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Indexing and Transcribing Your Interviews
Indexing and transcribing are extremely useful ways to identify the major
topics in an interview and the approximate point at which they
occur in the recording. This saves wear and tear on a tape by
the amount of fast-forwarding and rewinding to "scan"
the content; further, both allow a researcher to quickly determine
if a recording addresses a particular issue or not.
An index lists the major topics discussed in the interview and the approximate
places in the recording they occur; a transcript is a word-for-word document
that allows one to "read" the interview.
While transcripts are extremely helpful and are always welcome with
interviews, they are very time-comsuming and therefore are not
resources do not allow you to transcribe recordings, please
take the time to create an index of each interview you submit.
How can I index my recordings?
Listen to the recording closely and write down the major points in the
order in which they are discussed, being careful to also note
the minute and second or the meter reading on the recorder (minute
and second notes
are usually more reliable across different recorders).
researchers and listeners are more interested in the answers
than the questions (since the answers are usually
more varied than the questions, and may go into related topics
not directly mentioned in the
question). A good rule of thumb is the more detailed and descriptive
the indexing is, the better researchers are able to access the
tape content. For example, writing "describes fears about not surviving
and prayers he wrote in his diary" is more helpful than "fears in battle." For
examples of some excellent logs the Veterans History Project
has received from participants, please see sample
Audio and Video Recording Logs listed on our forms page.
Red Cross technicians prepare paperwork for blood donated by Bell Aircraft
Corporation employees for use by troops in Korea, [Nov. 1951]. Prints
and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number:
What is a transcript?
A transcript or transcription is a word-for-word written copy
of a taped interview. If time and resources permit, the Veterans
History Project strongly recommends that you or your organization
create transcripts of your interviews.
Why make transcripts?
Transcripts offer several important benefits, such as:
- aiding researchers in quickly skimming and assessing the relevance
of an interview
- saving on the wear-and-tear of the audiotapes and videocassettes
- helping researchers comprehend voices on the tapes that are
difficult to hear or understand
- providing, in the case of transcripts submitted on disk, the
means to search via computer for specific words and phrases
mentioned in the interview
What is the relationship between the transcript and the recording?
Transcripts were once seen by some oral historians as a substitute
for the original audio and video recordings. It was not uncommon
years ago for large oral history programs to dispose of or reuse
audiotapes once transcripts of the recordings were made. This
decision stemmed from concerns over the tapes' deteriorating sound
quality, the costs of storing and preserving tapes of unknown
longevity, the potential obsolescence of play-back equipment,
and the belief that most researchers preferred to read a transcript
rather than listen to a recording.
More recently, archivists and oral historians began preserving
both the original recording and its accompanying transcript as
complementary documentation of the same event. No matter how thorough
and accurate transcripts may be, they are never able to capture
all the details in an audio recording such as the tone of voice
and emotion expressed in the spoken word, nor can they convey
the facial expressions and mannerisms that come through in a video
recording. They are, however, excellent access tools. They provide
an easily accessible reference substitute for the recordings,
and they require no special play-back equipment or listening booth.
How much time does it take to make a transcript?
Creating a transcript is time consuming but extremely valuable.
Word processing software and other computer programs have made
the task easier than before, but oral historians and folklorists
estimate that it takes between six and twelve hours to transcribe
one hour of an interview, plus additional time if you edit the
How thorough should the transcript be?
The goal is to create a transcript that is both accurate and
understandable to the reader. It need not include every utterance
or describe every background noise, but it should reproduce as
closely as possible the speaker's words. It should also be consistent
in the stylistic approach and level of detail throughout.
Are there any alternatives to creating a full transcript?
Yes. Instead of creating a formal transcription, you might consider
making a shorter summary or abstract that outlines the primary
individuals and major topics discussed on the tape in the order
in which they are mentioned. You can use the Audio and Video Recording
Log provided in this kit (with the Project Forms). Another alternative
is to create an alphabetical list of names and subjects mentioned
in the recording with their corresponding counter reading on the
What are some tips for creating and editing transcripts?
- Work with a copy of the recording if at all possible. Do not
play the master tape.
- Listen to the recording in its entirety once to become familiar
with the voices on the tape and the questions being asked.
- Many oral historians use transcribing machines which they
say are well worth the $200-$500 price charged by Sony, Panasonic,
and other manufacturers. These machines have foot pedals to
stop and rewind the tape during playback, freeing the hands
for transcribing. They also play at variable speeds to enable
muffled or garbled portions to be intelligible.
- At the beginning of the transcript, identify who transcribed
the tape, who edited the transcript, and the date(s) these tasks
- When formatting the text on the page, use one-inch margins
on each side of the paper; number the pages; and double-space
- Identify all speakers at the start of their comments, by typing
their name in bolded capital letters, followed by a colon, e.g.,
- Create a verbatim transcript, but omit such expressions as
"um" or "ah." Include expressions such as "umhum" or "huh-huh"
when used to mean "yes" or "no" in response to specific questions.
- Do not revise the narrator's words to force them into standard
written prose. Leave untouched any sentence fragments, run-on
sentences, and incorrect grammar. Commas and dashes may be used
to reflect pauses in the spoken words.
- If changes are made, clearly indicate when and how the transcript
differs from the original tape recording.
- Put in brackets explanations about why the interview was interrupted
or why the tape recorder was turned off, e.g., [Interview interrupted
by a telephone call].
- Place a question mark before and after a word or phrase to
indicate any uncertainty about it, e.g., (?destroyed?).
- Indicate the end of a side of the tape in capital letters,
e.g., END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE; BEGIN SIDE TWO, TAPE ONE.
- Identify garbled or inaudible portions of the tape. If one
word is inaudible, indicate the gap with a ___ . When multiple
words are inaudible, insert ___+ or estimate the elapsed time
using the indicator ___ .... (___seconds).
American journalist Therese Bonney in Finland during World
War II, 1942. New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection,
Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number:
Should the interviewer review and edit the transcript?
The degree to which transcripts are edited, including the number
of revisions made by the interviewer and the person being interviewed
(i.e., the narrator), are questions of serious debate among oral
historians. The Veterans History Project recommends that when
possible the transcripts should be edited by the interviewer to:
- catch misspellings
- fill in those portions of the dialog which the transcriber
- supply in brackets the full name, title, or other identification
of a person the first time he or she is mentioned
- correct any other glaring errors by the transcriber, who likely
will be less familiar with the narrator and the subjects mentioned
in the tape than the person who conducted the interview
Should the narrator review and edit the transcript?
The Veterans History Project suggests that you exercise your
good judgment in deciding whether the narrator's involvement in
the review process will enhance the usefulness and research value
of the transcripts without alienating those who have already donated
their time and memories to the project.
Sometimes narrators are given the opportunity to review transcripts.
They can usually fill in any gaps and spot more easily than anyone
else the errors in the transcript. Reading the transcript also
sparks additional memories that they would like to include, which
could be inserted in brackets in the document.
The disadvantages are that the narrators may find reviewing the
transcripts burdensome and may resent being asked. They also may
be inclined to "clean up" their slang expressions and spoken language
to such an extent that they sacrifice the tone and rhythm of the
interview and make less compelling what they said.
What about professional transcription services?
If you have the financial resources, you may want to hire a professional
transcription service, preferably one with experience transcribing
oral history recordings. These companies charge in the range of
$100-$125 per hour of tape, but be sure that the cost covers making
corrections to a first draft and includes delivery of the final
transcript in both paper and electronic form. Sometimes it is
possible to get funding from state humanities councils to transcribe
collections of oral histories once they have been recorded and
assembled into a collection.
If you have a group of interviews to transcribe, it is best to
hire the same service to do all of them to ensure consistency
in overall approach and in the spelling of personal and geographic
names, acronyms, and technical terms. Provide the transcriber
with a list of these names and terms together with well-labeled
copies of the tapes. Do not send the transcriber your master tape.
What are some good sources of further information?
For additional information on transcribing and indexing oral
history interviews, please consult the following books and Web
Baum, Willa K. Transcribing and Editing Oral
History. Nashville: American Association of State and Local
Davis, Cullom, Kathryn Black, and Kay McLean. Oral
History: From Tape to Type. Chicago: American Library Association,
Dunaway, David K., and Willa K. Baum, ed. Oral
History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology. 2nd ed. Walnut Creek:
AltaMira Press, c1996.
Everett, Stephen E. Oral History Techniques
and Procedures. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History,
United States Army, 1992. Available online at http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/oral.htm
Ives, Edward. The Tape Recorded Interview.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1980.
Lance, David. An Archive Approach to Oral History.
London: Imperial War Museum, 1978.
Oral History Association. Oral History Evaluation
Guidelines. Pamphlet No. 3. Carlisle, Pa.: Dickinson College,
1989, rev. Sept. 2000. Available online at http://omega.dickinson.edu/organizations/oha/pub_eg.html
Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History. New
York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Oral
History Interview Guidelines. Washington, D.C.: The Museum,
1998. Available online in PDF format at http://www.ushmm.org/archives/oralhist.pdf
Yow, Valerie Raleigh. Recording Oral History:
A Practical Guide for Social Scientists. Thousand Oaks: SAGE
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