The Subtle–and Slow–Art of Transcription

Note: This is the second in a series of posts about the 1968 Oral History Project, a collaboration between UMKC’s History Department, UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library, and KCUR. For an overview of the project, see the first post here.

A pair of headphones with tangled wires. Mendez

Part of my job in the 1968 Oral History Project is to create transcripts of each interview that we have completed. This sounds pretty straightforward: listen to the recording, write down what you hear, done. In practice, though, it’s little trickier. Sometimes people mumble, speak too quickly, or use names that I don’t recognize. Sometimes they get distracted mid-sentence, or start and stop a thought without finishing it. Other challenges are even more subtle: How do you decide which punctuation fits their phrasing best? Do you note a long pause while they’re searching for the right word? What about a long pause where the subject is wiping his eyes and trying to collect himself? (Another UMKC History Department intern, Kenan Brown, wrote a post last year about the extra challenges of transcribing a group interview.)

In transcribing oral histories, you also have to decide if you’ll include verbal ticks (“um,” “like,” “uh,” and so forth) and if you’ll write, for example, “going to” when the interviewee says “gonna.” (The answer to these, generally, is no on the first one, and yes on the second, although opinions differ. If you’d really like to get into the weeds on this, you can check out the Transcribing Style Guide from Baylor’s Institute for Oral History.)

All of this, as you might expect, makes for slow going. It seems to take about an hour to transcribe every 15 minutes of recorded interview, although a speaker who talks quickly and runs words together can take even longer. Thankfully, technology provides a bit of help. We are testing out a software called InqScribe, which allows you to use keystrokes as shortcuts to add timestamps and names, and to start, stop, and rewind the interview. For me, though, there’s also a certain benefit to this slow process. It forces me to listen in a way that we rarely do in life; I pick up on subtleties that I didn’t even understand or appreciate while I was listening closely during the interview itself.

The most powerful thing about transcribing these interviews, however, has been its influence on me as a researcher. Though most of my research has not involved oral histories (I tend to research the late 19th and early 20th century, when there weren’t many recorded interviews), I have occasionally skimmed transcripts in archives to determine whether they are useful for my research. There’s nothing wrong with this–in fact, the ability to text-search a transcript has made it much easier to access useful oral histories that might not have appeared relevant at first glance–but it’s not enough. Listening for hours, making judgments about translating the spoken word into the written word, and noting the way that emotional, fascinating stories fall flat on the page has convinced me that using oral histories as sources without listening to the audio is, at best, inadequate, and, at worst, irresponsible. Much of the power and meaning of an oral history is conveyed through the voice of the speaker. It would be a shame to treat it like just another written document.

Telling Stories through Museum Work

Henry Johnson

During my summer Internship at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, our primary focus as Interns has been to rework lesson plans about World War I so they are ready to be used as teacher resources. I have learned that this is an in-depth process. While working on lesson plans, I found myself googling and regoogling things such as copyright laws and how they apply to everything from old newspapers to images. I became familiar with the Museum and Memorials collection of propaganda posters like they were my old friends. Some lesson plans needed only a couple citations fixed, others needed complete reformatting and writing.

It was the subject matter in these lesson plans that not only kept me searching for the missing information, but would captivate me with what I would find. The lesson plan that I enjoyed working on the most was about war hero Henry Johnson and the battles he faced coming home from the service. Henry Johnson was a soldier from the African American division called the  “Harlem Hellrattlers” in World War 1. One day him and his buddy Needham Roberts were on watch duty when a surprise attack of twelve German soldiers appeared. Henry and Needham’s guns jammed and so they had to fight off the twelve soldiers using only knives. In the lesson plan, students are told to examine newspaper articles from the time and look at how the media presented Henry Johnson when he arrived home in 1919. They are told to compare accounts from before and after Henry Johnson gave his controversial lectures to the public. Looking at how these lectures affected the public’s opinion of him. While researching it, I found Military Intelligence reports on Johnson detailing how he was dangerous because he was said things that were not “patriotic” the government; a government that had segregated him even in the military. This is example of one perspective of him that students would look be told to analyze.

Lesson plans like this work to help students understand how and why we are where we are today. Because of this I felt excited to play my part in helping this story come alive to students through the primary source documents I carefully collected.

photo courtesy of wikicommons.

Jackson County Historical Society – Wilborn Negative Collection Archive Internship and Alexander Majors Barn – Collections & Research Internship

My name is Michael Spachek and I have been working with the Jackson County Historical Society this summer as they process the Wilborn Negative Collection and with the Alexander Majors as a Collections and Research Intern.

JCHS Wilborn Negative Collection Archive

The collection contains an estimated 500,000 historic images of Kansas City from the early 1900s to 2006. My main responsibility is to organize the collection into a system that meets archival standards and will be more user friendly in the future. Eventfully, the Wilborn Collection will be digitized and made available to the public online by Missouri’s bicentennial in 2021. I have been involved with similar photographic collections in the past, but nothing this large.

So far, the most challenging part of the internship has been the size of the collection. Before I began, I thought I had a good understanding of how to process photo negative collections. Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. That hubris formed the bases for the most important lesson of the summer. In my previous experience, I did not feel like I had to be as rigorous in my processing and I made plenty of mistakes because of it. Part of that was, as an undergraduate, not knowing any better but it was also working with small collections where mistakes were easy to fix. The second I saw the boxes where the collection is held, I knew I had to become much more detailed in my approach to processing. Thanks to the help of the Jackson County staff, I have done just that. They taught me the proper way to put a collection into an organized system of box and file numbers and how to describe each file. I have learned to double check each box as I complete it to make sure the files are in order. Needless to say, I am much better prepared for a career in public history now then I was a few short weeks ago.

Alexander Majors Barn – Collections & Research Internship

In addition to the Jackson County Historical Society, I am also interning for the Alexander Majors House Museum this summer. For this internship, I am processing their collection of blacksmithing tools and creating an exhibit that is focused on blacksmithing in the 19th century and the role of skilled slave labor on the Majors property in the 1850s. The first step was separating the blacksmithing tools from the random assortment of other objects. Right now, I am beginning to research the individual tools to determine if they fall into the Museums timeframe of the 1850s to the 1880s. The final product will be an interpretive space that educates the public on this topic.

The Museum has a wide variety of visitors and the exhibit will need to be appropriate for all ages. That has challenged me to really think about how to interpret very serious topics like slavery for children and adults. I am not quite sure how I will do that yet but the process has been enlightening. However, that is not the only the challenge of this internship. I have very little blacksmithing knowledge so it has been a test of my research skills to learn about these objects.

This has been a very educational experience for me because it has combined all aspects of research, collections management, and interpretation into one project. I have worked on exhibits in the past where I was responsible for just the research or just the interpretation but I have never been solely responsible for the entire project. It is intimidating knowing that I have no one to blame but myself if the project does not meet my standards. By having control of all aspects of the exhibit, it has forced me to grow as a public historian and an educator. I am looking forward to the completion of this project and the knowledge that I have what it takes to make it as a professional historian.

The 1968 Oral History Project Launches

Aerial view of a group of protestors in the middle of the street.

In this photo from the 1968 Riot Collection in UMKC’s LaBudde Special Collections, protestors march down Vine at Flora and Paseo.

On April 4, 1968, in the midst of nationwide social and political turmoil, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. On April 9, the day of his funeral, Kansas City (MO) Public School officials chose not to cancel classes. In protest, students from Lincoln, Manuel, and Central High Schools marched from school to school and finally to City Hall. They were followed by police officers dressed in riot gear. Though it is unclear what prompted police officers to begin firing tear gas on the crowd, the confrontation between police and protestors escalated. By that night, the demonstration had given way to chaotic riots that lasted four days. Many buildings around 31st Street and Prospect burned, protestors and officers were injured, and six African American citizens were killed. The 1968 riots were a painful moment in Kansas City’s history, but they also raised questions and launched conversations about racial tensions and social disparities—conversations that continue today.

(For a more detailed account of these events, see Joel Rhodes’ article “It Finally Happened Here” in the April 1997 issue of the Missouri Historical Review.)

The 50th anniversary of these events this spring prompted articles and documentaries (like this one by KSHB), panels (like the “’68: The Kansas City Race Riots Then and Now” held at the Kansas City Public Library), and exhibits (like this one at the Central Branch of the Kansas City Public Library). KCUR drew attention to the collection in UMKC’s LaBudde Special Collections, and called for help identifying the subjects of the photographs. The unnamed faces and unclear contents of those photos reflected a crucial problem: we needed to do more to preserve people’s memories and perspectives. Photographs and official reports are important parts of the historical record, but so, too, are the recollections of the people who participated.

Black and white photo of a line of police officers wearsing gas masks. Two of the police officers look at the camera.

In this photograph from the 1968 Riot Collection in UMKC’s LaBudde Special Collections, police officers line up outside of City Hall wearing gas masks and carrying billy clubs.

To correct this problem, KCUR’s Director of Community Engagement Ron Jones, Miller Nichols Library Advancement Director Nicole Leone, and UMKC Assistant History Professor Sandra Enriquez teamed up to launch the 1968 Oral History Project, an effort to interview Kansas Citians who experienced or participated in the 1968 demonstrations. Their goal is not only to gather recollections of the protests, but also to understand the broader context of racial tensions and social problems in Kansas City before and after 1968. I was invited to join the project as a graduate assistant.

At our first recording session, held at the Lucile Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library in May, I watched Dr. Enriquez conduct three interviews. Though I am no stranger to interviewing—my background is in newspaper journalism—I was grateful for the opportunity to observe an oral history interview. There are subtle but important differences in the historian’s approach to interviews: Where journalists are focused on the details of a specific event, historians want to pull back and get a bigger picture, understanding the context that motivated the interviewee and influenced their perspective. Reporters are often pressed for time, keeping interviews tightly focused, asking questions that they hope will provoke clear answers and interesting quotes, and focusing on how the interview relates to the story at hand. Oral historians have the luxury of more time to follow the subject down interesting trails of thought. Perhaps even more important, oral historians do not always have a clear goal for the interview, except to preserve the subject’s responses. As a result, historians cover more terrain—I find myself wondering what a future historian will curse me for not asking about during my interviews.

I conducted our second round of interviews on Saturday, June 16, at the Southeast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. My greatest fear was that, despite my backup batteries and backup recorders, I would run into some technological problem. All went smoothly, though, and I was able to settle in to listening and asking questions. In a future post, I’ll talk more about the interview process, some of the things I am wrestling with in my role as an oral historian, and the challenges of conducting oral histories. For now, though, I will say that it is fascinating to sit and really listen to a variety of people share their overlapping but different stories. Some themes emerge, some of the same names and places come up again and again, but each person also brings a unique perspective, shaped by their families, their experiences, and by their lives after these events.

This is my first foray into oral history, and I am hooked. Maybe it’s the former journalist in me, but the opportunity to engage in a conversation about people’s memories is a powerful experience. Not only do I believe that oral histories complement existing archival sources like photographs and documents, but studying oral history has prompted me to rethink the historical sources I encounter. We often fall into the trap of taking written sources at face value, as moments somehow frozen in time. As I listen to how seamlessly our interview subjects connect the events of 1968 to the social and political struggles facing our country today, I’m struck with the knowledge that all of our experiences and memories are influenced by what came before, and will continue to impact the events that follow. Examining the complicated interaction of context, continuity, and change is what gives history its thrill.

We have conducted six interviews so far. We are hoping to interview far more to gain as much understanding as possible, and one of my jobs is to find additional interview subjects. So please: If you or someone you know would be willing to share your experiences of the 1968 protests and riots in Kansas City, I would be grateful to hear and record your stories. Please reach out to me at You can also find me on Twitter at @katebcarp.


Working as an Education Intern at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial

Hello, my name is Carolyn Kovar and I am a Summer Education Intern at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial. Although there has been lots of new things to learn, I have loved my first two weeks working there. My supervisors have done an excellent job both listening and responding to what my fellow intern and I are interested in and what we wish to achieve during our eight week internship.

Our primary roles as Education Interns have fallen into two central categories. First, working on projects, primarily the lesson plans that the museum creates to aid teachers when teaching about the First World War. For these assignments, our supervisors make notes of minor issues with the lesson plans before they are published. These issues we, the interns, go in and fix. Issues include anything from switching photos to those from our collection, to fixing incomplete bibliographies or improper citations. The other job for the interns is giving educational tours of the Museum to various school groups. In order to do this we have been learning about the Museum itself, it’s collections, and the history of the building. This has been daunting, but very interesting.

My favorite part of the Internship has been getting to shadow various tours conducted by volunteers or staff members for groups from Kindergartners to Seniors. Each volunteer or staff member that leads a tour gives their own unique spin to the common story. Listening to the tales, trivia, or facts that each member brings has been delightful. Through reading numerous tours I was able to create my own guide, so when the time came to give my first tour I felt prepared and excited. After leading a class of charming, well-behaved kindergartners, I was eager to do more tours.

Already, I have learned so much through this internship. It has been a delight to meet the various faculty members at the National World War 1 Museum- from Social Media Manager to Senior Curator- and to learn their various job descriptions. Watching how their team works helps me better understand what part I would like to play in my future museum career.

Job Opportunity: Collections Assistant-Special Collections and Museums at Truman State University

Collections Assistant – Special Collections and Museums

Overview:  Under the direction of the Associate Dean of Libraries for Special Collections and Museums, this position will assist with collections care, exhibition production, and facilitation of educational outreach in the Special Collections and Museums department of Pickler Memorial Library. 10 months, 40 hours/week position with full benefits.

Responsibilities:  Ensure proper collections care for the Special Collections and Manuscripts, University Archives and Museum collections; Conduct inventory control for departmental collections; Coordinate the processing of archival collections and assist with the preparation of finding aids; Research and Catalog Artifacts; Perform condition assesments and prepare condition reports for material; Photograph/digitize collection material as needed; Assist with exhibit production at Pickler Memorial Library, as well as at the Ruth W. Towne Museum and Visitor Center; Assist with educational programs, presentations, and departmental collaborations; Supervise and train student workers/interns; Provide reference assistance as needed; Work holiday rotations and outside of regular Monday-Friday schedule as needed; and perform other duties as assigned

Required qualifications: 

  • Education: High School Diploma or GED and some college coursework
  • Skills:  Excellent verbal, written and interpersonal skills.  Ability to work independently as well as collaboratively within an academic instiution.  Familiarity with informational resources and ability to conduct research.  Excellent accuracy and attention to detail.  Dexterity to handle fragile items; physical ability to move around in small enclosed work areas accessible only by narrow stairways and to lift, manipulate and carry heavy books, boxes and artifacts.  Must be competent using Microsoft Office and have the ability to learn new software

Preferred qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in history, studio art, art history, anthropology, or related field
  • Experience working in a special collections, museum, or archive setting
  • Familiarity with collections care and conservation methodology
  • Previous working experience with PastPerfect and/or other database management software packages
  • Familiarity with digital cameras and photo editing software

To Apply:  Submit a cover letter, application, resume, transcripts, and contact information for three references online or to:

Human Resources
Truman State University
McClain Hall 101
100 E. Normal Ave.
Kirksville, MO 63501

Any questions may be directed to Human Resources at or 660-785-4031.

Review of applications will begin July 2, 2018 and continue until position is filled.

Submit Application Materials Online

Job Opportunity: Weekend House Manager at the John Wornall House

The Weekend Manager at the John Wornall House is primarily responsible for giving public tours, opening and closing the Museum, providing support to volunteer docents and administrative support to staff. This is a part-time (11-hours/week) hourly, non-exempt position that reports to the Director of Public Programming and Events. Core hours are Saturdays and Sundays, flexible hours depending on the event schedule. Museum background preferred.

Duties and Responsibilities

  • Perform the regular procedures to open and close the House, preparing it for public tours.
  • Give public tours as needed and provide support to volunteer docents.
  • Participate in group visits such as school and scouting field trips by giving tours and implementing program activities.
  • Access the database to look up and enter data for members and donors.
  • Answer the phones and take messages.
  • Process admissions, gift shop sales, and other payments such as program and event tickets and memberships.
  • Prepare and reconcile the cash box.
  • Complete administrative projects as assigned by the Executive Director, and the Director of Public Programming and Events.
  • Assist the Volunteer Manager in recruiting, training, scheduling, supervising, and recognizing volunteer docents for public tours.
  • Assist the Volunteer Manager in the development an annual appreciation program for volunteers.
  • Assist the Volunteer Manager in scheduling group tours and field trips and securing the volunteers and staff as needed.
  • Assist the Director of Public Programming and Events with curriculum development for camps (i.e. summer, winter, spring break)

Other Responsibilities:

  • Maintain an inviting and presentable environment of the facilities and grounds at all times.
  • Be available to work with staff on educational and fundraising events for the Wornall/Majors House Museums (WMHM).
  • Other duties as assigned


  • Commitment to the mission, vision, and strategic direction of the WMHM.
  • Strong attention to detail and ability to work both independently and as a team player.
  • Strong organizational and time management skills with the ability to multitask effectively and work flexibly and productively.
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills including outstanding aptitude in customer service.
  • Experience in museums and/or nonprofits.
  • Willingness to foster the mission and values of Wornall/Majors by being an active, passionate member of our staff.

Compensation: Pay rate $10.00 per hour.

To apply send resume to:
Kerrie Nichols, Executive Director

Unpaid Internship: Photographs and Prints Internship, Missouri Historical Society

Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, MO (Summer 2018)

The Missouri Historical Society is accepting applications from students who are interested in an unpaid internship within our photographs and prints department at the Library & Research Center. This position will report directly to the photographs and prints archivist.

The intern will work on completing an inventory of 1950s-era photographic negatives from the St. Louis Public Schools Photograph Collection. The intern will compare negatives to a listing of images; learn to identify film types, and evaluate and record their conditions; arrange the film in appropriate storage containers; and record their locations. The ideal candidate will have strong attention to detail and an interest in photographic history.

The work schedule is flexible, with hours typically between 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday. A minimum of 15 hours of work per week is required. The final schedule will be determined with the supervisor.

The ideal candidate will be an undergraduate majoring in library science, history, American studies, or a similar field of study. Some experience with Adobe Photoshop is preferred. The ideal candidate will also be detail oriented and have strong written communication skills.

To apply for this position, please submit a résumé to Vicki Kaffenberger and Tamaki A. Harvey Stratman at and Candidates will then be directed to complete a full application. If selected for an interview, candidates will be asked to supply two references.

For questions, please contact: Vicki Kaffenberger at or Tamaki A. Harvey Stratman at

The Missouri Historical Society is a nonprofit organization that serves as the confluence of historical perspectives and contemporary issues to inspire and engage audiences.

Unpaid Internship Opportunity: Environmental History Collection and Exhibit Development, Missouri Historical Society

Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, MO (Summer 2018)

The Missouri Historical Society (MHS) is accepting applications from students  interested in an unpaid assistantship or internship within the exhibitions and research division. The intern will assist in research for MHS’s artifact collection and in the content development of exhibits.

The intern’s responsibilities may include:

  • Identifying library, photography archive, and document archive holdings related to specific collection artifacts, including source and finding aid citations in a comprehensive summary report
  • Researching maker/manufacturer, industry, materials, ownership, and/or usage information of specified artifacts, including source and finding aid citations in a comprehensive summary report
  • Providing researched characterizations of discrete aspects of regional resource exploitation or conservation
  • Measuring, describing, and entering artifact identification information into Mimsy, the collections database management system
  • Assisting with artifact photography, document scanning, and/or interview transcription

A minimum of 10 hours per week for 12 to 15 weeks is desired, with a flexible schedule between 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday. The final schedule will be determined with the supervisor.

Preferred assistantship candidates will be graduate students; undergraduate students in good academic standing with a passion for and competency in the subject will be considered for internship. Appropriate fields of academic study include: environmental studies, archaeology, material culture studies, history, museum studies, archive management, or similar fields. The applicant should have good communication, computer, and research skills, and sensitivity to and care for delicate artifacts.

To apply for this position, please submit a résumé to Vicki Kaffenberger and Tamaki A. Harvey Stratman at and Candidates will then be directed to complete a full application. If selected for an interview, candidates will be asked to supply two references.

For questions, please contact: Vicki Kaffenberger at or Tamaki A. Harvey Stratman at

The Missouri Historical Society is a nonprofit organization that serves as the confluence of historical perspectives and contemporary issues to inspire and engage audiences.

Job Opening: Curator of Collections, Riley Co KS Historical Museum

This is a specialized, professional position which provides collections curatorial leadership, vision and planning, and oversees the museum collections management system.

Essential Functions:

  • Supervises selection, registration, documentation, exhibition, and storage of incoming and outgoing artifacts.
  • Oversees the management of the collection by maintaining appropriate records, supervising proper environmental control, directing and following professional standards and practices.
  • Develops policy and procedures for collections management as needed.
  • Conducts research and prepares reports as needed.
  • Recruits, trains, and supervises collections interns, volunteers, and staff.
  • Assists with interpretive plans, education programs, exhibits, and other projects of the Museum.
  • Interacts with donors or potential donors and assists the public as needed.


Education: Minimum qualifications: Bachelor’s degree in museum studies, American history, or in a relevant field. Master’s degree in museum studies or history preferred. Experience: Three or more years of experience in supervision of museum collections preferred. Knowledge of collections rules, practices, standards, and procedures necessary to professionally perform and manage a wide variety of interrelated and possibly non-standard procedural assignments and to resolve a wide range of problems using independent judgment.

Special Requirements

Knowledge of Riley County history, the history of the American West, and material culture preferred. Pre-employment drug screening and background check is required upon conditional offer of employment.

To Apply, visit Application deadline is May 1st.