Ode to the Transcriber, Unsung Hero of Oral History

In this post, current OHMA BA/MA student Rozanne Gooding Silverwood (2015) reflects on the art of transcription and offers her perspective on how the NYPL Community Oral History Project might increase the enlistment of volunteer transcribers by educating prospective participants about the literary history and aesthetic value of rendering the spoken word to text.

“Sing to me, Muse, and through me tell the story…”

The opening of Homer’s The Odyssey embodies the spirit of oral tradition. Iterations of his epic poem traveled by word of mouth until some humble eighth century B.C.E. transcriber set chisel to stone, preserving the history of a mythic hero for posterity.

Eventually memorization by Greek schoolboys ceded to audio recording devices, but transcribers are still called to preserve orally-transmitted knowledge—from Homer’s poetic histories to devoted students’ class notes of Saussure’s lectures on linguistic theory. But as digital speech-to-text technology gains currency, today’s transcribers often do not receive the recognition they deserve. Which might explain some of the tepid response to the New York Public Library’s call for volunteer transcribers/editors for its Community Oral History Project.

At the OHMA workshop series presentation “Large-scale and Local: Engaging New York Public Library Communities in the Collection Process,” the project’s director—Alex Kelly—discussed some of the rewards and challenges of NYPL’s community-driven project. The good news is that this venture has received enthusiastic responses from volunteer interviewers who, after a briefing on the use of audio recording devices and a review of best practices, are helping their neighborhood libraries build a vast collection of oral histories representing the diverse communities of New York City and its boroughs. Unfortunately, editing the texts of these neighborhood stories inspires less community zeal.

As much as the program’s speech-to-text software reduces the initial time-consuming labor of transcription, to catch computer-generated errors requires human effort. Website visitors choosing from over 1000 audio files of the collected interviews are also invited to edit and annotate these oral histories in order to make the audio files more accessible to the general public, as well as research scholars. Simply by clicking the “Improve Our Stories” link and selecting an interview, a user-friendly editing tool opens that follows a line-by-line textual transcript synched with the spoken words of the narrator. Any textual errors discovered in the computer software’s translation can be corrected with a simple click of the “Edit” link, which opens a window for revisions. All of the edits are saved—but as the online tutorial explains, final changes are not published until two or more editors agree on the wording.

According to Kelly, crosschecking and volunteer editing of the computer-generated transcripts has so far resulted in 92,248 corrections (approx. 128 hours of audio), with a consensus on 16,376 lines (approx. 22 hours of audio). As impressive as these numbers appear, they represent but a small portion of the recording hours that still require editing. And while the hiring of professional transcribers is planned for some projects to avoid the more vexing computer inaccuracies arising from dialects and speech differences, the project plans to continue using speech-to-text for most transcription—and there remains a deficit in the enlistment of volunteer editors who could deal with the backlog.

Apparently, there is a difference between the volunteer interviewer and the editor who, as Kelly puts it, is typically “volunteering for volunteering sake.” Such participants may be motivated by corporate requirements for employee community service or are students fulfilling academic assignments. But the distinction between these two types should come as no surprise. Holding a microphone and asking a neighbor what it was like growing up in Greenwich Village can often seem much more glamorous than editing text—unless you are an introverted literature lover like me.

To those more comfortable with a keyboard than a tape recorder and wonder if there is still a place for us in oral history, there is hope. One person offering reassurance is OHMA alum Nyssa Chow (2015) whose blog post “Oral History as Poetry: Restoring a Visual Orality” celebrates the literary nuances that can be brought to the transcription process. Initially drawn to oral history through the literary works produced by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) authors, such as James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men, my appreciation of transcribers fully kicked in while researching for my thesis on Chickasaw identity.

As a researcher I am especially mindful of the numerous shortcomings of the FWP’s ex-slave narratives, such as omissions resulting from self-censoring and/or the failing memory of aging narrators. However, as I read the narratives of Kiziah Love and Polly Colbert, I was grateful for how the transcribers preserved so many familiar Chickasaw places and people, conveying the simple cadence of these voices that sing in my ears all these years later.

Enhancing pride in place and people through community participation guides the NYPL’s oral history project. But in order to recruit volunteer editors who are as “connected to the stories that they are listening to” as those who interview their fellow neighbors, the program’s “Community Ambassadors” who facilitate transcript corrections could reach an untapped audience of potential volunteers by giving more time in their training sessions to celebrating oral history’s unsung heroes. So let us now praise the transcribers and editors so that future volunteers and lovers of the written word may assist the Muse’s call.

To learn more about the NYPL Community Oral History project visit http://oralhistory.nypl.org.

To get information on how to become a volunteer transcriber, interviewer or interviewee contact oralhistory@nypl.org.

To read the transcriptions of Kiziah Love, Polly Colbert and other slave narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project go to https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn130.

Suggested Readings

Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South [1941]. New York: Mariner Books, 2001.

Cordes, Kate. “Together We Listen: Generating Accessible Oral Histories of NYP through Community Participatory Projects.” (Collective Commons).

Davidson, James West and Mark Hamilton Lytle. “View From the Bottom Rail” in After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1992.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.