Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

Why Transcripts Don’t Always Matter

Sarah Walker

This is the space where I digitize audio cassettes, reel-to-reels, records, and even CDs into mp3 and wav files. I know, it looks messy, but I have a system! I am currently the only staff member working with audio formats.

I recently attended an amazing summit on archiving audio and video history collections. The speaker, Doug Boyd (you can follow him on Twitter, if you’d like), runs the Louie B. Nunn Center at the University of Kentucky.i

I, along with the rest of the attendees, listened with rapt attention as Boyd discussed the widespread implications of keeping and using these collections. Some of it was very technical, and some of it very poetic, in a way. As the time went on, his talk and discussion afterward helped me realize the depth of something I already believed: audio and video collections are a different breed of history.

Of course, objects and documents can be studied for information. (Danielle Stuckle, Outreach Coordinator, discussed how these historical items can be disseminated into information in her first blog post here). However, audio and video collections are best consumed in the form they are given to grant us the full impact of their importance and meaning.

Lindsay Schott

Lindsay Schott, Archives Specialist, does the majority of work with film footage.  This is the space Lindsay uses to digitize video.

For example—if you see an old cassette tape, you can examine it as an object…but it won’t tell you what is on it. *If* there is an accompanying transcript—and let’s just say that it is actually typed without error or sounds cut out, which is not always the case—you can glean different information from that. But if you listen to that old cassette, you will learn so much more. You can hear the accents of the people talking; you can consider the way questions are asked; if you hear noise in the background, you can think about what is going on if the interviewer is distracted; and you can intuit more meaning, even in where the speaker is hesitant, and where he or she is fast to answer.

Here is another example. This screenshot shows a partial transcript of an interview that I conducted with ND Vietnam veteran Paul Good Iron.ii

ND Vietnam veteran Paul Good Iron partial transcript

Now, here is the audio.

“Um” can take on more meaning when you hear it than when you read it. Even knowing that a speaker said it at all can change the impact of the story. The spoken word doesn’t really make for clean reading after all.

The challenge with these collections is that it is often easier and faster for researchers to read through a transcript than it is to listen to the audio. Once we have a transcript, it is easily digitized, and can be sent around the world—and researchers using it can search the text by word or read through it at their leisure. That is one of our goals, after all, as you avid readers may recall from my first blog post.

However, I invite you to consider these facts:

  • Transcripts can be expensive. It takes a bit of money and a lot of time to get interviews transcribed, and that is not always possible—especially as collections grow.
  • Transcripts are not always completely accurate. Have you ever read a transcript and noticed a name misspelled, a word changed, or some other error? Heck, have you ever tried to transcribe something spoken in a thick accent? Possibly where the interviewee lapses into a language that is familiar to them, but foreign to you? Yeah.
  • Transcripts are often “cleaned up.” People don’t like to publish all of those uhs and ums and random swearing that may occur. Like it or not, there can be a loss of some authenticity.
  • Woman pumping water

    SHSND 0003-184: Mrs. Ted (Ellen Roberts) Pope, pumping water in Slope County.

    Audio and video collections are often a primary source, and transcripts are a secondary source. Let me describe this picture for you. There is a woman with her back turned to the camera, pumping water from a well. She is looking over her shoulder. She is wearing a long dress. The vast prairie stretches out in front of her. It’s very windy. Do you want to take my words as a primary source? What did I miss? Granted, having some information on the photo helps, but what feelings can I invoke with words that can’t be seen through the image? That concept holds true with audio and video.
  • There is no easy way to get a good transcript. There is no easy software you can download, no quick way to drop a file somewhere and pull the audio from it.
Casette tapes

Oh, the ubiquitous cassette. This is what makes up the majority of our oral history collection.

Yes, it is nice to have those transcripts. They are very useful. But in the end, would you rather read a biography about your great-grandfather (written by him or not), or would you rather hear his voice, speaking about the hardships he went through in settling the land he later would own?

It’s definitely a point for discussion, and each repository must make its own choices. But hopefully, that primary source of raw video and raw audio will find a prime spot on your shelf.

i The Louie B. Nunn Center has a phenomenal setup, with multiple ongoing projects, and a small team taking in and processing more audio and video collections in a year than some repositories currently have in their collection. As a point of comparison, we do have several expansive audio and video projects and multiple smaller collections in our Archives.

ii As a side note, transcribing this section (two minutes) took me half an hour. Or maybe it just felt that way.

Curators Gonna Curate

Not that long ago my younger brother was asked, “What’s your sister doing these days?” He replied, “She’s a museum curator.” The follow-up question was, “So, what does she do?” After a pause in which he choked on a fly that had flown into his mouth, he said, as if stating the obvious, “She . . . curates.” He relayed this conversation to me during a phone call and then had to ask, in all seriousness, “So what do you actually do as a curator?” My reply - “Herd cats,” (because this is my little brother, and little brothers don’t usually deserve serious answers).

Curator is a nifty umbrella term that comes from the Latin cura which means “to care.” This is why we have curators scattered all over museums, zoos, and art galleries. Wherever there is a large collection of items, there needs to be someone to take care of those things. This is a massive simplification of hundreds of jobs that require years of education and experience, but when you burrow down through the ponderous verbiage of bureaucratic job descriptions what you end up with is a lot of people who passionately care about obscure things and, for the most part, can’t wait to tell you about them.

Which is how we come to my job – Curator of Exhibits – because one of the more specific definitions of a curator is “one who selects and presents.” I am blessed, challenged, and frequently humbled by the task of selecting from tens of thousands of items from the collections of the State Historical Society and presenting them to the public through exhibits.

The first part of the selection process is to determine what type of story we want to tell. Is it specific, such as Guns of North Dakota?

Guns of North Dakota display case

Or is it broad and sweeping, like North Dakota: Yesterday and Today?

Soda Shop in the Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today

The latter is the title of newest permanent exhibit that will open at the Heritage Center on November 2, 2014.

For the last two and a half years I’ve been part of a team that has worked to distill the story of North Dakota, and then tell that story through words, photos, and objects. This is the next step – what pieces do we put on exhibit? There is only so much room in exhibit galleries, and culling the list of possible objects is a long process of compromise. A colleague described it as “trying to decide which of your kids you love most.” And we want to show our “children” in their best light, so we also work to make sure the objects are safely displayed in an aesthetically pleasing manner that complements the larger story – that’s the “present” part.

We hope you’ll come join us November 2nd to see our newest exhibits, and we hope that you care about them as much as we do!