Amplify case study: Wollongong Library taking oral histories into the 21st century

Article by Jo Oliver, Hilary Powell and Catherine Ryan from Wollongong City Libraries

Wollongong City Libraries was one of four NSW public libraries to participate in the State Library of NSW Amplify pilot project in 2018. Amplify is an invaluable tool enabling us to transcribe our oral histories, make them keyword searchable, and connect the community with these rich and varied stories. Amplify is an online platform designed to create computer generated transcripts from digital oral history recordings. These transcripts can be corrected online by any user. When three people agree on a correction, it becomes fixed; any issues are flagged for the contributing library to adjudicate. Once transcripts are fully corrected, they can be downloaded as searchable pdfs. 

Wollongong City Library Service has made use of Amplify to transcribe both archived oral history recordings digitised from tapes and CDs and newly recorded born-digital interviews. The interviews are accessible to be downloaded from the library catalogue or streamed from our website Illawarra Stories

Illawarra Stories

Illawarra Stories is a website created to showcase oral histories of the Illawarra region. It includes individual’s memories of people, places and events from the past as well as reflections on change and current experiences of living in the area. The interviews contain social history often not found in written resources and give voice to people and lived experience not otherwise documented. Over one hundred interviews are now available on Illawarra Stories and more are added each month as new interviews are recorded. See two examples below.

Go to Barry Adams on Illawarra stories

Six people swimming in an outdoor pool

Bulli Sea Lions 2016 – Hugh Carpenter, Wendy Carpenter, John McGrath, Barry Adams, Bob Badger, Peter Dorrington (Image courtesy of Barry Adams)

Go to Aunty Lorraine Brown on Illawarra Stories

Woman painting wooden egg

Aunty Lorraine Brown

Making our oral histories available

Following is a brief overview of how we collect and make our oral histories available.

  1. Ongoing promotion of Illawarra Stories and curation of a list of people keen to share their stories. Aligning these people with interviewers is coordinated by the Local Studies team.
  2. We have three oral history kits which can be borrowed by trained staff and volunteers. Each kit contains a digital recorder, camera and folder of necessary documentation. 
  3. Once interviews are recorded, they are downloaded and edited using the free Audacity software and saved as MP3 files. A brief biography is prepared, tags and sound grab identified; images labelled.
  4. Each story is catalogued, including a link to download the audio file and a link to Illawarra Stories. 
  5. New stories and some retrospective stories (if permissions allow) are uploaded to our Illawarra Stories website for streaming - each story has its own page including a brief biography, photographs, tags and sound grab highlight. Stories are grouped by location or theme. 
  6. The audio files are then uploaded to Amplify with text and an image. (We estimate each interview takes about 10 hours of staff time to process to this stage.)
  7. Amplify creates a machine-generated transcription which is then available for correction by digital volunteers.
  8. A link to the story on Amplify is then added to the Illawarra Stories site to encourage users to be a digital volunteer. 
  9. When a story is fully corrected, the pdf transcript is downloaded, formatted and uploaded to the Illawarra Stories website. 
  10. Promote, promote, promote!  

Amplify has become an integral part of building our oral history collection which is a collaborative process utilising the skills of staff from across the library service (local studies, cataloguing, digital and information services) and volunteers to produce the interviews and make them available online as digital recordings and searchable transcripts.

Our volunteers A woman sitting at a computer using using the Amplify transcription service

We promote our oral history collection through library social media and take advantage of any formal or informal opportunities to encourage people to participate, either as an interviewee or digital volunteer. When we hold events to thank people for sharing their stories, we demonstrate where their stories can be found on Illawarra Stories and the links to Amplify.

During COVID-19 restrictions Amplify correcting rose enormously. Volunteers spent time making corrections and as a side benefit, listened to the voices of others as they engaged in the task. Library staff also contributed to the project while working from home or between other tasks while services were necessarily reduced. The result was many more interviews were fully corrected. 

Happy connections

Sometimes our interviews make happy connections. A confluence of events recently brought together a group of family stories in our collection. Joe Cassar’s daughters, Frances and Mary had taken part in the Warrawong Oral History Project in 2018 and shared their stories and memories of their father. In 2019 an interview with Maltese immigrant Joe Cassar from 1984 was donated to the library. When Joe’s children and grandchildren attended an Oral History event to thank participants, we surprised them by revealing the online interview with their father. The Cassar family were delighted to hear Joe’s story from two different perspectives. 

A man and two women smiling

Joe Cassar's grandson Steve, daughter Mary and granddaughter Therese.

Amplify has been a positive place to allow volunteers to contribute to the library collection and service. Without the help of digital volunteers via Amplify we would not be able to afford to create transcripts and provide ‘word searchable’ access to our oral history collection. Everything to do with oral histories is labour intensive, therefore maximising the use and discoverability of this collection is essential and Amplify has become an integral part of the process.

Institutions involved in Amplify connect regularly online and assist each other. Amplify staff from the State Library of NSW are responsive to feedback. They continue to improve the platform and respond helpfully to any issues.

Using Amplify adds value to our Illawarra Stories project and contributes to bringing Wollongong City Libraries’ oral history interviews to the local and wider community. It allows social history to be accessed for research and personal interest and gives voice to the people of our diverse society.