University of Kentucky's oral history program 'potentially revolutionary'

tharrison@herald-leader.comJune 30, 2013 

Doug Boyd, Ph.D. Kentucky Oral History Commission Director, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky, oversees thousands of tape interviews with Kentuckians from Robert Penn Warren to Kentucky farmers. In August 2006, Boyd is shown in the archival storage room where over 8,000 interview are stored.

FRANK ANDERSON — Herald-Leader file photo Buy Photo

  • Listen online

    To listen to oral histories collected by the University of Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, go to the Kentucky Digital Library at or ExploreUK at

The University of Kentucky is making strides to preserve oral history with a system that allows interviews to be heard online before they are transcribed.

The Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, developed at UK in 2008, is the only one in the country, said Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at UK's Special Collections.

"It's potentially revolutionary," he said.

In 2011, the Institute of Museum and Library Services gave the Nunn Center a $195,853 National Leadership Grant to continue developing the synchronizer, Boyd said.

The Nunn Center, which is part of UK Libraries, has been gathering oral histories for four years and has about 9,000 interviews, Boyd said, adding that one of the center's goals is to make the interviews more accessible to the public. Before the synchronizer, the only way to listen to the interviews was to go to the center.

"It's making these interviews no longer something that's going to sit on the shelf for 25 years," Boyd said.

The synchronizer allows interviews to be tagged with keywords that take listeners to those portions of the interview. A written synopsis or transcription of the interview also is provided beneath the audio or video footage.

The Nunn Center is preparing the system for free open-source distribution, meaning it will be available for other archivists to put their interviews online. Boyd hopes to see that happen in a year or so.

Cliff Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association, said Boyd is known nationally for his work in oral history, and the program at the center also is well-known in that community.

"It's very much pioneering," Kuhn said.

Kuhn also said oral history is well-respected in Kentucky, and has had a long tradition at UK.

The system is "spreading the word that there are very rich interviews out there," he said.

Among the Nunn Center's collections is one about the desegregation of Major League Baseball, which includes about 70 interviews.

Thirty of Boyd's graduate students tagged and transcribed 60 interviews in a two-week period for a class, and others who work at the center finished the rest.

"I was so proud of the students, but I was also so incredibly proud of the system," he said.

Boyd hopes to have that collection on the site by the end of July.

Sheli Walker, one of Boyd's former graduate students, helped with the baseball collection. She liked the system because it's simple and doesn't take long to learn.

"It isn't going to require any specialized training," Walker said.

The center has interviews that involve Kentucky legislation and veterans, and local, state and regional topics.

There are interviews about local college students who are veterans called From Combat to Kentucky, black farmers and World War II, just to name a few.

The student veteran project is ongoing, but some of the tagged video interviews are available on the site. Another ongoing project involves interviews about black history in Lexington.

"It really runs the gamut in terms of topics covered in our archives," Boyd said.

Ian Jennings Abney, a student at UK, was interviewed for the veteran collection. He served in the Marine Corps and is an Iraq veteran.

Abney's interview gives a personal touch to the war in Iraq, particularly when he talks about playing with his GI Joe as a child, when his mother told him that GI Joe was a Marine.

"And I didn't ever think about it being a Marine or anything else, but that's probably the first time I can think back to really being motivated toward going into the military," Abney said in the interview. "And it was from then for as long as I can remember, I've never wanted to do anything else."

What Boyd likes about oral history and preserving it is that everybody has a story.

"I love the idea of capturing ... those stories," he said.

Boyd said recording and archiving the interviews were important because people all over the world have access to them.

Deirdre Scaggs, associate dean of Special Collections, said the program was important for her department because it's part of the overall mission to preserve the commonwealth's cultural and historical memory.

"Without preserving sounds and stories ... people don't have the ability to learn about the past in the same way," she said.

Listen online

To listen to oral histories collected by the University of Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, go to the Kentucky Digital Library at or ExploreUK at

Taylor Harrison: (859) 231-1324. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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