Editing oral histories

Sally-Anne Watson Kane . Wednesday, May 10, 2017 . Comments
Editing oral histories

After an oral history has been recorded and transcribed into an accurate transcript, it needs to be edited. How much editing it needs depends on the intended use of the oral history transcript. Is it going to be filed away and archived? Circulated to family members? Published as an article, or with other oral histories as a book?

Editing an oral history transcript

After an oral history has been recorded then transcribed, the editing stage begins. The editor needs to take the transcript back to the author (the interviewee) and go through it with them, word by word, to:

  • ensure it is an accurate representation of what they said.
  • confirm that to their knowledge, the information in the transcript is correct.
  • prompt the author to clarify any words or phrases that are not clear and edit in those clarifications.
  • give them the opportunity to add to the transcript or to delete any parts they don't wish to include.
  • confirm whether the author is happy to have their name associated with the transcript (if needed).
  • confirm the Copyright owner of the transcript (whether or not it is intended to be published).


From an ethical point of view, the copyright owner of an oral history transcript is always the author, the person who told that story. In my view, that copyright ownership should remain in the author's name wherever possible. However, sometimes the author wishes the copyright ownership to be held by another person, or a publisher, because it is more practical. For example, if an oral history is one of a collection of stories to be published in a book, it is more practical if either the publisher, or a representative organisation or person, to own the copyright for that book of oral histories; or if the author of the oral history lives in another country, it may be more practical for the author to give the copyright ownership to a person who lives in the country where the oral history will be published.

Importantly, if an author gives the copyright of their oral history to another person or an organisation or publisher, the copyright owner of that oral history should act responsibly and ethically in regard to the author of that story.

Editing in consultation with the author

The author of an oral history should be given the opportunity to edit their own story, in consultation with the scribe/editor. This is because sometimes, seeing their comments in print may prompt the author to realise they've made a mistake about a name, date or place; or that they don't wish to include certain comments or views, after all, because they may offend someone or even endanger themselves or another person. 

After the first editing consultation with the author of the oral history, the editor needs to go back to the office and edit the oral history as requested or as decided in consultation with the author. If there have been a number of corrections to the original, the editor needs to take the edited draft back to the author again and repeat the editing-in-consultation process. The editor should consult with the author as many times as is necessary for the author to be satisfied that the transcript is correct and ready to be presented to the intended audience, whether that be family members, their community or, if their story is intended for publication, proofreaders or publishers.

What if that editing consultation isn't possible?

Sometimes, it's not possible to take the transcript back to the author of the oral history and edit it in consultation with them; they may live in another country and/or a very remote area so that it's difficult or impossible to meet with them before using the transcript. They may even live in a country at war which makes it impossible to post the transcript to them to review. 

If the oral history was recorded in those sort of circumstances, it's likely the interviewer spoke to the author at the time they recorded the oral history and asked their permission to use their story for the intended purpose. Obviously, if they did not, the transcript should not be used. 

When it's impossible to edit the oral history transcript in consultation with the author, the editor should:  

  • fact-check any information that needs to be verified.
  • include footnotes (or other methods of inserting notes) , or edit slightly, if the meaning of any comments is not clear.
  • 'edit out' (delete) any comments that the editor feels the interviewee would probably have decided against including, had they been given the opportunity to read through the transcript themselves; e.g. for safety or personal privacy reasons, or because those comments may cause danger to the author or another person.

Editing oral history transcripts for publication

In addition to the above, if an oral history transcript is intended to be published as an article in a magazine or other publication, or published in a compilation of oral histories as a book, the editor needs to:

  • Ensure the author of the oral history has given verbal or written permission to publish their story in the intended publication or type of publication. The editor cannot publish the author's oral history in any type of publication other than the type of publication to which the author has agreed.
  • Even if the author of the oral history has verified the information is correct, cross-check and/or fact-check information to try to ensure it is correct prior to publication, to avoid disinformation and potential legal liability issues.
  • Use footnotes, endnotes or other methods to identify (and, if possible, explain) any inconsistencies; e.g. inconsistencies within that oral history, or statements contradicted by other oral histories or publications.
  • Use footnotes, endnotes or other methods to explain or clarify the meaning of any ambiguous comments, or statements that need some background knowledge to put in context or understand.
  • If the intended publication is a compilation of oral histories, with the overall structure, purpose and intended audience of the publication in  mind, 1) exclude certain passages or even whole oral histories from the publication if necessary to improve the publication; 2) arrange the oral histories in the order in which they need to be presented; and 3) oversee the design processes to ensure the publication is presented as it should be.
  • After completing the editing process, the editor should send the oral history, or oral histories, to a qualified lawyer to be 'legalled' to ensure their publication does not pose too high a legal risk (e.g. legal liability; defamation). The lawyer provides a report to the editor (or publisher) who then takes that advice into account before deciding whether to proceed with the publication in its current state, or whether further editing is necessary.
  • Once the editing process is complete, the oral history is then designed, proofread and readied for publication; or, if a compilation of oral histories is to be published, the manuscript is proofread, designed, carefully proofread again before being sent to the printers, then proofread a final time before being printed.

For blog articles about editing and proofreading in general go to: Editing and proofreading

The above information is based on my own experiences recording, transcribing, editing and publishing oral histories.

Sally-Anne Watson Kane has recorded, scribed, edited and compiled several publications of oral histories, and has been producing transcripts and publications for 20 years. She established On Time Typing scribing and editing services in 2002 and continues to provide audio transcription, scribing and editing services across Australia.

Copyright Sally-Anne Watson Kane, On Time Typing. Please seek my permission prior to reproducing this article in any way but feel free to link directly to this page if you wish to use this content - thanks!


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