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

Dr. Ruth Finkelstein: a Pioneer in Women’s Health

Posted on July 9th, 2013 by

Clare RobbinsA blog post from Collections Intern Clare Robbins. Clare works with senior collections manager Jobi Zink. To read more posts by Clare and other JMM interns, click here.

This summer I’ve had a wonderful time working with Jobi in the Collections Department at the JMM.  I’ve worked on a variety of projects including processing the 2012-2013 collections, creating a condition report notebook for the “Voices of Lombard Street” exhibit, and even writing the catalogue numbers on surface of several objects.

After practicing writing 1984.16.1 for thirty minutes, I finally wrote it on the bottle.

After practicing writing 1984.16.1 for thirty minutes, I finally wrote it on the bottle.

Last week, I started transcribing an oral history with Dr. Ruth Finkelstein that will be used in the upcoming “Jews, Health and Healing” exhibit.  Dr. Finkelstein was a Baltimorean obstetrician and gynecologist beginning in the late 1930s through the 1980s who worked for better health care and family planning for women.   Listening to Dr. Finkelstein discuss her experiences has definitely been one of the highlights from my summer.  While I haven’t finished the interview, I thought I would share what I have found so far.

I’m busy transcribing Dr. Ruth Finkelstein’s interview.

I’m busy transcribing Dr. Ruth Finkelstein’s interview.

Dr. Finkelstein grew up in New York City with her parents and four siblings. Her father decided early in her life that she would become a doctor.  When she was twelve years old, Finkelstein’s father wrote to the Johns Hopkins Medical School for a catalogue that outlined how to get into medical school and she planned her life accordingly.  After finishing high school, she attended Johns Hopkins for both undergraduate and medical school.

In medical school, Finkelstein worked and lived at the first birth control clinic in Baltimore, officially called the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice because, as Finkelstein recalls, “birth control was a dirty word.”  Dr. Bessie Moses, a Baltimorean gynecologist, (you can read more about Dr. Moses here and here) opened this clinic on Broadway after she was denied space in the hospital.  Moses used the first floor as a birth control clinic and rented the upstairs to medical students.  While it was not illegal to open a privately funded birth control clinic at this time, Finkelstein recounted  the difficulties that early gynecologist like herself and Dr. Moses faced.  The Comstock law deemed birth control to be pornographic, thus making it illegal to import diaphragms (the only form of birth control at the time) from Europe.  Margaret Sanger, an early birth control activist and nurse, smuggled the diaphragms into the United States and distributed them to Moses.  Further, the only way a woman could go to the clinic was if she was referred by her physicians.  Women, however, were only referred if they had a heart, lung, or kidney disease.

Finkelstein also discussed the difficulties female doctors experienced in the early twentieth century.  Not only was Finkelstein the only Jewish woman at Johns Hopkins Medical School, she was also the only woman from her undergraduate class to pursue medicine.  As a doctor, she found that her opinion was not respected by her male colleagues.  The male doctors, she described, were “belittling” and overall dismissive of her opinions and diagnoses.  Because of these attitudes, Finkelstein could only work with a small group of physicians.

Despite the many hardships Finkelstein faced, she worked in the largely male-dominated medical field as an obstetrician and gynecologist in order to help women.  The best way that I can conclude this post is with a short quotations from Dr. Ruth Finkelstein describing her basic philosophy.  “I’m a champion of the underdog. I’m a softy. My philosophy is to help people, I guess.”


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Transcribing Oral Histories

Posted on July 25th, 2011 by

A blog post by Summer Intern Carrie Coviello.

One of the tasks that I have to work on for the Levindale exhibition is to transcribe an oral history.  Transcribing an oral history means that I listen to the taped conversation between the interviewer and the interviewee and type up literally every word that the interviewer and interviewee say.  It is similar to being a court stenographer in that you record everything that goes on except you are not actually present at the interview.  As you can imagine, it can be a very interesting but a very slow and tedious process.

All the transcribing is done on the computer.  The recording is digitized so one can listen to it through Windows Media Player or iTunes.  You put on good quality headphones to block outside noises (though if you’re like me, you will hear things through the headphones anyway) and click “play” on your selected oral history.  The oral history I have mainly been working on is an interview of a Levindale employee.  When you have heard enough words that you can remember, you click “pause” on the oral history tape and type out what the person said exactly as they said it.  This process is repeated until the tape ends.

Headphones for Transcribing

Transcribing is a slow process.  Many times, you have to play a section of the tape over and over again to understand what a person said.  Even when you play the tape over and over again you still don’t know what the person said.  Or when you do know what the person said but have to figure out the spelling of the word or the person’s name that was mentioned.  It is also unbelievable how many words a person can say in just one minute.  There are times when almost a full page, single-spaced, can be typed with the interviewee’s words and not even a minute has gone by.

An example of what an oral history transcription looks like.

The upside of transcribing is that you get to listen in on the individual who is being interviewed and get to know his or her story.  If you are a nosy person, this is an excellent job for you.  I love hearing about people’s childhoods, what their school was like and how they ended up in the job that they are in.  I like to think up how I would respond to the questions asked or what my parents would say or what my grandmothers would have said.

I hope that in my future professional museum career I will be able to conduct oral history interviews because they are truly good resources for historical and cultural information.

Hard at work transcribing.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland