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Program Veterans History Project

Transcribing 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 greatly reducing 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 required. If 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).

In general, 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 VHP Field Kit page.

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 transcript afterwards.

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 tape.

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 were done.
  • When formatting the text on the page, use one-inch margins on each side of the paper; number the pages; and double-space the text.
  • Identify all speakers at the start of their comments, by typing their name in bolded capital letters, followed by a colon, e.g., SMITH:
  • 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).

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 found incomprehensible
  • 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 sites.

Baum, Willa K. Transcribing and Editing Oral History. Nashville: American Association of State and Local History, 1977.

Davis, Cullom, Kathryn Black, and Kay McLean. Oral History: From Tape to Type. Chicago: American Library Association, 1977.

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

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

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

Yow, Valerie Raleigh. Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1994.