Why transcribe oral history recordings?

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 exhibits etc.

So is there a need to get your oral history projects transcribed? Well the simple answer is yes, and here’s 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 a transcript can also provide the basis for plays, books and documentaries. Indeed, one of our current clients is planning to use his oral history recordings to produce a play, or perhaps, given the volume of material, a series of plays. I doubt it would be possible to write a play using oral history content by simply listening to archives – they will need to see and collate the written material.

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, such as NVivo, and again that requires written text to work with.

Although, as the Oral History Society points out on its web page, ‘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. Of course, if you use a transcription company geared up to produce transcripts from recordings, this will save a lot of time, although I’m afraid you will need to pay us! And here’s an important point to consider: do you really need a ‘full verbatim transcription’?

When we at Penguin Transcription Services talk about ‘verbatim’ we understand it to include 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 have 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 a transcript of exactly what’s said (i.e. no tidying up of grammar) but missing out all the interjections and 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, we will always include any of these things if they particularly indicate emotion, and also put in, if it’s obvious from the recording, where someone laughs, cries etc.

Intelligent verbatim transcription will not only save you money, but give you a more relevant transcription that is 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 and writers.


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