By Dr. Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS

This oral history project has reminded me again and again of the importance of a good relationship between the interviewer and transcriber. This aspect of research output – especially on a Research Facilitation project – is all too often overlooked: both in the framing of oral history research project bid (with the usual note of ‘costs of transcription will be at competitive commercial rates’,) or using a body of eager PhD students to transcribe the recordings – ie the raw data and output. Yet the transcriber is, after all, the first ‘consumer’ and producer of the research material.

Why might this be a problem? It depends on the quality of the transcriber, or transcribers: strange names, unusual contexts, lack of background knowledge can produce some glorious howlers [ I remember well reading one oral history draft transcript when the Suez Crisis had been typed as ‘the sewage crisis’ the entire way through]. This can add to the editing time of the interview researcher as editor, and be problematic if not enough care is taken before returning the transcript to the original interviewee. Everyone likes to believe they speak in complete paragraphs, with commas in all the right places. Yet conversational English is importantly – and can be dramatically different from written English. Some interviewees can take considerable umbrage at suggestions they do not speak as coherently as prose extracts from Dickens. Diplomacy and tact are needed at the start. I deliberately used Fingertips Typing (, because of the quality of their transcription and speedy turn-around (another important point) for a colleague working on a Witness Seminar on the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group.

So, oral historians – wishing to avoid the chore of personally transcribing interviews which can take at least 10 hours for every hour of conversation – can use several important techniques to enhance the quality of this draft transcription/first Directors cut process.

  1. Provide a general paragraph overview of the interview, in addition to interview spellings of unusual names/places. These are best done in alphabetical lists, rather than working chronologically through the recording. Any additional information is useful and appreciated – although Google and Wikipedia are invaluable spelling tools. It cuts down the amount of time spent on the production of the transcript, and so minimizes cost. It also helps reduce the possibility of those ‘sewage crisis’ foul ups.
  2. Accents can be an issue, and so an indication of this aspect of the recording could be useful. Brief biographies also help as background knowledge for the interview transcription. I’ve had feed-back that transcribers have only belatedly realised that they are listening to significant Prime Ministers, controversial politicians. They like a ‘steer’, which is fair enough.
  3. The transcriber can be a very useful foil/provide key feed-back on interviewing style, and observation on the research material. Never dismiss the value of a disinterested eye/listener, or advice on question structure and style. A good oral history interviewer constantly reviews their technique. Also, what further questions would they want to know the answers to? These can be aspects we have not thought of ourselves.
  4. Transcribers like to feel valued and involved. We all do. This can make the research production process more enjoyable and rewarding, in addition to the privilege of interviewing itself.
  5. Technical details: the importance of a well-placed microphone, and checking equipment beforehand. And having a back up device. Too many interviews are ruined by a poorly placed microphone, or not checking first that the recorder works & the batteries are fine.
  6. The education value of the transcription itself. I was really encouraged that some transcribers went away and did more research on the Commonwealth. That they’ve enjoyed the different perspective on issues which they had known from only one national view point. As one put it, ‘Learning about historical events, from the mouths of people who have been there and contributed to its happening, has been amazing.’

Now if that isn’t a reassurance on the value of this project, I don’t know what is.