Saturday, March 28, 2009

Nevada Test Site Oral History Project

The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project is a collection of oral histories contributed by 146 individuals and three organizations affiliated with or affected by nuclear testing conducted at the Nevada test site during the Cold War era. This University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) digital collection created using CONTENTdm consists of 192 recorded and transcribed interviews (mp3 and pdf formats) and thirteen video clips and is the result of a collaborative research project directed by independent author and scholar, Mary Palevsky, with principal investigators Robert Futrell (History) and Andrew Kirk (Sociology). The project also involved graduate students from the History and Sociology departments and University Libraries staff. In addition to providing the digitization and cataloging expertise, UNLV Libraries, Special Collections also houses and makes available material associated with the collection.

I am a bit of a sucker for projects like this. Even though eyewitness accounts are not always factually accurate, I find personal perspectives like those present in this collection absolutely fascinating. One stated goal of this project was to present a wide range of insights into questions and issues related to U.S. Cold War nuclear weapons programs. It is noted in the information about the project that the available interviews are not fully representative of all individuals or groups involved with or affected by activities at the test site; however, it appears that many important groups are represented. These groups include: national laboratory scientists and engineers; labor trades and support personnel; cabinet-level officials, military personnel and corporate executives; Native American tribal and spiritual leaders; peace activists and protesters; Nevada ranchers, families and communities downwind of the test site. It is also noted that the scope of the project was limited by available resources (i.e. time, money, student research interest, available participants), but there is hope that material will be added to the collection by future researchers. (Time will tell on that account.) A few interviews are not currently available for online viewing at the interviewee's request. Presumably, there are arrangements for release in the future.

The metadata available for the collection as a whole is brief but informative. Topics include student involvement, community involvement, using the metadata, using the transcripts, and acknowledgements. A timeline provides a nice overview of the chronology of significant events from the creation of the Manhattan Project in 1942 through last U.S. test and moritorium on testing in 1992. Metadata for individual objects was created using qualified Dublin Core and controlled vocabulary from various sources including Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials, Library of Congress Name Authority, the Getty Thesaurus for Geographic Names, and U.S. Nuclear Tests. Locating related content is easily accomplished with a single mouse click.

Object characteristics are provided with each record. Interviews can be downloaded as mp3 audio files. Iinterview transcriptions are fully searchable and available as pdf files. There are also thirteen video files available for viewing. The video files are clips from selected interviews. Transcriptions are lightly edited and do not exactly follow the audio files. Information about how this editing is represented in the transcription is provided. Each object has been assigned a Digital ID and is presented with a statement regarding terms of use. Some interviews are said to include scanned photographs at the end of the pdf files, but I was unable to locate any of these files. A search for photo or photograph turns up 39 files but random sampling of those files did not turn up any photos. Hmpfff. This is the biggest weakness I have seen with the collection.

The intended audience for the collection appears to be scholars and the general public. Not only is it a resource for scholars interested in the topic of U.S. Cold War nuclear weapons programs to use, it is also one their research can contribute to. Because it is freely available on the Web, any person interested in the topic has access to the collection. The downside for everyone, though, is that everything in the collection is not digitized. One other omission is that, apparently, student papers were presented at conferences and the collection is being used for research projects, but there is no information about those papers or any published research that reference the collection available from the site. Overall, this is not a bad example of using local and regional assets as a foundation for interesting and useful digital (and special) collections.

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