Monthly Archives: July 2018

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.