along the lines already established in the project, and related projects.

Team members have also created e-copies of all essential material from the project wiki and shared them with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

The work of the project team (including the AFC and AFS staffs and the database development team), together with the tangible outcome of the project, namely, the database, can serve as models for future efforts. CROSHP has demonstrated that with a concerted, highly networked effort, it is possible for a distributed team of researchers to identify existing archival resources in oral history on a topic of national importance and at a national scale. The communications tools developed for this project are easily adaptable to link research teams working at any scale, and the project database, based in open-source, freely available technology, can readily be customized to the specific needs of other information-gathering efforts. In fact, a more recent American Folklore Society project (the National Folklore Archives Initiative—http://www.afsnet.org/?page=NFAI—which will provide open online access to information about folklore archival collections in the U.S.) is using a database roughly modeled on that for the Civil Rights Oral History Survey Project. In the contemporary digital humanities, the number of such collaborative, team-based efforts is on the rise, and this project demonstrates some of the value that collaboration can add to individual research.

Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009, Section 2(a), paragraph 5. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-111publ19/pdf/PLAW-111publ19.pdf (accessed December 17, 2012).

Author notes

This article is based on a case study included in Oral History in the Digital Age (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/); it has been expanded and updated for this issue and is used with permission.