Transcription for Oral History Projects – Is It Necessary?

Collecting oral histories has become increasingly popular over the last few years, with the improvements in audio technology allowing good quality digital recordings to be made, that can be safely archived and easily backed up. Certainly listening to recordings of people reflecting on a specific area of their past, whether it be the way a town has changed over the years, reflections of a war or how their feelings about religion have altered during their lifetime, is a fascinating experience, and with the improvements in digital technology it is now possible to (relatively) easily edit recordings so that you can pick out particularly relevant or interesting sections for radio broadcast, museum displays etc.

So is there a need to get your oral history projects transcribed? Well the simple answer is yes, and here are some reasons why:

Transcription can provide an excellent guide to your interviews and it’s fully searchable. That’s something that is just not possible with audio recording, so if you have twenty-five two-hour interviews about changes in the town centre, and you know that someone in one of them mentioned that statue put up after the war, how do you find it? A simple document search will provide the answer, provided your interviews are transcribed.

Not only that but it can also provide the basis for plays, books and documentaries. These cannot be written by someone simply listening to archives – they will need to see and collate the written material.

Historical researchers will also need to analyse and collate written text in order to draw conclusions. Researchers using interviews and case studies will normally run their work through a qualitative data analysis package, and again that requires written text to work with.

Although, as the Oral History Society points out on its website, ‘full verbatim transcription of recordings is hugely time-consuming and expensive, and can require special equipment,’ they appreciate that it can provide an excellent guide to your interviews. And here’s an important point to consider: do you really need a ‘full verbatim transcription’?

In my company a full verbatim transcription would cover every word from the moment the recorder is switched on to the point when it is turned off, but with digital recordings you can easily say to the transcriptionist, ‘Please transcribe between 2 minutes 38 seconds and 38 minutes 10 seconds; then again between 45 minutes 13 seconds and the end of the recording’ for example. This way you don’t even need to worry about editing the recording before having it transcribed.

Also, you probably don’t need a verbatim transcription! Again, the meaning of the word verbatim seems to differ from transcription company to transcription company, but we understand it as including every word, including repeated words, every cough, every non-verbal interaction (e.g. hmmm, er, um, ur), repeated failures to start a sentence, stutters and meaningless interjections e.g. someone saying ‘you know’ or ‘know what I mean’ or ‘kind of’ or ‘sort of’ every few seconds. If you conducted an oral history project then you’ll know the sort of kind of thing I’m talking about, I’m sure! Know what I mean?

A significantly cheaper level of transcription is intelligent verbatim, which is just what’s said (i.e. no tidying up of grammar) but missing out all the interjections, losing failed sentence starts; (for example, ‘Well I think … I can’t really remember … I don’t know if you want to hear about … Well, during the war I had a puppy called Billy.’ would become ‘During the war I had a puppy called Billy.’) and not including stutters, coughs etc. However, experienced oral history transcriptionists will be happy to include any of these things if they are particularly indicating emotion, and also put in, if it’s obvious from the recording and it’s requested, where someone laughs, cries etc.

Of course if you’re outsourcing your transcription to an expert then it’s also less time consuming for you, but also less time consuming altogether because a transcription service will be able to complete the work far faster than someone who does not have the relevant equipment or is not a fast touch typist.

The result will be a more relevant transcription that is more easily searchable and more useful for all concerned.

So if your oral history project really wants to provide an invaluable record for the future, while audio recordings are fascinating and important, the written word is still really the most useful tool for researchers, writers and so on.