Digital Oral Histories, Transcripts, and User Interfaces

One of the most heavily used collections of born-digital records in Manuscripts & Archives is RU 1055, Oral histories documenting New Haven, Connecticut ( Since being acquired a few years ago, more than 50 different interviews have been used by a number of different researchers, the majority of those researchers Yale students. Manuscripts & Archives does not currently have an online access system to provide access to these born-digital records. All access is provided onsite. Use copy Audio CDs were created of the audio recordings and use copy pdf files were created of the transcriptions. Patrons are required to either access these use copies onsite using computers in the reading room, or purchase duplicate copies to be sent to them. While this is not the most robust system, the collection is used relatively heavily. Perhaps the usage would increase if they files were available for access other the Internet, particular users from farther afield.

One interesting aspect of research use of this collection is that the majority of patrons only utilize the text transcriptions and never listen to the audio interviews that the transcriptions were created from. Only a dozen audio recordings have been accessed in the last two years. Oral histories are not an area of my research focus. However, it would seem that much is lost to the researcher if they chose to rely entirely on the text transcriptions rather than the original recordings. There is no nuance at all to the text. A cursory Internet search results indicates that there is a professional debate about this subject (see: for example). A unit inside Manuscripts & Archives, the Fortunoff Archive of Holocaust Testimonies ( purposefully does not create word-for-word transcriptions, but instead creates in-depth finding aids describing the content of the video recordings in an effort to emphasize the importance of the videos themselves. I wonder what other organizations are doing. This issue will have great relevance as we continue to develop an online access system for born-digital and digitized collections. For oral and video histories, do we want a simultaneous, or side-by-side view of the audio or video and transcription? Or does this view too much emphasize the importance of the text? I don’t know the answer myself and am concerned that those who do have informed opinions may not participate in the development of the access systems. [originally posted by Kevin Glick]