Transcribing Oral Interviews from the Douglass Alumnae Oral History Project

It might be funny that I am making my first post about creating written documents when I’ve stated that I am working on a oral project. Yes, this is the Douglas Alumnae Oral History Project and yes, the primary documents that are to be highlighted in my work will be the multimedia interviews themselves; however, transcription, or the act of transferring audio information into its written form, is required.

Back in the day, before digital technology induced a new ease into the sharing and access of multimedia resources, transcription definitely was required. No question about it. It was the best and cheapest way oral interviews could be disseminated to the public. Unless able to attend the physical creation of the interview or to access the item or recording that this interview became, one settled for the word-for-word rendering printed on pages in books, newspapers, or magazines. An oral interview, if to be publicized, was to be paired with its transcription.

Still today, the act of transcription often accompanies the creation of an oral interview despite our abilities to easily replicate audio files and embed audio and video into webpages. Perhaps it is an indicator of this present society’s continued emphasis on the written word over the spoken; but that can only be part of it. Transcription ultimately promotes greater access, the goal to which librarians and information professionals must fix their actions.

Reasons to create transcriptions for oral interviews:

  • Clarification of speech that is unclear or disrupted in the interview
  • Allows audience to skim content quickly for relevance or interest
  • Full text search capabilities
  • Most stable option for archival preservation
  • Improved access for those with hearing or other disabilities

All of these reasons boil down to access. By providing transcriptions to an audio resource, by providing two expressions of a single work, we are simultaneously providing greater opportunity for users to explore and interact with these materials.

So then, why is there the question as to whether to transcribe or not at all? Need I say it? Need I mention yet again those two constraints against which, not only libraries, but all efforts of our society must scrape and claw and crawl against…

I will: time and money.

Time = money and money = time. Transcription can take a long time. Though many of the interviews in this collection have already been transcribed, I took it upon myself to try it out since I figured it would help give me a real sense of the essence and matter of the project I am supporting. And I really did. I feel intimately attached to the interview I listened to and rewound and rewound and rewound and rewound until I created a decent script of it. But this intimacy took time to establish, about seven hours for this forty five minute interview. Maybe this  could be attributed to the fact that this was my first time transcribing an interview and that I worked without the assistance of any specialized transcribing software or equipment. But it took a while as transcription generally does.

I’m an unpaid intern, so what I do with my time is appreciated but it doesn’t necessarily affect the bottom line, unless I mess up terribly or become a huge success and somehow win the Douglass Library tons of money. I am expected to produce what I said I will, but no money (except my own really since I am paying for the credits I am earning) is spent on my toils. You, however, may not be in my position. You (and I can even be talking to my future self here) are a paid employee who is a financial investment of your company or institution in return for being a recognized producer of thought, content, and services. How can you spend all of your time on one item when there are hundreds, maybe thousands, under your responsibility, a responsibility whose fruition costs money? Is this effort worth it?

Well, the answer to that one depends on the context. In my instance, where I am creating a website in order to act as an educational resource for students or other interested parties, the act of transcription is worth it. Educational resources should be made as easily accessible as possible for all kinds of users and all kinds of needs since, I’m sure we all agree, education is for everybody. While there are issues regarding the usefulness of orthodox transcription methods for users like the Deaf community, it is still important that we try the best within our means to provide as much assistance as possible to these groups. Often when transcribing, the transcriber must confront the conflict between capturing the meaning of the speaker’s words and recording them verbatim. What information is lost if this verbal stalling is left out? How much editorial work for clarification’s sake is acceptable before the transcription strays too far from the original source?

These are difficult questions to answer uniformly though it could be met with the tried and true “know your user community”. I know most of my users are likely going to be using these materials for college level class projects (at least that is this project’s intention and this purpose may change once it is released into the world) and it is for this user group that my creations must serve. How can I facilitate students looking for which interview to pick for a project? How can I incite interest, draw connections, or aid critical thinking? In what ways can I aid those with different needs? Questions, questions, questions. To be a librarian is to have a thoughtful position.

I had mentioned earlier software or equipment that might aide those who feel the need for the sake of their users, like me, to include transcribed text along with their audio materials. Free software is available like Express Scribe that slow down the speed of the recording and allow for keyboard shortcuts for certain words. I learned that foot pedals exist that rewind the recording with the touch of a foot, keeping the hands free and also keeping the transcriber within one program, unlike me who was constantly switching back and forth between iTunes and Word.

There are also plenty of resources online that offer assistance and tips for best practices for those transcribing audio into text.

  • This article Transcribing Oral History in the Digital Age by Linda Shopes on the Institute of Museum and Library Services website expands the conversation I’ve started here about the choice of creating transcriptions for and oral collection and provides extremely helpful questions pertaining to the planning, value, and issues that should guide this decision.
  • Transcriptions on the Web by Shawn Lawton Henry offers some great advice for creating a effective and useful transcripts that will work to further promote your audio collection.
  • This information sheet from East Midlands Oral History Archive lists useful style guidelines for the transcription documents themselves and also explains the importance of summaries in addition to audio materials and accompanying transcribed text. <\li>
  • Questioning why machines can’t just do this for us already? Check out this article about Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technologies and its current capabilities within the oral history community.

In short, there are many ways to transcribe documents better than I did, just winging it, for my first time. To transcribe should succeed thought and reflection as to first, what value this transcription will provide your collection for its users and second, the means by which they will be created. Determine how users should be able to access these materials and continue to work with this access in mind. Of course transcription can never capture all of the information held within the oral interview, the ultimate primary document in this case, that only sounds can so effortlessly communicate: the informative power of emotion, a stutter, a speech pattern. The content, though, of the interview, its themes, its purpose, its meat can be better accessed and discovered in different ways through its written expression, even in this digital age.

I have another interview to finish transcribing, but then I will be moving on to choosing exactly who will be able to appear on my website. I have a lot of standardization, checking of permissions, and curation ahead of me, so I’m sure I’ll have something interesting to say on those in the future. Thanks for reading and please read on!