Tufts Associate Professor of History, Kris Manjapra, has been collaborating with fellow historians, Dr. Neilesh Bose of the University of North Texas and Dr. Iftekhar Iqbal of Dhaka University, to bring to life one of the most important fields in South Asian history today – the study of South Asian intellectual history from the colonial era to the post-colonial period, bridging the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

In the spring of 2009, Professor Manjapra’s project, An Oral History Project on Bengali Intellectuals in the Age of Decolonization: Mapping Postcolonial Thought, was awarded a Berger Family Technology Transfer Endowment Grant by Tufts’ Tisch Library. These endowments enable librarians and faculty to explore interesting projects in the area of information technology and to apply their discoveries to real issues within the University.

The goal of Professor Manjapara’s project is to develop in partnership with UIT Academic Technology (AT)Tufts Digital Collections and Archives (DCA), and the Tisch Library “a new digital humanities online teaching tool, employing a number of innovative technologies to teach history more effectively to undergraduates, and to the interested internet public.” Additionally, the project plans to collect thirty oral history interviews with important Bengal intellectuals who experienced Partition in 1947 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Screen shot of Visualizing Oral Histories web site home page.

The project vision is to present the interviews in a cutting-edge interactive online learning environment, which integrates geo-mapping of Kolkata, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, along with substantial contextualizing web content. This web archive and learning tool is to be used in classroom instruction, and will also be of value to the wider internet public interested in the intellectual geographies of post-colonial South Asia, and in the events of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh today.

The web site that has been developed provides students, educators, and historians with an interactive research tool that allows them to play back the audio recordings of oral history interviews, stop the interview at any point, and click on people, places, and concepts referred to in the audio to explore those items more fully.

For example, clicking on a place name provides the user with a Google Map of the location along with more information on that location including photographic images, description, and links to more information. Clicking on a person or concept similarly displays more information about that entity.

Thus the listener can fully explore the oral history in ways that cannot be achieved through listening alone. The technological challenge for AT and the DCA was to develop a system that can be reused beyond the initial content provided by the grant and therefore provide the platform for use with other oral history collections.

The Content

Dr. Manjapra’s Berger grant has allowed him to travel the globe to meet with, interview, and record oral histories with leading senior intellectuals of West Bengal and Bangladesh, born between c. 1920 and c. 1950. These figures stewarded academic institutions and helped create a new post-colonial regime of knowledge with implications for the intellectual history of South Asia. He is collaborating with Dr. Bose and Dr. Iqbal to record and curate these oral histories especially in West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The audio recordings were stored in digital, mp3-formatted files and carefully transcribed into plain text files. These thirty recordings form the base source materials for this oral history collection.

Content about Content: Meta Data

Screen shot of Visualizing Oral Histories interview page.

To provide the listener with the ability to dive deeper into the people, concepts, and places mentioned in the oral histories, the text transcripts were analyzed by Dr. Manjapra and project team members. Entities of interest were highlighted and flagged in order to develop more content about those entities. This “content about content” is often called “metadata”. For example, entities within the transcripts that refer to geographically located places (such as buildings, towns, states, etc.) were delivered to AT’s Senior Geographical Information Specialist, Patrick Florance, who then provided metadata regarding coordinates of the location.

Metadata was also gathered for people and concepts such as “cultural freedom” or “cold war.” The metadata developed could include description, relevant dates, images, or links to more information. The bibliographer for the project, Martha Kelehan of the Tisch Library, helped locate secondary and primary source materials on the interviewees, as well as think through how source material for further reading and research can be provided through the site.

Both the core source content and metadata were then archived within the database of Tufts Digital Collection & Archives for permanent safe-keeping and recovery.

Making the Content Interactive

While the data was being collected, AT’s designers and developers worked on implementing the web site that would allow scholars to browse, explore, and interact with the collection.

What was developed was an “oral history engine” that is able to automatically ingest the data collected, including the audio files associated with it. The web site programming then presents the data within a user-friendly and engaging web page, linking people, concepts, and places appropriately, and providing the scholar with opportunities to explore the metadata at his or her leisure.

What’s Next?

The oral history engine has been architected and developed to provide a number of additional features to aid scholars in their research. Over the next few months, the plan is to develop functionality that will allow:

a) Full-text search across all interviews: scholars who want to locate the audio portion of all interviews that mention a particular concept will be able to do so.

b) Historical map overlays: as the scholar explores the geo-located places mentioned in the interview, he or she can also choose to overlay historical maps of the region to visualize, for example, how borders, town planning, etc., have changed over time.

c) Concept mapping: having already identified concepts mentioned in the interviews we can use concept mapping technologies (such as the Visual Understanding Environment – VUE) to visualize how these concepts might connect to one another, providing another tool for navigating the entire corpus.

d) Replication of the model: to validate the re-usability of the developed engine, the design and development group will be looking for other oral history collections to present via the tools developed.

More Information

For more information about the Bengali Oral History project, please contact Kris Manjapra (kris.manjapra@tufts.edu). For more information about the design and development technologies being used, please contact David Grogan (david.grogan@tufts.edu) at UIT Academic Technology.

In the meantime, please explore the web site yourself at http://bengaloralhistory.tufts.edu.

David Grogan, Manager, Curricular Technology Group, UIT Academic Technology

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