Facing the Digital Future: Bringing Oral History into the 21st Century

By Stephen Bridenstine, Oral History Coordinator

Deep within the archives at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum there exists a special collection that is neither printed page nor Indian craft. It does not take up endless shelves of space but rather sits neatly in one small corner. And its value lies not in the physical objects themselves but rather in the precious information held within. It is the Oral History Collection.

As the new Oral History Coordinator, I inherited the responsibility to care for this collection, one of the most unique resources here at the Museum. Over eighty years, Seminole Tribal citizens, outside researchers, and Museum employees created an archive that reaches back to the earliest days of Seminole history. It is a collection that tells many stories, in many languages, in many different ways. And every month that goes by, it grows just a little bit more.

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Rows of CD and DVD boxes are the most common sight within the collection

While the Oral History Collection is indeed a rich cultural treasure, as an archive it presents some unique and daunting challenges. Take for example the diversity of its physical forms. At least five different recording formats including micro cassettes, U-matic tapes, and MiniDVs exist in the collection, each the go-to format from decades past. What they all have in common, however, is their shared reliance on magnetic tape, a thin plastic strip coated with a magnetized layer built for practicality but not for longevity. Even under perfect archival conditions, these items slowly degrade putting the cultural heritage of the Seminole Tribe at risk. This prompted the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum to invest in the costly and time consuming process of digitization, completed in 2012. But with one problem solved, another soon arose.

In our increasingly digital world, nearly everyone has experienced the frustration of a scratched DVD, a failing hard drive, or a broken iPod. But the cost to replace a Hollywood film or musical hit is nothing compared to the literally irreplaceable treasures in the Oral History Collection. How do we then ensure the survival of a now completely digital collection still subject to hardware failures and technological obsolescence? And just as importantly, how do we make this collection open and accessible to the Seminole community without compromising its integrity?

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The source material for a new all-digital collection

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is currently working with Seminole IT and several outside vendors to find the best solution to both these problems. While most data storage is moving onto the internet these days, questions of security and sovereignty unique to this collection and the Seminole Tribe prevent a similar transition. The recordings are simply too precious to send off into the information super highway. Likewise, maintaining a digital collection within the Tribe facilitates the second goal.

Imagine any Tribal citizen being able to walk into a Reservation library, sitting down at a computer, and having the entire Oral History Collection just a click away. A tribal YouTube, if you will, exclusively about and for citizens of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. It is a lofty goal but one that would pay dividends for decades to come.

This is the future for audiovisual collections everywhere. Taking the jumbled mass of media from 200 years of creative endeavors and transforming it into a streamlined, accessible, digital archive. While the Oral History Collection here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum has restricted access, the methods and models we have employed can be applied to archives anywhere.

To learn more about our project or for general inquiries, please contact Oral History Coordinator Stephen Bridenstine at 863-902-1113 ext. 12213 or stephenbridenstine@semtribe.com

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Author: Collections Division

The Collections Division manages the Museum's collections, produces and maintains exhibits, conducts the oral history program, and staffs the Museum's village.

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