Alternatives to transcription for the oral historian?

This is Part 3 of a series of blog posts about transcription in oral history. Part 1 dealt with Transcription and oral history in general and Part 2 dealt with the use of TEI when carrying out transcription (Considering TEI and oral history transcripts).

Decisions made when transcribing, whether to recreate every sound as closely as possible, or whether to render the spoken record as a readable written text, are caught in a paradox; while “tidying up” speech in a transcript can be seen as an act of dominance, distorting the voice of the speaker and undermining one of oral history’s aims (giving voice to the silent), the practice of presenting that speech as faithfully as possible is also politicized as, in diverging from normative conventions in text, it presents the interviewee to the reader as other and different to the pervasive norm. The act of transcription is therefore politicized, irrespective of which transcription style the oral historian chooses (see Mazé 2007, 242).

The emphasis on orality (e.g. by Frisch 2008, and discussed in a previous blog post) mean that the inherent difficulties associated with transcription are perhaps good reasons for oral history researchers to eschew the practice entirely; it’s importance has certainly diminished. In addition, the growing ability to store and disseminate audio files digitally has also contributed to “a move away from transcription” (High and Sworn 2009). This is generally welcomed, not only because transcription is seen as a corruption of the oral text but also because it is time consuming, and therefore expensive: transcription as standard practice, applied to every interview, can add exponentially to costs involved in oral history projects (Boyd 2013, 99).

However, while digital recording, storage and dissemination possibilities decrease the necessity for transcription, the amount of material recorded and stored has increased, and has prompted discussion of the best means researchers can use to get familiar with with material that has been collected:

Despite the use of digital technology for recording and the opportunity for online retrieval, meaningful access to recorded oral history collections still requires an approach to – and an architecture for – fluidly ‘getting inside’ the interview.” (Lambert and Frisch 2012).

Oral historians have looked for alternatives to the transcript, exploring indexing and metadata associated with oral history interviews (see Lambert and Frisch 2012; Frisch 2006; High and Sworn 2009; Boyd 2013). Different types of software have been used, with Frisch enthusing about the benefits of using a video indexing software (Interclipper), saying it was:

…one of the first tools to permit this kind of qualitative analysis of video and audio directly. It allows us to note and cross-reference–as easily as we cross-reference the place, names, or explicit content of a story–the emotional intensity, body language, thematic meaning, or pedagogic uses observable by watching the video of a narrator telling that story.” (Frisch 2006).

However, other oral historians have documented how Interclipper did not suit their needs when building an oral history database, particularly as the practice of clipping the video distorted the conversational narratives within the oral history interviews they were working on (High and Sworn 2009). Gradually the consensus is emerging that no one type of software is ever likely to answer the needs and aims of all oral history projects: almost no tools are specifically tailored for the purposes of the field and “no matter what tools we start with, the media, content, and metadata almost inevitably need to be migrated to a range of other storage and presentation platforms” (Lambert and Frisch 2012).

Interestingly, High and Sworn’s (2009) consideration of the process of using indexing software, and of developing their own open source indexing tools, leads them back to similar problems to those voiced in criticisms of the transcript; they (and their students) found that the meanings of the narratives in their database of video interviews changed according to how they were accessed. Despite explorations of many other means of cataloguing and accessing oral history interviews, the underlying meanings still remain more accessible when the entire narrative is engaged with in depth. Their conclusion is that the great benefit of transcription is that it affords the opportunity to engage with the content of the interview, to “deeply listen” (High and Sworn 2009).

There are other valid reasons for continuing to transcribe oral history interviews. The process of transcribing an audio interview provides some added value for the digital audio file: it makes the primary source, the audio interview file is rendered searchable, discoverable and giving a choice about how content is accessed (as audio or as text).

An important additional benefit of transcription is that it makes some of the content of oral history interviews accessible to those with hearing loss (Lembree 2011). Adam and Kreps (2006) point out that the issue of web accessibility for people with disabilities is one that has not received a lot of attention. The European Union has an accessibility requirements document (specifically concentrating on public sector websites). Although this admittedly does not lay down binding requirements, it nevertheless outlines the moral case for making websites as accessible as possible to all members of the public. In addition, recommendations such as consistent navigation, clear content and text equivalents for audio and images improves usability for all users, ensuring content that is easy to navigate and improving search engine results. These benefits provide good arguments for continuing the practice of transcription as part of any given digital oral history project, as they demonstrate the “added value” that transcription can bring to oral history resources as they are disseminated in the digital age.


Boyd, D. (2013). OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free. Oral History Review, 40(1), 95–106. doi:10.1093/ohr/oht031

Frisch, M. (2006). Oral history and the digital revolution. Retrieved from

Frisch, M. (2008). Three dimensions and more: oral history beyond the paradoxes of method. In S. N. Hesse-Biber & P. Leavy (Eds.), Handbook of Emergent Methods. Guildford Press.

Frisch, M., & Lambert, D. (2012). Mapping approaches to oral history content management in the digital age. In D Boyd, S Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from

High, S., & Sworn, D. (2009). After the Interview: The Interpretive Challenges of Oral History Video Indexing. Digital Studies / Le Champ Numérique, 1(2). Retrieved from

Mazé, E. (2007). The uneasy page: transcribing and editing oral history. In L. R. Ballard (Ed.), History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology (pp. 227–262). Plymouth: AltaMira Press.