Recording and transcribing oral histories
An oral history is a recording or transcript of someone’s memories of their own life experiences. Oral histories are usually recorded into digital audio files then produced as transcripts of the person’s statements. These transcripts may also reflect the interviewee’s non-verbal expressions and body language. An oral history transcript should represent the interviewee’s telling of their story as exactly as possible.
Note: although an oral history may be transcribed as the interviewee speaks instead of producing an audio recording of the interviewee’s story, this article is about first producing an audio recording of an oral history then producing a verbatim transcript.
Recording an oral history
Different interviewers have different styles; there is no one correct way to record an interview of a person talking about their past experiences. Whether the interviewer speaks as little as possible or becomes involved in the discussion depends on the personalities involved and how much interviewer input is needed; e.g. the interviewer usually limits their comments to:
- explaining the process or relaying other relevant information to the interviewed person,
- prompting the person to elaborate on a topic or encouraging them to continue telling their story and/or
- comforting or showing empathy to the person or engaging with them in other ways.
Before recording an oral history, make sure you and the storyteller have agreed on who will own the copyright of the story, payment and other legal issues. For more information go to Oral history interviews: ethical and legal issues – or, for Indigenous oral histories, Who owns story?
When recording an oral history, it’s a good idea for the interviewer (or their assistant) to jot down the interviewee’s non-verbal cues – shrugging, smiling, biting their lip, leafing through documents, indicating with their hands or body – along with whatever they were saying at that time. That way, after the audio recording has been transcribed the interviewer will be able to insert those non-verbal cues into the transcript if they wish, which may add to that person’s story.
For some tips on how to make sure interviewees’ comments are clearly audible see: Tips for recording interviews
Oral histories can be recorded via telephone or face to face. But bear in mind it is far more difficult to engage with an interviewee via telephone, and the person may divulge less, or different, information than if they had been interviewed face to face. Audibility is also very important and can be an issue when speaking via telephone so extra care must be taken to make sure the interviewee’s voice is clear when recording a person’s statements via telephone. For more information about recording discussions or interviews via telephone see: Recording telephone conversations
Producing a transcript of an oral history
To accurately transcribe a recording of a person’s oral story you need to be an accurate touch typist, have very good listening skills, and have access to suitable audio transcription equipment. For more information about the equipment you need, see: How to produce perfect transcripts
To produce an accurate transcript, you need to first transcribe the recording into a first draft and then proofread that draft (whilst listening again to the audio file) to fill in gaps, correct misheard words and punctuate the transcript to make it as easy to read and understand as possible. You should include relevant information about the oral history on each transcript; e.g. the name of the interviewee, time and length of the recording and other details. For more information about the process of producing accurate transcripts see: 3 point plan for producing transcripts
Once an oral history has been transcribed and proofread and the transcript represents the interviewee’s statements exactly, the interviewer or transcriptionist can then (if relevant/appropriate) insert information about the non-verbal cues and actions made by the interviewee during the recording.
The above information is based on my own experiences recording, transcribing, editing and publishing oral histories. For more information go to:
- The Oral History Handbook (Australia)
- Editing oral histories
- Oral history interviews: ethical and legal issues
- for Indigenous oral histories: Who owns story?
For other articles about recording and producing transcripts in general, go to: Audio transcription.
Photo: taken in Myanmar/Burma (Pixabay); identities unknown.
Sally-Anne Watson Kane has extensive experience recording, scribing, editing and compiling publications of oral histories. She established On Time Typing scribing and editing services in 2002.
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