Oral History 301: Understanding Recording Formats

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For this week’s blog post on the oral history collection at the Southwest Collection (see previous entries here  and here!), we want to give you a quick overview of the various recording formats that have been utilized in recording our interviews. Since our collection spans over 60 years and more than 6,000 oral histories, historians have recorded using the technology of many eras. Today, preservation is our highest priority, so all of the older media are being converted to digital format.

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The earliest interviews were recorded on ¼ inch magnetic audio tape or “reel to reel” format. Roughly 1,900 of our interviews are on this format, ranging from 1949-1985. Reels can come in a variety of sizes, but since most of our interviews were recorded at an incredibly slow speed (typically 1 7/8 inches per second), these interviews could fit on very small 3 inch reels. You can see an example of one of the portable recording devices likely used by our field historians here. These reels require extra care as we digitize them today because they tend to have tension issues on modern reel-to-reel players that are calibrated to play the larger commercial reels.

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Beginning in the mid-1970s, field historians also recorded to audio cassette. This format is utilized in about 2,000 interviews. Though many patrons are familiar with how to work a cassette player, we still ask two weeks advance notice in order to make a digital copy of an interview. The older the recording, the more likely there will be technical issues: the plastic casing might be cracked, or the springs or rollers might have quit working. Fortunately, our audio/visual staff is well versed in cassette tape repair.

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Luckily for our audio/visual department today, our oral history collection was primarily recorded on newer, more versatile audio formats. Occasionally we have worked with interviews on microcassettes, DAT tapes, and various small video tapes, but starting in the mid-2000s all oral histories are recorded on digital audio recorders, or as we phrase it, they are “born digital.” This allows us to copy the files to our servers, make patron-use copies on compact discs, and edit audio files much more easily. Our current recorders save files in .wav format, with a 44.1 kHz sample rate and 16 bit depth (which is compact disc quality). In the upcoming years, we will likely upgrade our equipment with portable recorders capable of 96 kHz/24bit and better quality microphones. It seems the future will bring us higher fidelity digital recordings, but luckily (fingers crossed!) no more unique and proprietary formats.

Now it’s time to ask our readers (especially you oral historians!): what formats have you seen oral histories recorded on? Sadly, our collection does not go far enough back to include transcription discs or wire recordings. Have you used video recordings with video backups? Our field historians began this practice almost a decade ago, but we still rely heavily upon audio recordings. Many of the unique audio formats we encounter come from small oral history collections donated by individuals in our surrounding communities. In a future blog post, we will give an overview of the work others have done to promote oral history cultivation on the South Plains. And, as always, if you’d like to listen to these oral histories or view any of our other collections, don’t hesitate to contact our Reference Staff.

by Elissa Stroman

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Oral History 201: Oral History Processing

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In our last Oral History blog post, we gave a brief overview of the holdings of the Southwest Collection’s oral history program (of which there are thousands!) This week we would like to show you what our oral history department has diligently been working on lately. The SWC Audio/Visual Department curates all of the new interviews currently being conducted by our field historians, and after almost 2 years of work we are proud to unveil our new transcripts that debuted on the SWC’s DSpace this month!

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Our transcripts are the culmination of a lengthy project dedicated to creating the best product possible for researchers. Within these transcription documents you’ll find an interview summary, a general synopsis/table of contents, keywords, and a transcript of the entire interview. For our style and formatting, we are indebted to the Baylor Institute for Oral History’s style guide, which helped build the foundation of our work. These transcripts will provide researchers all over the world access to our newest oral histories, and we are eager to hear from researchers who use these documents.

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To process our oral histories, we start with our student assistants transcribing each interview (which typically takes roughly 8 hours per hour of interview). The transcript then undergoes at least three reviews by both A/V staff and the interviewer to ensure accuracy (especially of proper names and idiosyncratic language). The A/V staff then sends the interview to the SWC’s cataloging librarians, who place it on Worldcat where other libraries can discover the interview. Finally, we upload the transcript onto DSpace.

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Some of the first interviews cataloged with the new transcript template include a set of eight conducted with members of the American Agriculture Movement (AAM). We are highlighting these interviews to coincide with the exhibit that is on display through mid-June in the Southwest Collection.

The interviews conducted by Andy Wilkinson and David Marshall deal with all areas of AAM: from the original tractorcades and protests, to later political involvement in Washington, and their ongoing work with Farm-Aid. The Southwest Collection is dedicated to preserving the history of these hard working farmers and will continue interviewing all interested parties of the American Agriculture Movement. If you would like your story heard and preserved, please call Andy Wilkinson at (806) 742-3749 or email andy.wilkinson@ttu.edu. And if you’d like to hear the stories already gathered, our Reference Staff is always happy to see what they can arrange in that regard.

by Elissa Stroman

Oral History 101 – A Basic Introduction

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Over the past sixty years, historians at Texas Tech have conducted over 6,000 oral history interviews that now reside permanently at the Southwest Collection. Some of the earliest interviews in our holdings date from the late 1940s and were conducted by the Texas Tech History Department’s Dr. William Curry Holden, who spoke with local businessmen and ranchers about life on the South Plains. While our recording technologies have adapted beyond analog devices into digital voice recorders and video cameras, we continue to capture the stories of people in this region. Today we carry on the tradition established by historians like Holden, Fred Carpenter, Richard Mason, and David Murrah. Our field historians reach out to persons of interest all across the Southwest and are especially interested in politics, the histories of minorities, cultural heritage (specifically the arts and creative processes), Texas Tech history, sports, science and technology, and agriculture. These interviews are an invaluable tool for researchers interested in primary documentation and personal accounts. Field historians frequently go into interviewees’ homes, allowing the interview to be conducted casually; stories of major historical events are told first-hand, by eye-witnesses in their own words.

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In the Fall of 2010, the Southwest Collection began a massive re-evaluation of our oral history holdings. One of the biggest concerns was preserving our “reel-to-reel” recordings. Consequently, for the protection of the original recordings we now require patrons who wish to access such interviews to make their requests at least two weeks in advance. Upon receiving the request, the Audio/Visual department digitizes each recording, performs any sort of audio restoration that is required for audibility, and then burns the recordings to optical disc for patron use. We hope to have all of our 6,000 interviews in a digital format within the next three years, which will allow patrons easier access and less wait time. In future blog posts in the upcoming months, we will discuss further the various formats and preservation issues that we have encountered with this massive collection.

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Digitally transferring one of our oral history recordings on a reel-to-reel tape player.

If you are interested in our oral history holdings, at this time you can access information on the interviews conducted from 1949-2001, as well as search the collection by keyword, on the Southwest Collection website. Interviews from 2001-2011 are found in our dspace holdings. We are in the process of creating a new web portal for our oral history collection that hopes to go live by the end of 2013. Continue checking back on this blog for updates on this exciting new chapter in the history of the Southwest Collection’s oral history collection!

-by Elissa Stroman, SWC Audio/Visual Department