Information Cartography at Work Work

January 13, 2010 by

For the past 7 years I have been working with oral historian Michael Frisch, Ph.D., at The Randforce Associates in Buffalo, NY. With no formal background in public history, oral history, or really any history I followed my curiosity into a realm I often call “Information Cartography“. I now work full time as Director of Technology at Randforce. What we do here is an evolving artform and science that lies somewhere between cataloging, indexing, and thesaurus development, as well as content management and multi-media production for oral histories and other types of recordings. In attempting to define this uncharted territory of research we find ourselves constantly inventing new metaphors, analogies, and general “raps” to explain our work process. Mapping our own ideas linguistically is perhaps the most important information cartography we do, for ourselves and for others. I look forward to explaining this so-called day job of mine here, as I’m sure I’ll learn new things about who we are and what we do through exposure to the new (to me) environment, perspective, and vocabulary.

Although Randforce has been built around Frisch’s work in oral history, I want to learn from and apply our practice into other fields, including library science and (eventually) civil and environmental engineering, in which I hold a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon. I enrolled in a class at the University at Buffalo in the Department of Library and Information Science (LIS) this past semester (Fall, 2009) to learn their vocabulary and theory and begin to articulate better what we do at Randforce.  Here’s an early attempt to put it in technical and/or library terms: we are creating databases containing discrete records representing passages of audio and video content, which we label and annotate, which then themselves are represented by multi-faceted, easily visualized, thesauri/indexes directly linked to the source recording.

Aspects of organizing a catalogue or collection and creating abstracts are also integral in what we call “digital indexing”, which has mostly been built around the strengths and limitations of a particular piece off-the-shelf real-time audio/video recording software called Interclipper. That software, coming out of market research, has been invaluable in exploring an effective non-linear back-end content management and content display system, combined with a unique, truly non-destructive editing environment all in one interface. The skills, methods, and approaches we’ve learned continue to be applied across any number of custom or commercial software, database, and web tools.

I am excited about the possibilities of continuing our work exploring the boundaries of direct audio or video indexing, hopefully moving towards fulfilling the promise and power of true random access in digital/web environments. Oral history is fascinating in LIS terms particularly because the size and nature of audio or video segments are not usually pre-determined. Indexing within and across interviews requires adjusting not only the precision, specificity, and exhaustivity of the collection of terms, but the frequency, length, and duration of the units being indexed themselves. I hope to explore further (with help from graphic designers, artists, computer geeks, and librarians) the implications of oral history on methodologies for recorded narratives in any number of fields. One specific interest I have is to integrate the quality, physicality, and general power of printed text with the digital parallels–creating seamless semantic and artistic consistency between a concrete physical publication form (like a book) and “more dynamic” interfaces on glowing, rectangular screens. I will present some brief examples at THATcamp Columbus of how all this work is just beginning.

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