Best Practices for Creating Great Oral History Transcription

Oral history refers to the process of conducting an interview with an interviewee (narrator) with the aim of creating a record of the narrator’s personal experience of historically significant events. Oral history is a primary source of information about the past. It adds to documented history by recording different viewpoints, perspectives and reflections, which provides a better understanding of the past. Documenting the audio or video recording using interview transcription services will ensure a clear account of the narrative and also improve accessibility to the content.

What is Oral History Transcription?

Oral history begins with the interviewer making an audio or video recording of a first-person account. Transcribing the interview increases accessibility to the content. The transcription process involves typing out what is heard, identifying speakers and change of speakers, using punctuation to signify pauses and inflections, and indicating topic change by paragraphs. 

Audio recordings can be transcribed in many ways. 

  • Verbatim transcription includes filler sounds, utterances, pauses, interruptions, laughter, etc. This type of transcription does not include any kind of editing and captures the actual words, speech, and perceptions of the interviewees.
  • Intelligent transcription, in which words like “uhh” and “um” as well as false starts are not included. Basic editing is done to correct grammatical errors. 
  • Edited transcription, which includes more refinements than the Intelligent version, including correcting incomplete sentences, correcting capitalization and formatting, removing extra spaces to ensure flow, eliminating repetition, etc. 

The type of transcription done will depend on the purpose of the project. Historians generally prefer unedited transcripts that capture all the nuances, and reproduce the actual words, speech, and thought patterns of the narrator. In these unedited transcripts, only the names of people and places are corrected. 

Some projects require oral history transcription that is more refined. This would involve:

  • Creating a readable, ‘clean’ document of the recorded interview.
  • Removing grammatical mistakes, unnecessary words, filler words (uhs, ums, and ahs), and false starts which are common in everyday speech.
  • Preserving the integrity of what the person said rather than including each and every word in the document.

In this case, if users want a word for word clarification, they can refer to the audio files that are provided along with the oral history report. 

Regardless of the level of transcription, usability can be enhanced by adding indexes, timestamps, chronologies, and detailed descriptions/written guides. As it is an in-depth personal description of the narrator’s experience and views, the transcript is a primary source of information. Oral histories are usually used along with other primary and secondary data to get a clearer understanding of history.

Oral history transcripts offer many benefits: 

  • Compared to audio or video recordings, they allow you to understand the content better and start the analysis
  • Transcripts are preferred by researchers as they offer a quick and easy way to relevant information from the interview 
  • Transcripts are necessary for certain types of historical analysis
  • They need less equipment and/or technical skill than recorded content
  • They make the audiovisual content accessible to the deaf or hearing impaired
  • Transcription helps preserve the identity of the interviewees

Strategies to Improve Oral History Transcription

The following strategies can improve the quality of the oral history transcription process:

  • High-quality quality recording: The interview should be conducted in a quiet location.  A high-quality recording of the audio or video interview is necessary to capture the narrator’s interview accurately. Test the microphone, and make sure it is placed in an appropriate position and the narrator is talking at the normal volume. Your audio transcription serviceprovider can ensure a quality transcript only with a high quality recording. If the transcript is not clear, it can also cost more to transcribe.
  • Necessary documents: Oral History Review (oralhistoryreview.org) recommends the following to improve the efficiency:
  • Send a sample transcript that can be used as a reference for formatting
  • Provide a style guide – this ensures consistency and minimize editing time 
  • Include a proper noun list. Spellings of names of people and places should be verified with the narrator either during or after the interview.
  • Provide a written document/contract with transcription requirements, the expected number of audio hours and turnaround time as well as a confidentiality statement, and other paperwork as needed.
  • Prioritization: It’s important to inform your transcription company about which files have to be done first. They may be handling many projects and specifying such needs to ease the process for both parties.
  • Teamwork: To benefit from the transcriptionists’ insights, treat your dedicated transcriptionists as part of your team.

On their part, oral history interview transcription service providers will follow all the necessary guidelines for documenting oral histories. They will know how to handle contractions and dialects, fillers, false starts, unfinished thoughts, crutch words such as “you know,” “you see,” or “like”, simultaneous speech, Indecipherable words, interruptions and off-topic remarks, non-verbal sounds, and interruptions. They can also provide interview summaries if needed.