The Veterans History Project Marks 15 Years of Service

photo of Alabama Veterans Memorial Park is a 21-acre park located on a wooded hilltop, Birmingham, Alabama. Photo by Carlo Highsmith, May 19, 2010. Call # LC-DIG-highsm- 07604.

Alabama Veterans Memorial Park is a 21-acre park located on a wooded hilltop, Birmingham, Alabama. Digital photograph by Carol Highsmith, May 19, 2010. LC call number LC-DIG-highsm- 07604.

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

— George Washington

The Veterans History Project honors the lives and service of all American veterans –not only the warriors but all who have served their country, “From the motor pool to the mess hall,” as director Robert Patrick puts it. VHP collects, preserves and makes available the stories and memorabilia of American veterans so that future generations may better understand the realities of military life and of war. To date, VHP has collected items from over 98,000 veterans, about 15% of which is available online.

The items from each woman or man are considered to be one unique “collection.” Many of the collections include first-person accounts of the veteran’s experience. And that is where great power resides, in a person recounting his or her memories. Whereas a writer of history constructs a narrative out of facts, a witness to history can say, “I was there. This is what I saw, what I experienced and what I felt.”

Congressman Ron Kind. Photo courtesy of Office of Congressman Ron Kind.

Congressman Ron Kind. Photo courtesy of Office of Congressman Ron Kind.

Congress enacted the Veterans History Project 15 years ago today, on October 27, 2000, as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The authorizing legislation was sponsored by Representatives Ron Kind, Amo Houghton, and Steny Hoyer from the U.S. House of Representatives and Senators Max Cleland and Chuck Hagel from the U.S. Senate.

“After hearing veterans in my family share their stories, I wanted to find a way to preserve all veterans’ stories for researchers, historians, educators, and most importantly future generations,” said Congressman Kind.

Peter Bartis, folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center and the author of the comprehensive guide, Folklife and Fieldwork, was deeply involved in the foundation of the Project. “Members of Congress got deeply engaged with the Veterans History Project and it was a good opportunity for the Library to demonstrate what it could do for the general public, not just for scholars,” said Bartis.

Reception to disabled veterans. June 7, 1922. 1 negative : glass ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller. LC call number LC-F8- 18996.

Reception to disabled veterans. June 7, 1922. 1 negative : glass ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller. LC call number LC-F8- 18996.

Oral histories — written, audio and video — enrich the collections. But there are challenges in every step of the recorded oral-history process, from the interview to posting the file on the web page. “Most veterans are reticent,” said Monica Mohindra, section head of programming coordination and communications for VHP “They are not necessarily going to come forward and volunteer to tell people how heroic and awesome they are.”

It falls on a loved one, friend or volunteer to encourage the veteran to sit and talk about themselves and their experiences, to open up, often to relive and articulate traumatic memories. Some veterans believe their experiences are just not important enough to talk about, let alone capture for posterity, so they need coaxing and assurance. Recording the oral history requires an advocate for the veteran, someone to pull it together.

Native American veterans. "War mothers" year of Xxoshgah. Zig Jackson, photographer, 1995. LC call number PH - Jackson (Z.), no. 5 (B size) .

Native American veterans. “War mothers” year of Xxoshgah. Zig Jackson, photographer, 1995.LC call number PH – Jackson (Z.), no. 5 (B size).

When an advocate is ready to interview a veteran, VHP has plenty of “how to” resources, which they distilled from the American Folklife Center’s decades of oral history best practices into a field kit: cover letter, biographical data form, veterans release form, interviewer’s release form, audio and video recording log, photograph log, and manuscript data sheet.

These materials alone were sufficient for the days of audio cassette and videocassette tapes (which VHP acquired plenty of and still digitizes) but moving into the digital age, the project field kit also includes information on media and formats standards. Additional resources, such as Oral History in the Digital Age, delve deeper into the digital recording equipment and in best production practices, such as three-point lighting for video and the basics of digital audio recording.

Part of the value of digital files is that they can be shared online almost instantly. But curating them can be challenging. “I’ve been reviewing the tens of thousands of optical disks we’ve received since the project started,” said VHP archivist Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz. “Taking the content off before the disk has a chance to fail — in some cases it has failed, unfortunately — but extracting as much of the content off each disk as fast as I can and then uploading it to the Library’s content transfer system.” (The Signal interviewed Cassidy-Amstutz in March 2014 about digital preservation in VHP.)

Vietnam Memorial Soldiers by Frederick Hart. Photograph by Carol Highsmith. September 13, 2006. LC call number LC-DIG-highsm- 04696.

Vietnam Memorial Soldiers by Frederick Hart. Photograph by Carol Highsmith. September 13, 2006. LC call number LC-DIG-highsm- 04696.

VHP offers advice on how to prepare for the interview and how to conduct the interview, advice that covers the production elements of recording as well as the professional elements of how to be a good interviewer and listener. The rest is up to the openness and receptivity between interviewer and interviewee.

Once the interview is submitted to the VHP, it is marked for digitization (if it is not already digital), tagged with metadata and eventually archived in the Library of Congress’s digital repository for long-term preservation. “We generally receive about 5,000 collections per year,” said Cassidy-Amstutz. “Maybe 300 to 400 per month. That includes anything from new collections to new content arriving to be added to existing collections…We go through cycles of rapid acquisition, especially at the end of semesters when educators — who assigned the project to their students — have the chance to assemble it all together and send it out to us.”

Detail, Wall of Remembrance, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Detail, Wall of Remembrance, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. Carol Highsmith, photographer [between 1995 and 2006]. 1 transparency : color ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller. LC call number LC-HS503- 2013.

Adapting to the times and technology, VHP is working toward creating an online submission process for uploading digital files directly into their system. There may be an app eventually. The project could benefit from crowdsourcing the transcription of the hundreds of thousands of digitized letters and cards, which would contribute enormous value to their keyword search for researchers once the transcriptions are indexed. VHP is also collaborating with the Oral History Association to develop a pamphlet titled Doing Veterans Oral History.

VHP continues to reach out to veterans, including the steady stream of new veterans. And there will always be new veterans. “We can keep growing the project,” said Congressman Kind. “I urge everyone to ask veterans they know to record their stories. This is the last ask of a grateful nation to our veterans. What better way to preserve this important history of what it was like to protect our nation while honoring our veterans at the same time.”

The World As Seen Through Books: An Interview with Kalev Hannes Leetaru

Kalev Leetaru, a senior fellow at George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, has written for The Signal in previous posts. I recently had the chance to ask him about his latest work, processing and analyzing digitized books stretching back two centuries. Erin: You recently completed research and analysis on large datasets of […]

DPOE Plants Seed for Statewide Digital Preservation Effort in California

The following is a guest post by Barrie Howard, IT project manager at the Library of Congress. The Digital Preservation Outreach and Education (DPOE) program is pleased to announce the successful completion of another train-the-trainer workshop in 2015. The most recent workshop took place in Sacramento, California, from September 22th–25th. This domestic training event follows […]

Extra Extra! Chronicling America Posts its 10 Millionth Historic Newspaper Page

Talk about newsworthy! Chronicling America, an online searchable database of historic U.S. newspapers, has posted its 10 millionth page today. Way back in 2013, Chronicling America boasted 6 million pages available for access online. The site makes digitized newspapers (of those published between 1836 and 1922) available through the National Digital Newspaper Program. It also […]

Improving Technical Options for Audiovisual Collections Through the PREFORMA Project

The digital preservation community is a connected and collaborative one. I first heard about the Europe-based PREFORMA project last summer at a Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative meeting when we were discussing the Digital File Formats for Videotape Reformatting comparison matrix. My interest was piqued because I heard about their incorporation of FFV1 and Matroska, […]

Cultural Institutions Embrace Crowdsourcing

Many cultural institutions have accelerated the development of their digital collections and data sets by allowing citizen volunteers to help with the millions of crucial tasks that archivists, scientists, librarians, and curators face. One of the ways institutions are addressing these challenges is through crowdsourcing. In this post, I’ll look at a few sample crowdsourcing projects […]

Seeking Comment on Migration Checklist

The NDSA Infrastructure Working Group’s goals are to identify and share emerging practices around the development and maintenance of tools and systems for the curation, preservation, storage, hosting, migration, and similar activities supporting the long term preservation of digital content. One of the ways the IWG strives to achieve their goals is to collaboratively develop […]

Mapping the Digital Galaxy: The Keepers Registry Expands its Tool Kit

This past month, The Keepers Registry released a new version of its website with a suite of significant new features to help its members monitor the archival status of e-journal content. The Library of Congress has been one of the archiving institutions of The Keepers Registry and we thought this was a good time to […]

Mapping Libraries: Creating Real-time Maps of Global Information

The following is a guest post by Kalev Hannes Leetaru, a data scientist and Senior Fellow at George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. In a previous post, he introduced us to the GDELT Project, a platform that monitors the news media, and presented how mass translation of the world’s information offers libraries […]

DPOE Interview with Danielle Spalenka of the Digital POWRR Project

The following is a guest post by Barrie Howard, IT Project Manager at the Library of Congress. This post is part of a series about digital preservation training informed by the Library’s Digital Preservation Outreach & Education (DPOE) Program. Today I’ll focus on an exceptional individual, Danielle Spalenka, Project Director for the Digital POWRR Project. […]