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FAQs

Below you will find answers to some common questions by people starting to practice oral history, written by some of our expert members. If your query is not answered here, please feel free to contact us for further advice.

Where can I study oral history?

The University of Limerick offers a certificate course in Oral Heritage Studies (Oral History and Folklore) taught by Dr Catherine O’Connor. The course may be either taken in UL or online. Some of the other universities offer a module in oral history as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate courses.  Perhaps the most established of these would be those run by Dr Maura Cronin, a long-term practitioner and teacher of oral history, in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

Where can I get basic training in oral history?

OHNI will run two training courses in 2017. Please contact us for further information on these courses. Also, several of our members offer introductory talks on oral history and also provide training courses in a private capacity, or as part of their academic work.

 

Getting started on a project

Ethical interviewing and the interviewee’s rights

Oral historians have an ethical duty to respect the rights of the interviewee and to protect those rights.  The maxim we tend to go by is like the medical maxim ‘Above all do no harm’. Interviewees have rights to privacy and to the ownership of their own words, which is enshrined in the copyright laws. Other laws may also apply; the laws in this area are complex, and each project is different. We can’t advise for every situation, but in general recommend that practitioners plan their projects carefully in advance, and behave as ethically as possible. The interviewer should always be aware that  subjects are sharing private, often precious and perhaps difficult memories, and that they must be sensitive to this not only in their reaction during the interview, but in their subsequent uses of the interview.  Make sure you’ve done adequate research before you start the interview, and respect the interviewee’s position. As experienced practitioners, we cannot stress enough the need to take an ethical approach to the conduct and use of oral history interviewees, as a badly handled interview can cause real harm to the subject and perhaps also to their families.

What is the principle of informed consent?

The principle of informed consent means that you inform the interviewee about why you are interviewing them and where and how you will use their contribution. Let them know all the forms you may use it in – perhaps in written documents, broadcasts, websites, talks, or as part of an archive? Best practice suggests that you should get a written consent to these uses, but some people think that oral consent, recorded in the interview, will suffice.

Why written consent?

Interviewees own their words, and this ownership is enshrined in different laws in different jurisdictions, usually in slightly different ways. We’re not legal experts, but we just want to draw your attention to the rights of your interviewee and the desirability of getting interviewees to assign you or your project the ownership of the copyright in their words.

You can ask the interviewee to transfer the copyright when you’ve finished interviewing but are still recording.  It is considered safer practice to have a signed consent form that has been explained fully to the interviewee. Once copyright has been assigned to you, you are free to publish the interview in any form, subject to limitations the interviewee may place.

What should a consent form contain?

Again, we’re not legal experts, and the general advice contained here may not cover every situation.  The form should contain an explanation about your work, which should cover both informed consent and the copyright transfer. You ask the interviewee to sign over their copyright, and to permit your future use of the interview in various contexts. The form should also permit the interviewee to record any limitations or restrictions the interviewee wants to place on the   use of the interview. The form should be signed by the interviewee and the interviewer, and dated, with the location where the interview took place. From a practical and ethical perspective, if your interviewee is elderly, it might be useful to ask them if they want anyone else to review the consent before they sign it.  It’s a difficult part of the interview process, so it’s important to make sure the interviewee is comfortable with what you are asking them to do.  It also shows how important the relationship of trust between interviewer and interviewee is.

What recording equipment do I need?

Advice on technology has changed frequently over the last twenty years. Many recorders used during that period have now become obsolete.  At the moment, best practice suggests that interviewers recording voice should use digital recording equipment and record in either WAV or MP3. WAV is an uncompressed sound file which takes up a lot of memory on your computer or recording device, whereas MP3 is a compressed sound file, and therefore uses a lot less memory.  There are other forms of sound file, but at present it seems that these two will remain the most popular, and therefore the most accessible over time as equipment and software become obsolete.

While some experts suggest that field recorders (which can cost around 400 euro upwards) are the optimum, many of us find less expensive equipment fits our needs. The Zoom Handy 2 recorder  (200 euro or less) is a popular choice, as it records in both WAV and MP3 and is relatively easy to use. Be careful buying dictaphone type machines, as they are usually designed to capture sound at close range.  Music shops are often a good source of advice. If you’re starting out, perhaps the quality of sound on your mobile phone will be sufficient for practising and interviews.

If you are contributing your recordings to an archive, ask what quality they will require the interview to be stored in, usually WAV or MP3. The quality of recording on some recorders may be improved by the use of small microphones which can be attached to the interviewee (be careful to ask whether they have a pacemaker fitted, as there may be interference).   See the US Oral History Association’s page at http://www.oralhistory.org/technology/audio_basics/ for further advice. Do not use cassette tapes, which are fragile and not suitable for storing long term.

Make sure your batteries are fresh (and that you carry spares) or your recorder is newly charged before starting the interview.  Some oral historians also use a back-up device, perhaps a mobile phone, to ensure they have a second copy in the event of a problem.

 

Preparing to use the interview

Should interviewees get a copy of the transcript and/or the recording?

Practitioners differ on this.  Some consider it sufficient or better practice to offer the interviewee the digital recording, perhaps on a CD.  Others consider the ethical optimum is to offer a complete written transcript of the recording, which is, in the business, called a verbatim transcript.  Others simply give the interviewees transcriptions of only those sections which they plan to use; this practice does place limitations on the future use of the full interview.

Do you need special equipment to transcribe recorded interviews?

If you are doing brief interviews, or are just beginning to do oral history, any machine that will allow you to playback your recording will do. Computers and some recorders will have playback facilities. There is transcription software which makes the whole process less tedious.  Many of us use the free NCH Express Scribe Transcription Playback programme which can be used with ‘hot keys’ or a foot pedal.  Some practitioners find it helpful to use transcribing machines with a foot pedal, which leaves your hands free for writing or typing. Transcribing can be physically demanding. Make sure your equipment and seating is comfortable to use, and take regular breaks.

Is there voice recognition software suitable for oral history interviews?

As a rule, oral historians find voice recognition computer programme software unsatisfactory for their work.  Voice recognition software programmes convert  sounds to text but have to be trained to recognise each voice and convert them to text accurately. As oral historians may be interviewing several different people with different speech patterns and accents, training the programme to recognise and accurately transcribe each voice could prove counterproductive in terms of time and accuracy.

What do you do when you’ve transcribed the interview?

If you’ve given your interviewee the option of seeing a transcription or a summary rather than a copy of the recording, you give them a copy. Ask them to review the transcription as they may be able to correct errors, for example in place names. If you are planning to share the transcriptions and summaries with other people, make sure that any restrictions placed on the material by the interviewee are respected (e.g. they may have asked not to be named). Never share your interviewees’ addresses, telephone numbers or other personal details.

Label transcriptions and summaries with identifying names (of the interviewee) and/or codes so that they are clearly linked to the relevant recordings.

Do I need to tell the interviewee that someone else will be transcribing the interview?

If someone other than the interviewer is transcribing the interview, tell the interviewee, to make sure that they do not have any issues with confidentiality if the interview is shared in this way. The interviewer should take care to read the transcription while listening to the audio version, to check for accuracy.  A surprising amount of errors are made, even in careful transcriptions.

Should a transcriber correct diction and poor grammar?

This is a matter of judgement, but best practice would suggest that the transcriber must be true to the voice of the interviewee. For the most part verbal tics that would not be noticed in conversation – such as ‘but’, ‘you know’, ‘well’, ‘as I say’ – should be cut from or reduced in a written text.  Do not attempt to transcribe accents, unless there is a particular and inoffensive reason to do so.   Be careful not to remove the informality of the spoken word; the silences and  the false starts that it contains often signal that your subject is stressed or experiencing some other emotion in telling the story.

What is best practice in editing transcripts for publication?

Using material from an interview in a publication requires a different approach to preparing a transcript or an interview summary. When you include direct quotes or paraphrased material from the interview, you must take care not to distort the interviewee’s voice.  This means that you must be faithful not only to what they said, but the context in which they said it.  Quoting out of context is bad practice as it changes the meaning of what an interviewee is saying. Do not to try to twist the interviewee’s words to suit your own purpose.  It may seem obvious to say “do not use quotation marks” if you are paraphrasing an interviewee’s words, but it has happened. You can use ellipses [ellipses] to indicate where you have removed words or even sentences to create a coherent narrative.

 

Making interviews accessible and public

The most common published use of oral history interviews is including brief excerpts to support a particular argument, along with other sources. Historians use interviews as a primary source when there are not enough written sources to explore the subject matter. Interviews can also offer an interesting interpretation of a historical event – compared to a perhaps more accurate but less considered contemporary account – precisely because the interviewee’s recollection has inevitably been influenced by the impact of intervening time. Most valuably, oral history can explain mentalité or the way society was thinking about an issue.

What is the best sound editing software?

There are several open source software programmes capable of editing sound files.  Some can enable the sound quality of the original to be improved, such as taking out background hiss, although it’s always better to record in the best quality possible. Audacity is one of the easiest to use and you can download it free from this link:

HYPERLINK “http://audacity.sourceforge.net/” o “http://audacity.sourceforge.net/”http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Audacity is compatible with most versions of Windows, OS (Mac) and Linux. You will find an extensive Help section on the Audacity website.

There are many other similar programmes. Some of them are offered as freeware for a basic installation but charge for professional features. Most Apple Macs come pre-programmed with Garageband, which can also be used to edit sound files. Adobe Audition is another programme used to edit recordings.

 

Archiving

How and where do you store the interview?

Even if you have used some, or all of the interview in a publication you may want to archive the interview itself for further use, providing, of course, that your interviewee agrees to this use.

If you are storing your interview on compact disc, make sure your hands are clean when handling the disc. Store discs in protective cases, and try to touch as little of the surface of the disc as possible.

USB sticks are good for copying and transporting recordings but they are not considered appropriate for long term storage. An external storage drive is the best place to keep digital recordings.

Make a copy of the master recording. This preserves the original recording, while the copy takes the wear and tear of being played. But it’s safer to copy from the original, just in case small deteriorations take place in the recording each time it is copied, and the deterioration can escalate with each subsequent copy from a copy.

Where can oral histories be archived?

At the moment, the Digital Repository of Ireland is trying to establish national standards for the optimum storage of digital material.  University libraries and other institutions such as the National Library may house appropriate digital recordings.  Local authorities and the county library services have also been developing their own oral history projects or helping people in their areas who are interested in collecting oral histories.

Archiving oral histories may not just mean storing the interview recordings but also the transcripts (subject to the agreement of the interviewee) and perhaps also the interviewer’s field notes or interview journal, which can help to make long interviews more accessible.

 
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