Removing the oral from oral history


As the Best Days of Our Lives project draws to a close, I’m having a de-brief with myself. What stood out, what was tough, what made me connect my dots? Transcribing covers all this. It’s true that it’s fresh as I’ve just only last week been going through manuscript-like documents. Pages (and pages) of conversation and inky papery voice. It was a requirement of the funding application. Because that is what is done after you record and oral history interview. And why is that?

The process was long. I went for the stripped down approach and had itunes and googledocs running with jerky window management in between. Repetitive strain, hello to you. I enjoyed re-listening to the conversations, picking up parts that were previously hidden to me for some reason. But it was long and I can even type at a good pace. Plus, I needed to understand why I had to go through this painful journey.

The spoken word has been the lesser cousin of the written word for a while now. Having it on paper has proved existence, legitimacy and some kind of universal ‘back up’ stamp that if all else fails – we will always have this hard copy. We’ve moved on. Digital might not be as reliable as we had originally thought but we all know fires can happen too.

That said, I think I would have found it useful if I had transcribed straight after interview. Because I needed to edit the audio for soundbites, sound montages, I found myself groundhogging the same parts over and over. And if I’d transcribed with frequent time reference points then I know I could have used my time better. It’s ok though as I now realise that for me, the voice is what matters. Read the sentence and then listen to the clip.

Helen Gibbs “Things were all made then. (Talks to child – ‘Hang on a minute, I’m talking to the lady’)”

Roy E Thompson “Dominoes is not really something that somebody teaches you. You take it up, you watch the elder ones play dominoes and then you follow it from there.”

Of course, it depends on how accurate your transcriptions are – are you noting all the ums and ahs and accents? The accents, that’s what get’s missed.  The star of the show is the voice – the recording isn’t a vehicle for research and then a historian does something magic with it. It’s magic all on it’s poetic lonesome. Words in this way standardise the force of human emotion. I was sad to think that someone at the archives might only read Helen or Roy’s interview. Never having heard all those layers. I see that I’m condoning some kind of hierarchy of the senses which is not helping matters. I just do know that if it’s available to me, listening to a few seconds gives me more idea, connection and motivation for anything that is to come next.

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