A Brief Guide to Basic Technology Planning for Oral History Projects

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with some folks on planning an oral history project. In doing that planning, I realized that there are many decisions to make about technology before even embarking on any of the interviews themselves.

Whether your oral history project is one that you are doing yourself for your own research, one that is for an organization, or one that you’re using for part of a course or as a student project, there are lots of options for making it happen.

Audio Only Recordings

Using audio only.

Using audio only can cut down on costs for a project, though you probably would want a more updated microphone than this one in 1930. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress collection.

Audio only versus video is the first decision that you will probably have to make when planning your project, and though you may already know that you want to do video interviews, don’t discard the idea of audio interviews, especially if your project is a one-person-show. Without a lot of financial resources, you can get a lot done with only using audio.

Audio-only interviews are relatively simple to make technology-wise, they’re easy to set up, and they’re less expensive than producing video. The downside is that you won’t be preserving all of the additional information that comes from the visual side of communication. That’s a pretty big downside, but if your project involves interviewing people for your own personal research, you may want to go with an audio-only format.  One way to address this may be to bring a camera to your interview and take some pictures of the interviewee (with their permission, of course).  While in no way a substitute for video, some good photos to include along with your audio recording are easy to provide and do have some visual information.

If you’re planning on using the interviews for your own research, then you probably don’t need much more than a smartphone with an audio recording app, or an mp3 audio recorder. The Swem Library guide to audio equipment can help you figure out what you might need in this instance. I’ve used a couple of different kinds from Swem over the years, as well as an iPhone app (Voice Record Pro), and they all have worked well for capturing sound for later use.

If you want to use the interviews for a broader audience — or want to donate the finished interviews to an archive or library — you will want to record in the highest quality audio that you can. We’re so used to hearing high-quality audio these days that sometimes it’s easy to forget how frustrating and annoying it can be listening to something that’s not quite so good. Making sure that your audio sounds really good is very important if you’re planning on having other people listen to the recordings, and this goes for video interviews as well. Don’t skimp on the audio!

Getting good audio requires a few things. A good enough microphone that you know how to use, a quiet space to make the recording in (a sound studio is best, but some other quiet space would also be okay). If you’re considering using a particular room for your interview, take a few minutes to sit and listen, and hear all of those sounds that you don’t usually hear because they are background noise. Does the air conditioner or some kind of fan turn on periodically? Are there people in the hallways talking? Does the plumbing make inexplicable clanking noises? Remember that all of these kinds of noises can get picked up on your audio recording, and affect the recording quality.

Video Interviews Take More Resources but Provide More Info

Video can let you have backgrounds and environments that lend "local color" to your oral history interviews. Hiring videographers (or being one yourself) makes this even easier since they can set up cameras and microphones in all kinds of places.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress collection.

Video can let you have backgrounds and environments that lend “local color” to your oral history interviews. Hiring videographers (or being one yourself) makes this even easier since they can set up cameras and microphones in all kinds of places. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress collection.

If you’ve decided to go with video recordings, then there are a lot more things to keep under consideration. It’s a lot easier these days to get access to high quality video recording equipment, and video adds a lot to an oral history. While video is more accessible than ever, it still is more complicated than just audio — setting up your equipment is more involved, and there are more opportunities for your technology to mess up. It’s also more expensive to produce if you’re hoping to do oral histories for a archivable project.

For the project that I’m helping with, we knew from the beginning that we wanted to do video interviews, since that’s now the standard for oral histories at archives. One of the things that we then had to consider was whether to provide our own equipment (which we would have to buy) or whether to plan on finding a videographer who would provide his or her own equipment. If we provided our own equipment, it would ultimately be less expensive than hiring a videographer, and it would let us re-use the equipment for other projects.

For our project we decided to go with professional videographers, as that way we don’t have to worry about providing our own equipment and doing our own camera work. Using professionals, though it’s more expensive than the more DIY route, also lets you be more mobile in your interviews. Since professional videographers are experts at setting up camera and audio equipment we can conduct interviews in any number of spaces that could add to the recollections of our interviewees, as well as make for a more interesting background for viewers.

Figuring out Your Video Equipment

If it’s a W&M project, you can get tons of help from the Swem Media Center. They can recommend equipment, help you set it up in one of the studios, and lend you the equipment that you need. They’ll even provide you with training for setting up lights, as well as for the video/audio equipment. Through the Media Center, you can have access to better equipment and service than you would probably be able to afford otherwise.

If it’s not a W&M project, you’d have to buy or rent a camera and audio equipment, as well as lighting equipment. While not too terribly expensive anymore, it’ll still probably cost around $700 or so to buy all of the equipment that you would need. The plus side is that once you buy this stuff, you’ll be able to re-use it for other video projects, and use it continuously for your oral history project, and interview folks as they come along.

Either way, whether you use W&M Media Center equipment or buy it yourself, unless you’re a skilled camera operator or know someone who is, you’ll probably want a very simple video and audio setup. If you know you’ll be doing frequent interviews for a period of time and you have the space, you can set up your equipment and then leave it up for a few weeks in order to not have to keep fussing with it.

Test Your Technology!

As with trying any new technology, you’ll want to test it out beforehand. You don’t want to have to be messing with things for the first time right before your interviewee gets to the filming location! Do a test run of your technology with a friend or co-conspirator before you conduct your interview. Ask yourself the following:

  • How is the lighting? Do you need special lighting equipment?
  • What placement of the microphone produces the best audio? If it’s a clip-on mic, figure out how you’re going to get it on your interviewee without making them uncomfortable.
  • Where will your interviewee be in the frame of your video? What looks the best? Keep in mind that your interviewee may shift in his/her chair, and if you don’t have a designated camera operator, they may move out of the frame.
  • How is the studio or room you’re filming in? What is your plan for interruptions?
  • Depending on your recording media, how will you know to switch the tape/SD card?

The above are just a few things to keep in mind, but depending on your project there might be additional questions. Remember too that the unexpected can and will pop up, and you won’t have planned for everything. But, if you test out your equipment and methods, you’ll cover most of the expected things and have all of your resources available to you to deal with the unexpected ones.

Additional Resources

There are lots of places to find advice on oral history projects and technology planning for those projects, but here are the ones that I consulted the most when planning out the project I’m working on.

  • Donald Ritchie’s book Doing Oral History was very helpful to me — it has any number of suggestions for the best practices of starting an oral history project. If you don’t really know where to start, I highly recommend this book. He doesn’t dwell too much on specific technology to produce your interviews, but this book can help with the broader questions that then can inform your technology decisions. In the back of the book you can also find a huge list of additional resources.
  • The Oral History Association has a list of web guides for oral histories which are helpful.
  • The Oral History in the Digital Age website from Michigan State University has up-to-date information about technology for oral histories, including information about preserving oral histories and post-production methods.

It may also be helpful for you to google oral history projects that cover similar topics to yours, just to check out what other people are doing. Good luck with your project!

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