Posted by Erin Jessee

Yesterday, I was able to complete my first interview for the Stories Matter Database. The software has come a long way in the last two weeks, largely due to the exhaustive debugging Jacques and the database building team have been doing. As a result, we believe we’re finally at a point where Stories Matter is stable enough to begin building a database based on a selection of cross-cultural interviews from the CURA project entitled “Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations.” There are still a few issues that are plaguing us, such as  (a) the development of a merge tool that will allow us to bring together interviews that have been worked on by multiple users, and (b) an export feature that will allow users to export their clips to a webpage or a power point presentation. Likewise, Jacques wants to take some time to revisit his code to make it more presentable. But overall, we’re finally at a point where Stories Matter is achieving its potential.

My introduction to database building proper began with an interview collected by the Education Working Group. It’s a fascinating and tragic interview: the female interviewee is a survivor of the Holocaust. During the war, she was detained in three different concentration camps and one forced labour camp, and was forcibly transported from her community in the Czech Republic to Poland and then to Germany. After World War II, she  immigrated to Montreal to live with her mother’s extended family. Since then, she has been an active member in the community of Holocaust survivors in Montreal, and has committed herself to educating Montrealers, both young and old, about her experiences of genocide.

Over the last three days, I spent extensive amounts of time listening to and clipping the interview. It has been a very interesting experience. I’ve been making short clips within the interview according to four predetermined themes, including question, response, prompt and story shift. A prompt is any statement made by the interviewers that causes the interviewee to respond, even if only momentarily. A question is any question posed by the interviewers. A response refers to anything that the interviewee says that relates to the question or prompt posed by the interviewers. A story shift refers to any digression in the interviewees narrative that occurs without input from the interviewers. Once a clip is created, we then summarize its contents using tag terms that reference the general subject matter being discussed, such as childhood, bystander, immigration and concentration camp. The purpose of the clips and tagging is to allow researchers, teachers and users to access information on a particular subject quickly so that they can be integrated into classroom content and presentations.

While the software is proving to be an excellent means of placing vast amounts of complete, but thematically organized information at users’ fingertips, our hope is that users will continue to interact with the interviews in a humanizing manner. As a database builder, I often find myself overwhelmed by the amount of information I’m handling at a particular moment: in addition to listening to the interview for content, I’m simultaneously taking brief notes, creating clips based on the subject being discussed, assigning tag terms, reflecting on the content, and occasionally, debugging. In this context, Stories Matter is not allowing me to focus on the interviewee in the manner that I would like. I’m engaged in deep listening, but at the same time my focus is on filling out information fields and creating precise clips that will be relevant to other users. I expect that teachers and researchers who aren’t involved in building the database will have a vastly different experience with Stories Matter, and frankly I’m excited to see how the software is reviewed once we’re finally able to have a public release.

The database building team is however being put on hold temporarily to give Jacques an opportunity to revisit his code, fix some minor bugs, and finish the final components for phase one of the Stories Matter software. With any luck, database building will begin anew in a month or so, with some new faces being added to the team so that we can tackle the rapidly growing number of Life Stories interviews in greater strength.

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