The Minnesota Digital Library has gathered the stories of hundreds of immigrants for a project called Minnesota’s Immigrants. The project “weaves together these audio and video histories into a single space where these stories can be gathered, saved, and shared in an openly and freely accessible manner,” according to the About page.
The stories could serve many purposes–by allowing the public free access to the narratives, the audience can simply listen to each for their own knowledge, or can share and adapt the material according to the Creative Commons licensing. The creators of the project selected several stories that would be meaningful in a classroom.
Each story speaks to a theme, and together they present a range of experiences reflective of the complexity of immigration.
One critique I have is directed towards the stories that aren’t narrated by the subjects themselves. For example, the story of Chiyoko Swartz, a Japanese woman who moved to Minnesota to be with her husband, a US soldier, is narrated by Ben Hartmann. Hartmann’s narrative is awkward, as he stumbles over pronunciation of Japanese names and places. Although he states that Chiyoko had a difficult adjustment to her life in the wintery North, his tone is triumphant and he brings the narrative to a happy conclusion. I was skeptical about the conclusions and wondered if a different narrator would have chosen a different way of telling the story.
On the other hand, stories featuring first-person narration by immigrants themselves can be quite touching. One such story was recounted by Natasha Gomez, the daughter of a Colombian father and Japanese mother, who came to the United States from Japan. She tells this story herself, in three different languages, translated to English in subtitles and in a transcript. After struggling with her identity in young adulthood, she came to realize that languages “became worlds in themselves, bridges to cultures, identities.” Her own narration feels more nuanced and complex because she herself is telling the story.
Videos add a visual component to each story. This ranges from photos and videos from immigrants’ birthplaces, their arrivals and departures, family life, and their journeys towards establishing permanent homes. In some cases, the video editors added effects from whatever video editing software was popular at the time, which dates them very quickly. Even though they are only 4 years old, the videos from 2014 already look different from videos added in 2016. However, the content itself adds interest to the stories. The emotional value is greater when the audience can put a face to a name or a voice.
Aside from the content–which ranges from pretty good to quite moving–the structure of the website itself makes it a bit difficult to access the stories. While I understand the content has to fit within the framework Omeka provides, the final product is not intuitive to use. Links aren’t where you think they would be. The object pages look like exactly what they are, metadata for objects in a collection–important, but maybe off-putting for a general audience. Since the oral histories are the focus of the collections, they should be featured front and center on each page.
Overall, from a public history standpoint, this project is off to a good start. The creators accumulated an impressive amount of content, including first-person narration by immigrants. These stories work best. Hearing the varied voices of migrants, refugees, and immigrants, despite the drawbacks of Omeka, is a powerful experience.