Newswise — Two years after Haiti was rocked by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake near Port au Prince, a New York University (NYU) graduate student and staff at the University of Kentucky (UK) Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History are teaming up to capture, save and share the stories of survivors of the terrible event and its aftermath.
The Haiti Memory Project is the brainchild of Claire Antone Payton, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Institute of French Studies at NYU, where she focuses on Haitian history. Beginning in 2011, Payton partnered with UK's Nunn Center, under the direction of Doug Boyd, to house, preserve, digitize and make available to the public this important historical collection of more than 100 stories of earthquake survivors.
Through firsthand accounts, the Haiti Memory Project explores life in the Caribbean country before and after the earthquake. The project's interviews offer Haitians the opportunity to tell their own story of what has happened to their homeland. While almost all of the interviews reference the earthquake, many of the accounts focus on life after the event, including life in refugee camps. Interviews range from 30 minutes to approximately two hours and reflect such topics as politics, culture, medicine, religion and attitudes toward foreigners. Payton collected the interviews between June and December 2010.
Boyd and Payton intend for the oral history project to be accessible to researchers around the world via the Internet, as well as provide Haitians access to this pivotal moment in their history.
"This project grew out of my sense that the forces that had largely excluded Haitian voices from the archives in the past are still at play even today," Payton says. "In the wake of an event as significant as the earthquake, I wanted to make sure the voices and perspectives of ordinary Haitian men and women weren't lost to future scholars the way they have been in the past."
Jeremy Popkin, the T. Marshall Hahn Jr. Professor of History at UK Department of History and a Haiti scholar, agrees this oral history collection is a vital historic resource to not only Haiti, but researchers worldwide.
"The Haiti Memory Project is a unique archive that captures the experiences of survivors of the Haitian earthquake in their own language," Popkin says. "It will be an invaluable resource for understanding the worst disaster in Haitian history, and for comprehending how human beings react to catastrophe."
To make global access possible, Payton partnered with Boyd and the Nunn Center at UK Libraries to professionally archive and preserve these powerful oral history interviews. She became aware of the Nunn Center's groundbreaking work in preservation and digitization while participating in a talk on Haiti at UK in April 2011 organized by Popkin.
"I am very fortunate that during a visit to UK, Professor Jeremy Popkin took me over in Doug Boyd's office for what was supposed to be a quick chat about oral history," Payton says. "It did not take long for Doug and I to recognize that my project in Haiti and his work with OHMS, the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, could greatly complement one another. I donated the interviews to UK not only because of the potential for transcription and translation, but also because the Nunn Center for Oral History is a well respected institution that can guarantee that the interviews will reach a wide audience, both today and in future generations."
A sample of the Haiti Memory Project interviews, primarily collected in Haitian Creole by Payton, are already available online to the public at haitimemoryproject.org.
In the future, the Nunn Center hopes to transcribe and translate all the Haiti Memory Project interviews in both French and English and host the entire oral history collection online through their OHMS system, which will make the online audio collection keyword searchable for users.
Boyd is dedicated to making online access to the Haiti Memory Project a reality through the university's recent OHMS research.
"I was incredibly moved when Claire came to campus to speak about her oral history work on the Haiti Memory Project," says the oral historian. "I was working on the Nunn Center's OHMS system, which connects text in transcripts to correlating moments in the audio or video, and I realized that OHMS could take the relationship between the textual, audio and video components of oral history to the next level by introducing a multi-lingual component to the same technology. If these interviews are transcribed and translated, I feel that accessible, searchable and translated oral history can transform the way the rest of the world and history understands this event and create a model that others can follow. I am also honored that we can apply the highest digital preservation standards to these interviews and ensure that they will be accessible to future generations.
The UK Libraries’ Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History is internationally recognized for its outstanding collection of nearly 8,000 oral history interviews. The number of interviews available online continues to grow, providing greater access to the collection. Topics are wide-ranging from Appalachia, politics, veterans’ stories, as well as documenting important Kentucky industries such as the horse, coal and bourbon industries. The Nunn Center is also home to a second collection related to Haiti titled "Haitians in Lexington."