Why don't we use shorthand to record oral history?
The short answer goes back to the nature of 'oral history', which is fundamentally a relationship between two human beings. Between two human beings there will always be slippages of understanding, not to mention filtering, shaping, mishearing and generally being a different person. In one of my earliest interviews in this country after coming over from the States, I heard my interviewee talking about the "boughs" that Morris dancers wore on their legs. Listening to the recording some time later, with ears that had become more attuned to the local dialect, I realised that he had been talking about "bells". Had I recorded our conversation in either longhand or shorthand, history would now have documentary evidence of what could be seen as a rare survival of tree worship into late 20th century Britain.
Simply put: Recordings have a fullness, independence-of-author, accountability and historical authority which even the best and most competent hand-written recordings don't and can't.
But what about people's fear of recording machines: Interviewees who dry up as soon as you turn the machine on?
The lesson comes from theatre: If an actor makes a mistake and makes a big deal about it, everyone in the audience is aware of it: the flat that fell down wasn't meant to, a character has missed an entrance, an actor has fluffed a line. On the other hand, if the actors weave the mistake into the performance, the audience will accept it as part of the performance: They will laugh appropriately at the comically-timed collapse of the scenery, and not be aware of the missed entrance or wrong line. Concert pianists tell us they constantly hit wrong notes or even skip whole bars or pages; but unless they draw our attention to it in some way, we aren't aware of it: we hear the music, not the mistake.
The reality is that the interviewee will put their attention where you do. If you are worried and self-conscious about the machine (or anything else, for that matter), they will be worried and self-conscious. If, on the other hand, you have confidence in the machine, set it going, relax, and then 'listen' - give the interviewee your full and undivided attention, signalled not least through body language and eye contact - they will almost always follow suit. If you've got your attention right and your listening skills in place, your interviewee will almost never "dry up". If they do "dry up", re-examine your technique, and practice more.
Are there any guidelines for transcription?
The short answer is Yes. The British Library National Sound Archive, for example, issues guideliness for transcription which you will be given if you take the Oral History Society/British Library one-day introductory course in oral history. It may be available by applying directly to the British Library.
The longer answer begins with the nature of oral history and the purpose of the transcript. The transcript is at best a secondary record; the primary record is the oral history recording. The first principle, therefore, should be that the transcript reflects as accurately as possible what is actually in the recording.
In transcribing dictation for business purposes a secretary will, as part of his or her job, correct mistakes, take out pauses and ums, ers and false starts, correct grammar, and generally make the document as 'correct' and readable as possible. The opposite is the case in oral history, where the debate is not about correcting or smoothing, but how much, how faithfully, and in what way you can and should record all of the pauses, the interruptions, the laughter (of so many different kinds!), the dialect (" 'cos" or "because"?), the sounds (er, um, umph...) and non-verbals ("waves arms wildly while rolling eyes")...That makes for a very long answer.
Simply put: For the transcript to have the fullest possible authority as an independent historical document, it needs to be as accurate as possible. Best practice, therefore, requires that it be checked, corrected, and agreed by the interviewee as well as the interviewer. With the best will in the world, no transcript is entirely accurate: It is an approximation of the original recording. The principle is to make it as close an approximation as possible/feasible.
What should you do about interviewees who you know are wrong, or are not telling the truth?
Short answer: Record them. Your job as an oral historian is to document other people's narratives, not to judge them. If necessary, that can happen afterwards, in the full light of other testimonies and other documents.
Longer answer: a) History is filled with fake and forged documents which have influenced the course of events. We don't throw them away, and we don't further alter them to bring them closer to the 'truth' : we preserve them in their fullness, with as much context as possible, because of what they can tell us about their times and history. Why approach a human document differently?
b) Changes are meaningful. The way a story is communicated, what is told and withheld, even mistakes and mis-rememberings, are all part of the fabric of history. All of it speaks: It does not necessarily tell the story the interviewee (or the interviewer!) thinks it tells. Even silence is meaningful, which is why it is transcribed.
c) You yourself may be wrong, or have a partial knowledge and understanding of the facts: You may find they are righter than you think, or right in ways you hadn't anticipated. Unless you record what they say, in the way they have to say it, you will never know; what you will have done is added a distortion to the record.
d) Once they have told their story, you can always ask supplementary questions. But unless you have set it up that way, you are not there to challenge.
What recording format is recommended?
It is recommended that we record and edit in a non-lossy audio format, such as WAV (I've heard it pronounced both "wave" and "WAV"). The basic recommendation for the sampling rate is based on CD quality, which records at 16 Bit, 44.1 kHz. This means that there are 44,100 samples per second, each sample being 16 bits deep. You can get machines which will take more and bigger samples; but you should aim for at least 44.1/16, especially if you aim to burn your recording to CD.
Why record in WAV? Why not, say, MP3, which takes up less space and memory?
A non-lossy format, like WAV, opens its arms to the whole of the sound world and says: "Come in!" A lossy format such as mp3 is not so welcoming: It applies a mathematical algorithm to the audio as it arrives, 'compressing' it by taking out bits which it reckons our ears will not miss. By and large it is very good at this, and for basic listening purposes it is generally right. It also means that mp3 files are considerably smaller and less demanding in terms of computer space than WAV.
But the long-term, broadcast, and archival problem is that mp3 does this magical size reduction by filtering out audio information at source, permanently removing it from the recording: the audio it filters out is irrecoverable, meaning that the full complexity, depth and richness of the original sound world is lost forever: Not the place to start when recording history! The good news is that mp3 creates a realistic approximation of the original audio world, so it is a convenient way to store and listen to sound. The bad news is that it remains forever an approximation, and is never the real thing: perhaps like a good photocopy of the Magna Carta. And sometimes you need or want the real thing.
Furthermore, because mp3 applies its algorithms again each time you edit and save, if you make the mistake of editing in mp3 your original approximation becomes an approximation of the approximation. Edit that one, and it becomes an approximation of an approximation of an approximation. Before very long, your Magna Carta photocopy turns into a curiously pixillated and increasingly meaningless blur. This is why when editing, we edit in a non-lossy file such as WAV.
Beware, too, of inexpensive recording devices which record in a proprietorial format, even a proprietorial WAV format. The equipment may look inexpensive in comparison with a Zoom H4n or a Marantz PMD 661, and the recording it makes may sound good to your ear: But you add another layer of commercial impermanence, another layer of hassle, and another layer of digital translation, because you will have to translate the proprietorial format into one which is neutral: archivally supported and accessible across software and playback platforms.