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Putting oral histories online

By Andrew Croome05 Dec 2013

Last week saw the beta launch of a new Oral Histories platform we’ve developed for the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.

As an enthusiast of Canberran history, this was a particularly enjoyable project for me. Not only do the interviews bring a humour and texture to history not always apparent in the written word, but I’d also drawn on parts of the Museum’s collection when writing my first book.

Bringing them online was a chance not only to make them instantly accessible, but more accessible as entities too.

The first decision was which audio format to use. We discovered early that MP3, while supported by many browsers, suffered timing issues in some, so that a sentence beginning at 5 m 15 secs in one began at 5 m 17 seconds in another. Not ideal.

Instead, we chose to use ACC (mp4) for browser playback, which is also well supported. Our player of choice was jPlayer, an open source JavaScript project used by the BBC, Al Jazeera and others.

jPlayer meant HTML5 audio support in modern browsers, as well as iOS and Android compatibility, and a Flash fallback for older platforms. It also had a great API for subscribing to audio events, allowing us to highlight portions of transcript as a history plays - you can see that in action here.

Putting oral histories online

With some audio files up to 120 MB, another challenge was file size in general. Such large uploads were not something we really wanted to handle in our own application stack. To solve that, we turned to Transloadit, a well-featured file processing service which can pass our uploads directly to Amazon’s S3. Transloadit also has the incidental benefit of providing metadata on the file, such as its encoding and duration.

In addition to transcripts that highlight when played, other features of the Museum’s new platform include full-text searching (using ElasticSearch), multi-volume support, downloadable transcripts, academic citations and the ability to link to particular moments (such as Bernard Freedman’s chase for Soviet defector Vladimir Petrov or Jack Dealy policing an under-the-weather senator trying to hold up a bus).

You can preview the platform now, and check back in as the Museum prepares for an official launch in 2014.