Preserving Yiddish Language & Culture through Bilingual Oral History Access

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project recently completed an NEH-funded project to transform its oral history collection through the use of cutting edge oral history technologies that allow exploration of interviews through bilingual indexes. Here, Wexler Oral History staff members share their process and innovative results. 

By Christa Whitney and Carole Renard

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project recently completed a project that can serve as a model for enhanced access to oral history interviews, especially for multilingual collections. The project is an exciting use of the open-source Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) software to allow for search and browsing within interviews through timecoded transcripts and indices.

Since the establishment of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project in 2010, creating access to interviews has been a priority. For a variety of linguistic, ideological, and political reasons, Yiddish resources have not always been accessible. Given this, the over 1,000 video interviews in the Wexler Oral History Project collection are of particular value to scholars, museum curators, documentary filmmakers, and the general public interested in learning about the history, legacy, and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. Furthermore, the Yiddish Book Center has a history of making primary source materials accessible—our digitized Yiddish book collection includes over 11,000 titles, most of which are now searchable with Optical Character Recognition (OCR)—and our oral history project follows that model. A majority of the interviews we’ve collected are available in full on our website, something that puts these new primary sources out there for researchers and the public. This latest project allowed us to go beyond basic access to allow for viewers to really dig into the interviews with search features at the individual interview level. It’s our hope that these new features will increase the utility of the collection. 

Thanks to a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)’s Division of Preservation and Access and additional donors, we worked from 2017 to 2020 to enhance access to a large portion of the Wexler Oral History Project’s interview collection. As part of this project, we transcribed 400 interviews, created timecoded indices of over 650 interviews (including bilingual indices for over 150 Yiddish-language interviews), and created a thesaurus of keywords, gathering alternate spellings from widely used encyclopedic sources. We worked with the Audio Transcription Center to create the transcripts and a wonderfully talented team of staff, interns, and contractors to edit the transcripts and index the interviews. All the timecoding of transcripts and indexing was done with the open-source OHMS software. As of October 2020, you can now access the interviews with enhanced access on many of the interview pages within the Wexler Oral History Project digital collection.

The multilingual nature of the collection—which includes interviews in English, Yiddish, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and a smattering of other languages—created particular challenges in terms of transcription and standardization of the project-specific subject terms and non-English words used in the interviews. Though we had collected keywords about each interview over the years, we did not have a central location to track and standardize spellings prior to this project. The organization had a limited style sheet, but that didn’t scratch the surface of the ultimately thousands of Yiddish words, geographical locations, and proper nouns used throughout the interviews. Therefore, we created a master thesaurus gathering all these terms, privileged spellings selected, and documented alternate spellings. We referenced dictionaries and central naming authorities such as the Library of Congress and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographical Terms as well as field-specific authorities such as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and JewishGen. Names of geographic locations in Eastern and Central Europe created a special challenge since many towns and cities have multiple names depending on the language and historical period. Creating the thesaurus of privileged and alternative spellings allows us to both use consistent spellings across the entire collection for transcripts and index segment titles, and list alternate spellings as keywords so that any user searching an alternative spelling of a keyword would still find the relevant interview segments in an indexed interview. Beyond the immediate uses within the oral history collection, we look forward to how these vocabulary lists will be of use across the organization and even beyond.

Another challenge arose along the way: Though we selected only English-language interviews to transcribe, many interviews contain segments in another language (most often Yiddish) when a narrator might have recited a poem, sung a song, or recalled a proverb from the family. We transcribed all of these interview segments in-house with our multilingual team of staff and part-time workers. Though Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet, we transcribed Yiddish segments transliterated in Latin characters for ease of formatting within the OHMS editor and viewer, to enhance access to viewers who cannot read Yiddish in its original alphabet, and to better reflect the nuances of the narrator’s personal Yiddish dialect. Including translations of all non-English terms in the transcript serves as an additional in-line guide for any viewers unfamiliar with the terms narrators use.

Indices can serve as both alternatives and compliments to transcripts. The segment titles function as a table of contents, allowing for visitors to the website to do a quick browse of an interview to see if there are segments of particular interest. OHMS includes various fields, giving options to include detailed summaries, transcript segments, and more at each segment. For this project, especially given that many interviews indexed would also be transcribed, we decided to use simply segment titles and keywords. Since it is hidden in the main view of the index, the keyword field was a wonderful place to include alternative spellings that enhance search.

The project also allowed us to take full advantage of the bilingual indexing feature in OHMS. A major portion of our work was to index over 150 of our Yiddish language interviews, creating access and search in both Yiddish and English. Viewers can toggle between the two languages to search and find interview segments of interest through segment titles and keywords. We also bilingually indexed several interviews in Polish, Spanish, and Russian to create segment-level access in both the original language and English.

The custom viewer we built is an example of how OHMS can be integrated into a website’s look and feel for a streamlined experience for viewers. Working with our web development company CogApp, we built a custom module in Drupal to be able to display and search the transcripts and indices alongside the video interviews. Since the oral history collection is accessed within the organization’s website, it was important to integrate the viewer into the existing color scheme and style. For those interviews that are both transcribed and indexed, viewers have the option of toggling back and forth between its transcript and its index; this way, the interviews can be viewed either alongside a word-by-word transcript or by skipping thematically through indices. Though this approach may not work for oral history collections that use library or archival content management systems that include discovery features, it does offer an approach for non-profits, businesses, or other oral history projects working within a branded environment.

The final component of this grant-funded project was to surface the family photographs, historical documents, and other artifacts we’ve collected as digital objects along with many of the oral history interviews over the years. These in and of themselves comprise a fascinating and valuable collection. Paired with the oral history interviews, they add another layer of visual interest. For those interviews that have associated artifacts, they are now viewable on the interview pages. Along with the interview highlights, they can serve as entry points to the collection for those who may not want to watch the entire one- to two-hour interview recordings.

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project is a collection of video interviews about Yiddish language and culture recorded on six continents in eight languages. As interviews are structured in a focused life-history format, the collection includes stories and personal accounts about a broad range of Jewish identities and human experience. Since 2010, we’ve collected over 1,000 interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds. We are excited to share these new features of our digital collection with the world and hope it will help people learn about the culture represented by the collection as well as serve as a useful model to the oral history field for the possibilities to enhance access to oral histories. To learn more about the ways to browse and search our collection, check out our user guide. We invite you to explore the growing collection.

Christa P. Whitney is the director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, a growing collection of more than 1,000 in-depth video interviews about Yiddish language and culture with people of all ages and backgrounds. Originally from Northern California, she became interested in Yiddish while studying comparative literature at Smith College. For the past ten years, she has traveled near and far in search of Yiddish stories, gaining skills in filmmaking, video production, and archival preservation along the way.

Carole Renard is the Wexler Oral History Project’s Coordinator. She began working with the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project in 2016 as an intern processing interviews, and joined the full-time team in 2017 as the NEH Project Coordinator. She also conducts oral history interviews for the project. Carole holds a BA from Smith College in Anthropology and Jewish Studies and a MA from University College London in Jewish Studies.