The Debate Over Transcription

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    Oral history in the United States underwent several changes in the twentieth century. In the late 1800s and early 1900s oral history was considered a transcript or an interview, and little more. The technology to record sound was crude and inaccessible, which inextricably bound the aural/visual account of an individual retelling their experiences to the physical limitations of ink and paper. The necessity of transcription as a means of collecting oral histories was a result of the nature of many early studies of oral history, with historiographical concerns rarely playing a key role in the process. They employed average people, and often sought out average narrators. Early interviewers ranged in practice, from the inclusion of verbatim dialectic tendencies to the exclusion of material because of repetition and jargon. It could be argued that modern oral history in the U.S. evolved because of technology, and in its impetus was a product of an overwhelming and mournful sentiment that American society was changing because of that same technological advancement. The debate over transcription developed around the level of diffusion and the accessibility of the material, therefore the debate must change as new avenues of transmission and accessibility are created. Oral history at one time was limited by these factors, but modern technology is rapidly removing the limitations that required transcription as a matter of necessity.

    Oral history interviews contain personal experiences and life stories of individuals and those interviews are harnessed for public use. However, the interview alone is not the beginning of the oral history process. Considerable research should be conducted before the interview and release forms should be filled out. After the interview has been completed, there is still more work that needs to be done. The interviewer, or leader of the oral history project, should decide what the interviews will be used for and if the interviews will be transcribed. While the audio file of the interview is extremely important, especially for historical posterity, there is also the option to create a written transcript of the interview that can be used for future research. Michael Frisch notes that this change is "extensive and controlling" in the article "Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility."1 There are some academic and oral history professionals that believe a written transcript is necessary, and there are some who believe the original audio or video file is all that should be used for research because it is a true representation of the interview. Frisch is of the latter camp, and he articulates his argument against transcription as the only transmission of oral history:

     Oral history source materials have generally been approached, used,and              
     represented through expensive and cumbersome transcription into text. 
     Even when the enormous flattening of meaning inherent in text reduction 
     is recognized, transcription has seemed quite literally essential - not 
     only inevitable but something close to 'natural.'2

    Frisch ardently stresses the need for professionals to reevaluate the tradition in the U.S. of focusing on transcription. Aside from his involvement in the oral history community, he also created a company to show how that it is possible; and practical, to look at transcription in different ways using computer technology. Randforce Associates, LLC "is helping a broad range of oral history and qualitative analysis clients to digitize and index audio-video documentation."3 Modern applications of technology can be utilized to help oral historians organize, disassemble, and reorder oral histories in ways that can help in the study of linguistics, history, and public memory, just to name a few.

    Oral histories have been conducted for centuries and often take the form of collected community stories. As a result, when oral histories first began to be recorded, there were no tape recorders available because they had not yet been invented. The role oral histories played in the transmission of events and information in the distant past is no doubt paramount, but for the sake of this essay an emphasis will be placed on oral history as it is understood in the U.S. This is done because the debate over transcription in the U.S. is in no way resolved, whereas much of the international historical community has found resolution in the need for a diversified look at oral histories and their uses.O Oral historians Linda Shopes and Paula Hamilton argue that "oral history emerged as a widespread practice in relation to the democratizing of history in the 1960s, fueled by decolonization and the feminist and civil rights movements."4 This view is not held by all historians though, like Elinor A. Maze, some argue that oral history developed much earlier in the U.S.5

Early Oral Histories in the United States

    Written transcripts were the first way to record interviews. The Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s was one of the first formal oral history projects organized in the United States. The transcribed interviews from the FWP “are considered by many oral historians to be the most important twentieth-century antecedents of modern oral history."6 Early oral historians often added dialect to their transcriptions and occasionally added their own comments, but these issues were not yet a subject of debate within the history community. Maze also notes that many early historians transcribed the exact accounts of Western heroes, often including symbols and clues to speech patterns, along with dialectic spellings. This, according to Maze, was done to preserve the culture of these individuals. She cites the interviews of Hubert Howe Bancroft as a prime example of early oral histories that were created to preserve the culture and stories of the American West.7

The Current Debate

    In recent years, it has become a matter of debate whether or not to transcribe interviews, or if transcription alone substantially represents the interview. Because there are a variety of ways to capture audio and video recordings, written transcriptions are not an absolute necessity, and no longer need to be orphaned from their aural precursor. This essay will explore the debate of whether or not oral histories should be transcribed, focusing on the main arguments that have been made and looking to the future for oral history transcription. In the hopes of clearly representing the actual controversy surrounding transcription, it is easier to look at the two sides being pro-transcription and anti-transcription. This does not mean that proponents of anti-transcription subscribe to a theory that removes transcription from the process entirely. Rather, they argue that transcription alone does not authentically represent the interview as a whole.

Continue this discussion here The Debate Over Transcription: Arguments for Transcription

Related Pages

The Debate Over Transcription

The Debate Over Transcription: Arguments for Transcription

The Debate Over Transcription: Arguments Against Transcription

Diffusion: Digital Media and the Internet's Effect on Oral History

Accessibility: Tools That Allow New Perspective

The Debate Over Transcription: Possible Conclusions


1 Michael Frisch, "Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility," in The Oral History Reader 2nd edition, ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thompson (London:Routledge, in press), 1.
2 Frisch, "Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility," 1.
3 The Randforce Associates, LLC Oral History and Muti-Media Documentary, Accessed on 5/21/09.
4 Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, Oral Histories and Public Memories (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), VII.
5 Elinor A. Maze, “The Uneasy Page: Transcribing and Editing Oral History,” in Handbook of Oral History, ed. Thomas L. Charlton, Lois E. Myers, and Rebecca Sharpless (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2006), 237-239.
6 Maze, “The Uneasy Page: Transcribing and Editing Oral History,” 238.
7 Maze, “The Uneasy Page: Transcribing and Editing Oral History,” 238.

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