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Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

10. Processing: Making Oral History Materials Accessible

Processing is a term encompassing all the tasks associated with assembling all the materials that relate to an interview and preparing it and its accompanying materials for deposit in the repository. These steps ensure that the results of your efforts will be both accessible and useful to anyone who uses it in the future.

These steps are particularly important in the context of depositing the materials in the repository because a library archives, museum or other such institution is unlikely to be able or willing to take on the tasks, and would prefer to acquire a resource that is ready to use. This will likely become evident when you first approach a repository. Besides, these steps are a part of the responsibility of practicing oral history. It's not really done until these tasks are completed.

What's the first step in making an interview available to others?

Make copies. And as mentioned previously, you may want to make several. The original recording (the master) should be kept in a safe place and should not be used for transcribing or for any purpose other than to make the copies and to give to the repository. Make enough copies to give one each to the narrator and transcriber and an additional use copy for the repository.

What about the research notes, release forms and other materials?

All the materials you created or gathered to support the interview should be kept and associated (usually by the name of the narrator and the date of the interview) with the interview. These eventually will accompany the master recordings when they are turned over to the repository. In the case of a project, these materials go to the project director first, along with the master and copy recordings. The director will see that they all reach the repository.

What other processing is necessary to make the interviews accessible?

The most common ways to make oral history interviews fully accessible are to create an interview abstract or a transcript.

An abstract is a timed outline of the interview contents, describing the subjects being discussed and the times in the interview at which they appear. It usually summarizes the content at three- to five-minute intervals, or when the subject substantially changes in the course of the interview. Click here for a sample abstract.

A transcript is a word-for-word printed copy of the interview. This provides the most complete access to the interview information and is the recommended approach to provide permanent access. Click here for a sample transcript.

In addition to an abstract or a transcript, the repository will appreciate (even require) a synopsis of the interview. This is usually a single paragraph summary of the interview -- the main issues, topics, people, places and events covered by the narrator's words. In addition to this summary paragraph, the synopsis should include the name of the narrator, the name of the interviewer, and the date and place of the interview. Click here for a sample synopsis.

Tell me more about transcribing.

Transcribing is a time-consuming process, usually taking about eight hours one of transcription time for each hour of recorded interview. But the result is worth the effort. These guidelines can help:

Some interviewers send a draft copy of the transcript to the narrator for review. Narrators, however, can find it difficult to read their spoken words and may try to edit the transcript too heavily, which should be avoided.

It seems like practicing and processing oral histories involves a lot of important steps. How can I keep track of it all?

Doing oral history well - so that you create resources of lasting value - does indeed involve a lot of important steps. The following checklist will help you prepare to deposit your interview and all related materials in the repository. That way, future generations will be able to learn from your narrator's story and benefit from all your efforts. Make sure you have . . .


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