The first goal of oral history work should be to preserve narrators’ viewpoints and experiences in the form of recorded interviews. Published products, whether online collections or printed transcripts, are important for generating interest and allowing access, but a well-managed collection provides the best resource for future researchers. Oral history programs must develop strategies and guidelines that ensure the longevity and security of their materials.
While we introduce the major issues of storing and processing your materials on
this page, this is by no means a comprehensive guide to archival best-practices for oral historians. In addition to the helpful links placed throughout, please refer to the close of the chapter for a collection of pertinent resources selected from the guide's Notes and Appendices page.
Each interview should be saved in multiple copies, ideally in more than one format. If possible, convert any analog sound recordings to .wav format. Audio files should be saved to an automatically backed-up hard drive and on at least one CD. The primary CD copy should be burned to a gold lacquered, archival grade disc, labeled—only if necessary—with an archival pen on the inner plastic ring. Standard markers and adhesive labels will likely decrease the life of the disc.
Depending on the availability of recording copies saved to hard drive, it may also be advisable to create a CD to use as a listening/acess copy for interested parties or as a source for further copies of the recording (see below). If a recording originated as a tape or other analog format, do not discard the original after digitization.
Appropriate preservation of video materials depends on recording format. Interviews originating on VHS or digital video cassettes can be duplicated on a second tape, but you can also capture the contents digitally for storage on a dedicated hard drive for easier access and editing. Because of the size of digital video files, however, this will require a large amount of disk space: over 10 gigabytes for an hour of .avi video. Even in that format, the original media undergoes some compression, so your original tape should still be considered the primary document.
Born-digital videos should be stored in duplicate on separate hard drives; this also applies to digitally captured videos, if at all possible. Although both born-digital and digitally captured videos may be backed-up onto DVD discs, the DVD copy will not retain the full quality of the original. DVD copies are useful for access and dissemination, however.
In case of fire or natural disaster, it is best to keep interview copies physically separated whenever possible. Ideally, your recordings should be saved in digital form on a regularly backed-up hard drive, with any original copies stored at a separate site. If your interviews are originally recorded digitally to a temporary storage device—like the SD cards used in many digital audio devices—and later moved to a more permanent hard drive, then it is necessary to create another set of the same data that can be stored at a remote location. This may involve the use of CDs or DVDs, secondary hard drive(s) or an online service for storage and archiving your data.
For small archives of audio files, it may be affordable to store copies on a remote digital server, like Amazon S3. This service would cost under $5.00 a month to store 50 hours of .wav format audio at above CD quality (2 channels at 44.1 k/24 bits). It seems that Amazon S3 is not designed for storing uncompressed move files, however, as it limits the size of individual objects to 5 gigabytes, and an hour of .avi video footage takes up more than 10 GB of space. Additionally, a large and growing video archive would quickly become expensive to maintain. For the time being, a better option for video-based oral history projects may be to partner with a local university or library, sharing your resources with the assurance of increased safety for the collection.
Guidelines for Storage
This manual cannot cover the breadth of information available on optimal storage for audio and video materials. We'll cover a few basics, though.
Exact details for storing physical copies of your recordings depend, of course, on your preservation media, and you should examine the links on this page for specific recommendations. The first things to make sure of, though, are that your tapes or discs are stored in individual containers away from light and dust. Because extreme heat and cold will shorten the life span of your data, keep all media at stable temperatures.
Label your CDs and DVDs on the inner plastic ring (the clear part) with a solvent-free archival pen or marker. Writing on the face of the disc or using adhesive labels is likely to cause early deterioration. Keep your discs in a polypropylene case instead of in paper sleeves or other containers.
Especially if CD, DVD or another disc- or tape-based format will be your primary preservation medium, make sure to create access copies of each item in addition to your archival-only duplicates. Use this copy for allowing interested parties access to your interviews, as well as for creating further duplicates for research or dissemination.
Because of unanswered questions about the longevity of digital storage devices, whether disc- or hard drive-based, you should plan to "migrate" your digital materials at regular intervals. While some CD and DVD manufacturers advertise their products as "archival quality" and make bold claims about the longevity of their discs, experts do not expect current CDs or DVDs to reliably store data for more than 10 or 15 years. This means that long-term preservation requires oral history programs to develop a system for copying data to new locations before the storage media can deteriorate. Hard drives are also subject to degradation and failure, so even if you store your interviews on backed-up hard disk drives, you will need to transfer the data to new storage drives at regular intervals in order to maintain the integrity of your collection.
"Migration" can also refer to the occasionally-necessary process of conversion between file formats. Like media migration, the best approach to format conversion will depend on the specifics of your project or program, but you will be best-served by consulting an expert for advice that takes into account the most current information and technology available.
Records and Usability
An oral history archive’s usefulness depends heavily on the supplementary information—often called metadata—available for each interview and the ease with which potential users can access those records. The various types of document that may accompany a recording or collection include databases/catalogs, topics indices, abstracts, interview logs and transcripts. More recently, multimedia databases make use of emerging technologies that integrate interview recordings and pertinent metadata for storage and access through use of a common interface.
Any oral history undertaking should involve the creation of a database or catalog that stores basic information about each item in the collection: date, location, name of narrator, name of interviewer, and so on. These documents may also note details about interview content, conditions in the copyright release, or the status of post-interview processes like transcription and digitization.
A topics index is simply a list of subjects that come up in an interview. Ideally, terminology for topics and sub-topics should be standardized across a collection. Discussions of Jewish dietary restrictions, for example, might be listed as “kosher” under a general “food” heading, regardless of whether narrators used “kashrut” or any other term in reference to the subject.
Abstracts are brief (less than one page) summaries of interviews and major topics. They should include a short biography of the narrator(s), identify key names and dates, summarize the flow of conversation, and provide a qualitative description of the interview and its creators.
Interview logs provide quick entry to the actual recording by chronologically reporting topics and information from an interview. A log takes considerably less time to complete than a verbatim transcript, but does not serve as a stand-alone document. Instead, it should include time notation at regular intervals or shifts in topic and assist users in locating notable moments in the multimedia recording. The interview log format allows interviewers or others to add commentary and reflection, and highlight compelling or surprising testimony. [Try using square brackets like these for your own asides and asterisks (**) to mark notable interview segments]. Logs may also include direct transcription of the exceptional quotes or excerpts. See the example at the end of this section/chapter for a sense of how this works.
Transcripts have been the most common way for people to use oral history sources in their research. While some researchers may prefer a written representation of an interview, transcription obscures the full depth of oral history, the collaborative process through which two or more people explore the past and present through conversation. Nevertheless, carefully stored copies printed on acid-free paper do have the potential to last for hundreds of years, making transcription the best way to guarantee the survival of interview content. The best online presentations of oral history include both multimedia recordings and corresponding transcriptions. In terms of both theory and style, transcription is much too large an issue to exhaust here.
With the advent of digital recording technology and the internet, multimedia databases are emerging as a viable solution for making oral history recordings more widely accessible. Stories Matter, a free program developed by Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, organizes compressed audio and video recordings along with an array of accompanying information from basic details and subject lists to verbatim transcripts and user commentary. Recordings can be viewed in full or as annotated clips, and database contents are completely searchable. The newest version of the software allows users to share content within local networks or—with the use of a web server—across the internet. While the software is not perfect, it is fairly easy to use and free to download. Combined with secure storage of full-quality master recordings and an organized system for processing interview materials, Stories Matter has real potential as a tool for managing all sorts of interview-based research.
Sample Interview Log
The following sample is an interview log from the ISJL Oral History Program. It begins with basic information and notes about the interview and interviewer, and continues with a topics a list of topics and an abstract. The topics list identifies major themes discussed in the interview, as well as specific locations and institutions that may be of interest to later users. The abstract contains both biographical details of the narrator's life and summarizes the flow of the interview conversation. The text of the actual log allows readers quick access to the basic information in the recording, while the time codes make it easier for users to locate specific parts of the interview within the original video. Notice that the log describes the events that happen during the interview and summarize the information that the narrator gives. Brief passages are transcribed as direct quotes; these are indicated by italics and placed in quotation marks. Religious or foreign terms, jargon, or noticeable word-choice may also be indicated by italics and/or quotation marks.
Collapse/expand interview log
21 November 2009
Length: Approx. 53 minutes
Interviewer: Josh Parshall
Logged by Alex Fleagle/Josh Parshall
Notes: Bernice Spigel passed away Dec. 5, 2009, two weeks after this interview took place.
New York City
Dalton Creative Arts Guild
Bernice Spigel was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1926 to Louis and Sophia Bernstein. Her twin sisters were born in 1932. The family attended a Conservative congregation, Temple Beth El. The first portion of the interview deals with her upbringing in a cohesive Jewish environment that included the extended family. Next, Bernice describes moving to New York in the 1950s. She worked in the advertising industry there after graduating from Brown University. After meeting and marrying her husband, Jerry, the pair moved to Chicago and, later, Dalton. He was from a Jewish family in England, and originally came to the United States to learn about the American textiles industry. After addressing the early parts of her life, the interview turns to the family's move to Dalton. Bernice talks about the adjustments that she had to make in her new home, as well as her involvement in starting the Dalton Arts Guild, a very successful organization that supports local arts. She describes the Jewish population of the town, which consisted mostly of other businesspeople in the carpet industry. Some families had Southern roots; she gravitated toward other Northern-born transplants. Bernice describes Jewish life in town, although she was not especially involved with it. The Lorberbaums were among the most significant families in town, and their names still mark many of the civic projects that they funded. The congregation has declined, and no longer holds regular services at their synagogue. That decline really began in the 1990s as members retired or died, and the now-consolidated carpet industry does not draw new Jewish entrepreneurs to the area. There are some young Jews, but they are professionals. The conversation ends with reflections on the difference between Jewish and Christian friends, and with a bit of advice for aspiring arts organizers.
Bernice introduces herself. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in August 1926. Lived there for about 18 years. After college, moved to New York. Mother: Sophie Weinstock Bernstein. Father: Louis Bernstein.
Bernice says that she had younger twin sisters. All three given a Jewish education: went to temple, went to Jewish school, and thinks that they were all confirmed (bat mitzvahs not popular then). After confirmation, Jewish education ended for the most part. All went off to different cities. Bernice says that she rarely went to temple when she was in New York. Still identified as Jewish.
Her congregation growing up was Conservative—Temple Beth El in Providence, RI. Says that it was a big city, spent most summers at a beach in Rhode Island. Bernice says that the Jews usually lived together. Not much integration. But most friends at that time were Jewish because of social circle of parents. Remembers that there was a little prejudice. Her mother was a housewife, and her father was in the insurance business.
Bernice says that her father emigrated from Russia, came here when he was about 14. Rarely talked about his life in Russia, and didn’t quite integrate himself into community in Providence. Father had siblings in Providence—very close to brother—a tailor, who knew everybody in the community, and had three sons—very popular, very well-known, very successful. “Uncle Morris” – very close to Bernice and sisters. Aunts also very “joyful.”
“My father seemed very affected by his life in Russia. He came to the United States with his mother and father. But his father was sent back to Russia, and I’m a little cloudy on what happened there. I believe he was considered ill. That he had something wrong with him. My father insists it was just a cold, but he never saw his father again, and that... really affected his life.”
Bernice talks about her Uncle Morris (father’s brother). She says that he always said that he was a communist. Doesn’t know why—didn’t "live like a communist." Had a tailoring shop, and knew everybody in Providence. Very popular. Three sons also very popular—“The Bernstein Boys.” All became very successful. Father’s sisters were very nice housewives.
Bernice’s aunts all spoke Yiddish, which used to bother her and her sisters because they didn’t understand it. All of their children went to college, and were successful.
Her sisters moved to Boston after high school. Bernice says that she worked for an advertising agency in New York. Lived there for about 13 years. Loved it. Met her husband there. Husband originally from London—came to United States for business opportunities. Thoroughly enjoyed business exposure, decided to stay. Got a job with Dalton Carpet Company. Then, moved with Bernice to Chicago before going to Georgia.
Later in the interview, asterisks indicate that the log creator found a section of the interviewer particularly interesting or entertaining. Such highlights are useful for directing the attention of later users or noting excerpt-worthy passages for later projects.
Bernice and Jerry, her husband, were part of a wave of people who moved to Dalton at the time—the carpeting industry (which her husband was in) was flourishing at the time. People moving there from all over the world. Got together with a group of people, and created an arts center. Found it amazing how easy it was raise money, find location. Creative Arts Guild of Dalton was born. Still exists. Probably one of the most successful small town arts agencies in Georgia.***
Jerry, came to the US to learn American business practices. Worked in London at Marks & Spencer. Came with a group of about 6 men from that company to see how things were done in America. Realized that there were great opportunities, and decided to stay. Bernice had a friend who was dating Jerry’s roommate (another British guy). Met through her. Married 6 months later. Parents assumed that she would marry a Jewish man, and Bernice thought that she would too. “But when I moved to New York, you move to a big city, and you meet all kinds of people, you don’t really know what they are. And it didn’t matter to me. But it helped when Jerry was Jewish.”*
Media Matters, a consulting business in the field of digital multimedia preservation, has compiled an astounding set of links on their Resources page. Rather than re-publish all of their links here, I recommend browsing the page yourself; these articles will be invaluable to anyone working on a digital archiving project.
You might also want to check out the homepage of the American Institute for Conservation's Conservation OnLine (CoOL) website. They provide links to further resources at the bottom of the page under the "Conservation Topics" heading. "Audio Materials" and the four links under "Electronic Materials" are likely to be the most germane to your oral history project.
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