When publishing Oral Histories to a Digital Exhibit, such as Omeka, are we required by ADA to include a full transcription of the interview in the metadata? Is a Time Summary sufficient?
Not only is the answer to this “maybe,” but I am afraid the answer is actually “maybe maybe.” And it might even have to be “Maybe maybe maybe, maybe.” But hang in there, because I think I can still give you some solid information in reply! (Maybe.)
Oral history projects—exhibits and collections using audio and video recordings to tell a story in participants’ own words--provide invaluable access into the culture and experience of particular people, at a particular place, during a particular time. Using direct representation, with only the mediation of the recording, they can show emotion, capture dialect, and put a subject in control of their own story.
Hosting such stories online is a great way to bring unique perspectives and individual experiences to a broad audience who might not be able to access a physical museum. But as the member’s question points out, not everyone has equal access to audio or audio-visual online content. So what are the precise ADA obligations pertaining to an oral history exhibit’s audio components?
As the word “maybe” implies, there is no bright-line answer.
Libraries, museums and archives collecting and curating oral histories all have different obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some institutions will fall under the obligations governing government entities. Others will fall under the law and regulations governing places of public accommodation. Still others will have accessibility considerations arising from acceptance of federal grant money, or operation as an educational institution or health facility.
And finally, some institutions may develop an oral history exhibit along with a community partner, splitting duties regarding collection of stories, arrangement of information, construction of the on-line exhibit’s functionality and web presence, and ongoing hosting. And any one of those split or shared duties, regarding audio, could have implications for access under the ADA.
But while there is no bright-line answer, there is some great guidance out there on this topic, and if that guidance is followed as closely as possible, it will not only reduce the risk of an ADA violation, but perhaps also enhance an oral history exhibit.
To design an oral history project that will have a high likelihood of complying with the ADA, the project developers have to be thinking about access from the start. This means, before the project budget is fully allocated, before the contracts are awarded, before the online platform for a project is selected, or before any contributor terms are settled, access for those with a disability has to be considered up-front.
Fortunately, pre-planning and clear methodology are the hallmarks of all serious oral history projects. This is due to the great professionalism of those who are committed to this medium, who have developed an array of ethics, legal considerations, and guidelines for such projects.
Any member considering an oral history project should check out the excellent guidance at https://www.oralhistory.org/?s=ethical+guidelines (the statement of ethics developed by the Oral History Association) as well as their institution’s own ethics policies and guidelines. Any agreement with a collaborator or contributor should also reference the ethics/access criteria for both parties, as well as for a particular project.
For compliance with the ADA, what are those guidelines? There are any number of them, but I’ll go with what I consider the Gold Standard: The US Department of Justice, which investigates alleged violations of the ADA, guides web developers to the World Wide Web Consortium’s (“W3W”) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which sets forth clearly developed standards for web content accessibility.
What does WAI say about the issue of audio content? A lot. Further, what the WAI has to say is so well-developed and nuanced—addressing just about every permutation you can think of (speaker reading from script, spontaneous speech with one person, spontaneous conversation, both audio-only, and audio-visual)—that the best thing I can do is send you to their guidelines:
As you’ll see in the “Standards,” just as the member suggests, sometimes a textual timeline might be sufficient. Other times, a transcript of the complete audio content should be available. And while this information can be part of the metadata, the manner in which the exhibit interacts with the user’s browser will be just as critical (for oral history exhibit developers who are actually developing the front end of an exhibit, here is what the USDOJ looks for : https://www.justice.gov/crt/web-page-accessibility-checklist1).
To use the member’s specific example, there may be times when simply a timeline of the information is sufficient. If, however, the way the person is describing the events, or the particular language or dialect they are using is part of the value of the exhibit, the content should be fully transcribed. The standards used to make that call should be part of the design of the project. For contributors sending an exhibit in to larger work, the host should be the one to set the criteria.
Now: I appreciate that not every oral history project, or every institution undertaking one, will have the budget or professional support to create W3W-informed access content. And while transcription gets easier and faster every day, not every project will have the capacity or need to use that, either.
Some oral history projects are very small. Some projects involve simply wanting to record different experiences of the people in a town, enjoying their Public Library, and put them on the library website. For those projects, the more modest resources and needs of the Town will govern the ADA obligations (unless there are strict conditions under grant money). But for larger projects connected to institutions that can be seen as having an obligation to provide such transcripts as part of a large oral project, particularly if public funding is involved, it is best to design the project to conform to agreed upon ethics, and W3W’s standards for Accessibility.
Again, this requires consideration at the front end of the project, and needs to be built into the budget and the procurement. It also needs to be built into any agreements for outside contributors (which the question hints at).
As the W3W guidelines point out, this will not only ensure the accessibility of your project, but will help people and institutions who do not speak the language of the person in the audio or audiovisual content to use your oral history project in their own research. The fact that this will also give you a better project is an incidental benefit of designing for inclusion!
Thanks for a great question.
 Through the magic of editing selective footage, an oral history project can also directly subvert these goals, but let’s assume anyone reading this is using their powers for good.
 Some would debate if this would be called an “oral history” project. Out in the field, I have encountered many uses of that term, and some of them are very informal, or minimally funded, so I am including that as an example.