Transcribing: The Challenge of Typing What You Hear

Posted on July 10th, 2017 by

Blog post by Exhibitions Intern Tirza Ochrach-Konradi. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.


I’ve been doing a lot of transcribing, which is in in theory very monotonous, but in practice has been a remarkably complex project. The main area of exploration is figuring out how you transcribe. The question seems a little ridiculous. Obviously you listen to a recording and you copy down what is said, not a lot of room for confusion. However, there are a lot of choices to be made about how exactly you write the words down. People say a lot of things that aren’t words; do I write fillers down or do I leave them out? Somebody using the transcription to find quotes for a wall poster probably does not want to read through ums and uhs, but someone using the transcript to find quotes for an audio creation would be bothered to discover that the perfect quote they read in the transcription is riddled with pauses and fillers when they listen to the recording.

UM vs. UH: In Maryland we say both which is backed up in my transcribing. A person will use one or the other, but I’ve transcribed both uh people and um people. (Map from Quartz Media)

UM vs. UH: In Maryland we say both which is backed up in my transcribing. A person will use one or the other, but I’ve transcribed both uh people and um people. (Map from Quartz Media)

In transcribing there is a trade-off between readability and staying true to source material. People on the side of verisimilitude would argue you should transcribe exactly what you hear, and I do chose to transcribe uhs and ums. However, I add punctuation to improve readability. I was looking through one of the transcriptions in the JMM collection that had no punctuation, and reading it felt like stumbling through an awful jumble of incomprehensibility. I err on the side of punctuating to make the transcription readable and do not feel compelled by the possibility of mangling the speaker’s intent through misinterpreting stress and adding a comma where they didn’t intend one.

I am about to be on the other side of this equation conducting the interviews. Transcribing has made me very aware of all of the extra things that interviewers say. It is very hard to directly ask someone a question. I hear, “tell me a little bit about…” constantly. I do not think I have heard the more direct, “tell me…” even once. I have a set of questions written for the interview collection I will be working on. Each one starts with a question word or the directive to “tell me”, but I have no illusions that I will manage not to add half a sentence of conversational lead-in every time I try to ask anything.

O Transcribe, the software I’ve been using, is available on the google app store.

O Transcribe, the software I’ve been using, is available on the google app store.

I transcribed one interview in middle school. I was working on a tape machine with a foot pedal. Now I have been using an application for the google chrome web browser, where the escape key is pause play and the program automatically restarts the recording two seconds back each time you hit play. It is a world better and much less fussy to work with. Through an odd sense of fate the transcription that I am adding to currently is an interview with the same person that I transcribed in middle school, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). In middle school I interviewed her about the outsider art movement and currently I am listening to her speak about her life story, Jewish beliefs, and reasons for founding AVAM. I love that oral history allows for the feeling of being in the room with the informant. I think that is why this connection has such import for me. Transcribing helps the archivists and curators who build exhibitions to access the content of an oral history. Nobody has the time to listen to an hour of tape to find a quote. If there is a transcription key words can be searched and the content can be skimmed quickly for relevance. Each complete transcription makes the content more accessible and more likely to reach the ears of a public audience!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Oral History: Connecting through time

Posted on June 24th, 2016 by

Through recorded oral histories, we preserve information that is not found in data tables, census records, or even preserved media. During the Great Depression, my great-grandfather actually attended and graduated high school twice, but this is not recorded by the government. His younger brother had found a job to help support the family, but was still required by law to finish his schooling. Jobs were hard to find and important to keep so for the sake of his family, my great-grandfather went back to finish high school for his brother. This story is an oral history passed down through my family. It is a story that would be lost without word of mouth and is not in any official record. If you were to look for a graduation record for Raymond Haber, you would only find one.

Familial oral history has preserved Ray Haber and his brother to my family, but if this story is not recorded it can be lost to humanity. This little anecdote is potentially a handy tool to understanding the dynamic that held families together during the Great Depression, but if I do not tell the story it will fall to the wind and be lost to future generations.  Oral histories once recorded and transcribed take on solid form and are better preserved for the future. Recording these histories through an organization like the museum gives more people access to the stories that have shaped generations.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland, its employees, and volunteers have compiled around 800 oral histories since they started in 1963. The first oral history in our archives is an interview with Jacob Edelman. Edelman and his interviewer, Dr. Isaac Fein, met on 6 February 1963 to talk about the garment industry in Baltimore.

As they spoke, their voices were recorded with a reel to reel recording device.

As they spoke, their voices were recorded with a reel to reel recording device.

These days we use equipment that creates immediate digital copies that can be accessed easily on a computer. While the recording technology has changed significantly since 1963, the basic idea of collecting oral histories remains the same. Our purpose is to preserve not only the voices of our interviewees, but more importantly their stories, insights, and overall humanity.

Our first oral history participant, Jacob Edelman, arrived in Baltimore on 2 February 1912. JMM 2000.97.2

Our first oral history participant, Jacob Edelman, arrived in Baltimore on 2 February 1912. JMM 2000.97.2

He was a boy of 15½ with no marketable skills, whose Russian and German were better than his Yiddish and had no English fluency whatsoever. The Hebrew Immigrant Agency & Sheltering Society helped him when he arrived and told him that the garment industry was the best place for him to find work, so that’s where he went. From this position, Edelman was privy to the strikes and unionization of the industry. He himself was a striker. He claimed that the strikebreakers were Europeans and that they were “broken by importations of scared, strikebreakers and many innocent, well-intentioned people that just got off the boat because boats were coming in every day… they didn’t know any better” (Jacob Edelman, OH0001: Jewish Museum of Maryland, 1963). His sympathy and explanation for the strikebreakers is a humanity best seen through oral history.

Edelman’s oral history is but a snapshot of his life and his involvement in the Baltimore area. From 1939 to 1971, he sat on the Baltimore City Council, first for district four and then for district five. He came from humble beginnings as an immigrant with no family or connections. He lived through the unionization of the garment industry and increased his personal status from an immigrant with nothing to a politician with family.

Here he shakes hands with Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro.  Photo by Jerry Esterson, JMM 1996.026.273.

Here he shakes hands with Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro. Photo by Jerry Esterson, JMM 1996.026.273.

 Even though it is a brief recording, Edelman’s oral history keeps his memories alive. He is here at the museum, preserved in the words he spoke on 6 February 1963, explaining the Baltimore garment industry of the 1910s.

Becky MillerBlog post by Public History Intern Rebecca Miller. To read  more posts by and about interns click HERE.

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Pause for Thought

Posted on July 1st, 2015 by

“You see what she did there? That’s good. That’s really good. You hear that? She paused. That silence makes people feel like they need to say more—like they need to fill the space. You can get some great stuff that way.”

Karen Falk, our curator at the museum, is sharing with me some tricks of the trade before I conduct an informal oral history over the phone the following day.

And these are tricks that I could definitely use—I’ve sometimes been known to exhibit signs of mild tremors when asked to even ring up distant relatives. While the idea of speaking with a stranger about their career choices and personal values is then definitely a little intimidating at first, it’s actually not so much the conversation that puts me on edge, but rather something about the nature of speaking over the phone. It’s precisely that pause that Karen keeps talking about—the lingering silence that makes my palms sweat as imagine the other person’s expression on the receiving end.

The tools of the trade!

The tools of the trade!

We’re conducting these interviews as part of our research for the museum’s upcoming exhibit, Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America (set to open in March of 2016). A common occurrence at the museum  as many of the exhibits maintain a unique first person perspective, I’ve already read through five oral history transcriptions conducted with medical professionals (or their family members) who worked in and around Baltimore during the 50s.  We’ll eventually use these interviews either as brief quotes in the soundscape of the exhibit, or in their more complete form and create a listening station for visitors to enjoy on their own.

However they ultimately become incorporated into the exhibit, this unique opportunity to explore these stories was one of things I looked forward to most when I began this internship a month ago and has truly been an incredibly fascinating, and at times, even humbling experience. One interviewee spoke about Jewish quotas in nursing schools when her sister applied in the early 1950s and the blatant antisemitism she was confronted with by the administration. Another weaved colorful stories about a family business fabricating anatomically correct plastic models for medical schools. Nearly every oral history transcription I read highlighted a sense of the interconnectedness of medicine and Jewish values—of a shared notion of the tradition of community care and the sanctity of human life.

Reading these personal insights made me all the more excited to organize my own oral history interview, to be conducted with a current nurse practitioner student in New York.  With this conversation and a few others, Karen is looking to acquire more contemporary perspectives in the field and I look forward to uncovering the new stories and experiences of someone not much older than myself. But then my early onset Parkinson’s flares up again…

Despite my growing nervousness, the following afternoon I felt confident in the knowledge that I was at least formally prepared. Armed with a few more insider tricks from Karen, a prepared list of some twenty questions, and an intimidating piece of recording equipment, I felt pretty well equipped. And, for the most part, I was. I successfully managed to set up the microphone, I asked the questions we had prepared, and somehow even overcame the impulse to fill the static void that inevitably arose. But what I wasn’t at all expecting was to be so blown away by my interviewee’s perspective and career choices, so much so that the silence that hung in the air wasn’t as piercing as I anticipated it to be. In fact, it wasn’t unsettling at all.

I realized, admittedly only after hanging up, that this phone call in fact allowed me to let her words speak entirely for themselves—liberated from the visual stimuli that can otherwise distract or distort our impressions. The lingering pauses that I am now playing back as I transcribe the interview don’t magnify the unease I felt, but rather the power of her words.

IMG_0999A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Elizabeth Livesey. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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