Transcribing Oral History

Transcription_using_cylinder_phonographShopes article highlights the significance of the transcription process within oral history (specifically focused on interviews). In her article, she raises one important issue regarding the preservation of cultural heritage. She argues that transcription translates “one form of communication into another” ultimately causing the loss of particular “nuances of embodied expression” (2012, n.p.).

What is particularly strong about Shopes’ argument is her description of various solutions to ensure the process of transcription is carried out effectively, even in different contexts. However, she is also aware that there is currently no common solution for transcription across oral history projects (2012, n.p.).

While Shopes appears to view transcription positively as an indispensable process within oral history preservation, the Minnesota Historical Society offers a balanced argument. They argue that transcription falls under two categories: word-for-word transcription (possibly emphasising a preference for transcribed documents complimenting the original audio files) or leniency within the transcription process (highlighting a preference for original audio files as source material) (2001, p.1).

Of course, transcription plays a paramount role in access for service users, the aims of which are ultimately to facilitate users in their pursuit of information. As well as ensuring universal access to content for users with auditory impairments, full transcriptions can be beneficial (over other solutions, such as transcribing a certain percentage or simply providing a summary).

Shopes asserts that there cannot be a common solution for all oral history projects, since each one will differ greatly (2012, n.p.). The Minnesota Historical Society add to this argument stating that when it comes to transcribing specifically, each person (or even organisation) is fundamentally different (2001, p.1). These are notions that many practitioners in the field would be fully aware of.

As the argument proceeds, more issues regularly emerge, prompting in depth discussion and thought. Ultimately, there are three questions that will prompt this discussion: Should common standards be set across organisations to ensure that transcription fully compliments the original audio, while still allowing the original audio to stand on its own? Should we assert the authority that oral history should remain as so and only be heard, not read? If so, how do we allow universal access?

What do you think about the role of transcription? Let us know.

Minnesota Historical Society/Oral History Office. (2001). Transcribing, Editing and Processing Guidelines. Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved 7th June, 2015, from

Shopes, L. (2012). Transcribing Oral History in the Digital Age. Oral History in the Digital Age. Retrieved 7th June, 2015, from

Image Downloaded 2008-02-03 from John Clark Ridpath, ed. (1897) The Standard American Encyclopedia, Vol.3, The Encyclopedia Publishing Co., New York, USA, p.1199, fig.1on Google Books

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