Technological Challenges of Oral History
Prepared by Robert Shields
Occasional Papers # 1
Concordia Oral History Research Laboratory (COHRL)
What's Out There? Oral History on the Web
There are numerous Oral history websites available on the internet. Much of
these, however, fall into the category of stand-alone projects, rather than a collected
archive. That is to say they are topic-specific, such as the Veterans History Project
created by the U.S. Government (http://www.loc.gov/vets/), The First Black Women at
Virginia Tech project (http://spec.lib.vt.edu/blackwom/), The Survivors of the Shoah
project (http://www.vhf.org/) and the Post-war Chinese Australians Oral History
Project by the National Library of Australia
(http://www.nla.gov.au/events/oralhist/giese.html) to name a few. The quality of these
sites, and the availability and access to interviews by the end user varies greatly, as do the
resources of the producers of the sites and their partners.
The Veterans History Project, for instance, has a huge list of individual groups,
corporations, governments (state and federal) and even an international supporter, who
are lending their time, resources and finances to the project. The First Black Women at
Virginia Tech project is self-produced by the University, which clearly has fewer
resources. Clearly, then, the end product of these projects varies greatly. The Virginia
Tech project, for instance, offers only photographs, transcripts and a few selected audio
excerpts, while The Survivors of the Shoah project offers streaming video interviews as
well as numerous slideshows and biographies.
It becomes clear then that financial resources and the ability to continue to
maintain and update the site with new technologies are interdependent. This should not
(and does not) dissuade those projects with few resources from offering Oral histories in
the best manner that they can. Large, specialized, and well-funded projects will continue
to create their sites with the best equipment, technologies, and preservation available to
them, as should smaller projects.
There has been, and will continue to be, great changes in technology, which will
create some challenges for the archiving of Oral histories. We have witnessed in the past
30 years remarkable and rapid change in the field of video and audio recording, and we
have also witnessed a great deal of obsolescence. One of the fears, it would seem, with
the advancing technology relates to this notion of obsolescence. Surely we do not want
our work, and more importantly our histories, to be regulated to the 8-track tapes and
Beta videotapes of the 70's and 80's, and yet at some point a decision has to be made on a
standard format, even if it is a temporary one. It is for this reason that a real commitment
has to be made to not only gather histories, but to maintain, standardize and update
At the current time digital video (DV) has not only become very affordable, but
also represents a system which is very portable, non-intrusive, and user friendly. There
are a number of debates, however, surrounding digital video. The first is the validity of
video to begin with, with some in the Oral history community suggesting that video
should not be used as interviewees may become intimidated by the presence of a camera.
According to this argument video should be regulated to peripheral uses, such as
enhancing the interview with photographs. That aside, the other main issue with digital
video surrounds the stability of the file/interview once it has been produced. Technology
fails, and hard drives crash, and the reality is there is not a great deal known about how
long a technology will be available. This, however, is the reality of the day and we cannot
hold on to already obsolete technology until the definitive technology is created, because
it won't be created. There will continue to be new and improved technologies, some will
be the future DVDS and some will be tomorrow's Beta VCRS. While we must not jump
into a new technology and proclaim it as the standard there are technologies out there
now that have proven to have some longevity. The key it would seem is to move forward
with technology and adapt as necessary.
Video vs. Audio
The current standard of recording Oral history appears to be audio and while it
appears more and more projects and historians are using audio, there seems to be an
almost dismissive attitude towards video as being too intrusive and not adding much to
the interview. That debate aside, there are some logical reasons for choosing digital video
over audio. A well placed video camera, for example, is no more intrusive than audio
equipment, and like audio equipment, many interviewees will forget the camera is their
once the interview is underway. Of course mini DV video recorders can be used to
capture just the audio portion of an interview (by keeping the lens cap on) if the
interviewee is apprehensive about being filmed (The AVI file which would be produced
can then be taken into a program such as Premiere Pro and the audio file extracted to a
WAV file), thus Oral historians need not carry two pieces of equipment. Then there is the
practical side of video interviews - they are more interesting and add an extra element to
the end user, and likely will keep the attention of students better than audio segments.
Issues of Compatibility
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing Oral historians is that of deciding on a
digital video format which as the “standard”. There are several different types of digital
video formats, which offer different levels of quality, compatibility, and convenience.
And, as will be discussed below, different formats are better suited for different things
(i.e. editing, storage, and streaming).
Even if there was consensus on a format, AVI, one of the MPG formats or some future
format, there are still issues with the actual coding of these. Not all AVI files are created
equal, and incompatibility may render a perfectly good file on one computer inaccessible
on another. The ideal, then, would be to create an industry standard of file constructed by
an industry standard software on an industry standard operating system (i.e. Windows).
The problem with this, of course, is that disparity in funding available to specific
organizations or projects. One of the main problems is that virtually all recording
equipment hardware comes with a company-specific software (i.e. Sony comes with
Pixela software) for capturing and thus creating digital files, and the temptation of using
free software, especially those with severe budget restraints, is great. Because these
software use different CODECS (coding/decoding methods) end users may not be able to
find the necessary CODEC on the internet and therefore have a file that is useless to
them. Further, some proprietary-software can actually `highjack' your computer,
changing CODEC settings, and making previously usable video files useless. (This is
correctable, but not by most users, is some cases a computer's drive may have to be
erased and reformatted in order to purge the computer of the offending software.)
Ideally, there will be some decisions made on standardizing digital video technology
among Oral historians so that file sharing is hassle-free.
Digital Video and Audio Formats
There are various forms of video formats available for the Oral historian to consider.
MPG1 - Very compressed file type but also `the universal standard' (if such a claim can
be made). MPG 1 offers reasonable quality, although noticeably degraded from the
original file, and a small bit size. MPG 1 is the most common MPG file type that is
offered for download (versus streaming) on the internet.
MPG2 - Is the standard for DVD, high quality and highly compressed, all NTCS DVD's
will transcode into MPG 2 before it ultimately burns the DVD, even if the original file is
an AVI file.
AVI - Very large size and high quality format. Though there is still compression (and it is
variable) the quality is arguably the best with MPG2 a close second.
RM - One of the most popular formats for streaming content on the Internet the files are
heavily compressed so they can stream over dial-up Internet connections - this results in
an accessible file but one which is often pixilated or very small on the computer monitor.
WMF - Microsoft's compression format for motion video, Windows Media Video is used
for both streaming and downloading content via the Internet. Like RM, due to its
compression, the image often appears pretty pixilated.
MOV - QuickTime is a file format for storing and playing back movies which was
developed by Apple Computers, but it's also used in Windows systems. In Windows,
QuickTime files usually appear with the ".MOV" filename extension. Quicktime files are
most likely to cause compatibility problems and require CODEC downloads, however.
WAV - A standard audio format for Windows operating systems, often used for storing
high-quality, uncompressed sound. WAV files can contain CD-quality audio signals.
However, CD-quality WAV files require about 10 MB per minute of music. Like video
formats there are many different CODECS for WAV files and not all files are
compressed the same, a 1 minute clip can therefore vary in bit size as well as in quality.
MP3 - Is an audio format which is compressed and is mainly intended for file-sharing.
While the quality of sound varies (depending on how many Mhz were used in its
recording) the one major feature of MP3 versus Wav is the universality of WAV - almost
all PC have the ability to play WAV files, while many require downloads or other
equipment to play MP3's. However, MP3's do allow the end user an amazing amount of
Equipment and Cost
The range of price for equipment for doing digital video is vast. The following is a brief
example of the range.
Betacam SP +$5000
$25 + for 90
Betacam Sp Tape
Mini DV ~$15 for 90
DVD ~$1 for 2 hours
DVD Burner ~$300
Portable Hard drive 200 Gig -$200
-$1 for ~15
With such a difference, it is likely that it will be difficult to gain complete consensus on
what equipment should be used as a standard.
There are numerous software programs available for editing and formatting digital
audio and video. Most DV cameras and Digital tape recorders (with or without cassettes)
come with a CDRom with rudimentary software for capturing and editing digital
recordings. It is important to understand, however, that these may not offer the features
that you require, and by capturing the video with a manufacturer's software you may be
forced, due to incompatibility, to use only that manufacturer's peripheral software (i.e.
DVD burning/audio editing software), and the files you create may not be readily usable
by other users.
I have offered some information on Adobe Products below, this is not a strict
endorsement of Adobe software, however it is what I am most familiar with. An internet
search of “Video Editing Software” will offer historians with ratings, descriptions, and
trial freeware, so that they can decide what is best for them.
Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe Encore are used in tandem to capture, edit, and
chapter digital video into DVDS. These programs, while excellent and fairly simple to
use, are not without their faults. Premiere Pro captures in AVI format, which demands a
lot of hard disk space (roughly 18 gigabits for 1 ½ hours of interview.) With a FireWire
attachment the file downloads in real time, 1 hour of tape takes 1 hour to capture, if the
camera or computer does not have a FireWire option USB download takes significantly
longer to complete the task
• 5000 files (300 MB total)
FireWire was 33% faster than
• 160 files (650MB total) FireWire
was 70% faster than USB 2.0
• 5000 files (300 MB total)
FireWire was 16% faster than
• 160 files (650MB total) FireWire
was 48% faster than USB 2.0
(see FireWire Versus USB at http://www.usb-ware.com/firewire-vs-usb.htm.) Whether
it's USB or FireWire, however, the main factor to consider is that the computer which is
capturing the video cannot multitask, any disturbance to Premiere Pro, such as
administrative scan for viruses, internet chat or popup windows, or disruptions in the
power will cancel the capture. While it is possible to restart the capture from the point
where it was stopped, the remaining video will be saved as a new file, giving you two
files for your interview instead of one. Only highly skilled editors can merge these two
files without noticeable skipping/repeating, more likely you will have to rewind the tape
and start over. It is therefore recommended that the computer be detached from the
internet/network prior to capturing with Premiere Pro.
Adobe Encore, the software designed to create DVDS, also has pros and cons.
While it is relatively easy to use, and provides the user with a library of backgrounds and
menu buttons, any special customizing will require further software (i.e. menu
backgrounds must be created in Adobe Photoshop). This additional and time consuming
work may lead most to avoid custom backgrounds causing a homogenizing effect. That
aside, one feature offered in Encore is the ability to add a subtitle bar in the finished
project. This presents many possibilities for Oral Historians; the entire transcript could be
added to the DVD, key parts of the interview (quiet, incomprehensible) can be subtitled,
or historical facts/commentary could be added (i.e. verified dates of historical events
which are referred to by the interviewee). The main problem with Encore lay in its
proprietary nature. Encore will only accept certain file types (MPG 2 and AVI) and only
certain CODECS, any file which does not meet its requirements will cause the program
to close without explanation. It is therefore important to use these two programs in
conjunction with one another and to check that the camera which will be used for the
interviews is supported by Premiere Pro, if not a great deal of time will be wasted trying
to resave the captured video to a format that Encore can handle.
Adobe Premiere Elements, an inexpensive and basic software which joins the
video/audio editing capabilities of Adobe Premiere Pro with the DVD burning and
chaptering capabilities of Adobe Encore, is a newer product which would appear to
satisfy the needs of Oral historians, at least those who are working with smaller budgets.
By eliminating many of the fancy features of Premiere Pro and Encore in this in-one
software, the ease of use is greatly increased and some of the frustrations associated with
going from 1 software to another for the same project are diminished. A free trial version
of this software is available at http://www.adobe.co.uk/products/premiereel/main.html.
One of the key goals of forming archives is to create easily-accessible historical
documents, and nowhere does this seem to be more the case than with Oral history
Larger projects, such as the Shoah project, will be able to create custom user
interfaces which suit their purpose, since the financial support for the project is seemingly
vast. It is unlikely that such projects as this will be terribly concerned with adapting to the
standards of other projects, especially if it means using equipment which is inferior to
what is available to them.
More modest projects, such as the First Black Women at Virginia Tech project, will have
to make due with transcripts, CDROMS and DVDS. Much of what is made available to
the public will require low bandwidth and therefore not be terribly flashy. These projects
can help support themselves, however, by offering DVDS or CDROMS of complete
audio or video interviews for a modest fee.
It is those projects which fall between these two which may best be able to utilize
a searchable internet program such as Interclipper, or to create the `standards' which will
be used by others. This type of compatibility is highly desirable as it will make the
collection and integration of like-projects far easier, and will afford researchers the ability
to find all they need conveniently.
Storage and Archiving
Storage is possibly the aspect of digital recording that presents the most
consternation among archivists. There is currently little faith in mediums of storage that
are required for digital recordings, and many projects whose budget permits it create an
analog preservation copy - even in cases where the original interview was conducted with
Of key importance to the preservation of Oral histories is redundancy. It is
imperative that duplicate copies of the histories are made and preserved off-site to ensure
that, in the event of a catastrophe, the interviews are not lost.
As with many archives there are issues of cost and space which naturally occur. A
Single 90 minute high end Betacam SP tape costs about $25 dollars. In the same physical
space and for a fraction of the price 5 DVD ROMS containing 10 hours of interviews
could be stored. Even if these need to be recopied every 5 years, which appears to be the
general consensus, the benefits of the latter format appear obvious. DVD as a format has
been around for around 20 years now and deserves some consideration as an industry
standard, especially for those projects where cost and space is a factor. While archivists
may not find these to be ideal storage formats, it is certainly better than no format at all.
There is clearly a lot of debate about the correct route to choose when it comes to
Oral history and technology. The advice most given is to use the best you can afford,
which seems sound. Obviously a project such as Shoah or other such well funded, and
large projects will continue to present the best possible example of online Oral history
sharing, while smaller projects may have to simply use basic web design and lower
quality (thus lower bandwidth) file sharing. While not all institutes or projects may be
able to stream video or audio, most would have the capability to create thematic
DVDROMS, a series of interview clips on a specific topic, which could then be offered
for sale on the website, this would generate revenue for the maintenance of their digital
library. Ideally, though, institutes and projects with equivalent resources (for lack of a
better description “small, medium, and large”) should attempt to create some standards
among themselves in order to create an atmosphere of co-operation and compatibility.
This said there are a great number of advantages to moving towards a digital
system. First, historians will be able to present oral histories in conference and in the
classroom with ease due to the relatively simple manner in which clips can be edited
from an interview and then integrated into a program such as power point. This will allow
numerous clips from different sources to be included in one presentation without having
to deal with different types of hardware (i.e. CD player, DVD player, VCR, and Audio
Cassette player). An additional advantage in moving towards digital technology and
continuing to update and upgrade equipment lay in peripheral aspects of historical data
gathering. While historians today covet diaries, photographs and the like, as it relates to
collecting individual histories, future historians will be collecting digital information
from future subjects. The photographs, web `blogs' (online diaries) and home movies
which are being produced by individuals today are, ever increasingly, digital. By creating
an atmosphere in which the medium historians are operating in is digital, regardless of
the difficult task keeping ahead or up with changes in technology, historians will better
be able to integrate such collections into the Oral histories are being gathered - the paper
and photograph world of the past is quickly ending, Oral historians must move forward
so they are prepared to handle primary sources of the future. Thus, by becoming
technologically sound today, we will be better prepared to archive materials tomorrow.
As it relates to archiving and preservation there are several issues to consider:
• Standard format(s) must be decided upon, both in terms of
hardware and software. However, there must be the willingness
(and the funds) to update the standard as technology changes -
What is the standard today will not be the standard in 10-15 years.
• There is an absolute need for duplicate hard copies of these
interviews to be maintained in a secondary location. One possible
way of addressing this is by having Oral history institutes partner
up with other Oral history institutes. This will serve three purposes:
o It will increase communication and co-
operation in the Oral history community, and
help to solve the issue of industry standards.
o It will create a permanent home for backup
copies of all interviews.
o It will allow greater access to the interviews
(i.e. the interviews will be available in 2
• It has been recommended that the lifespan of digital media (i.e.
CDs, DVDs etc.) is unknown, and therefore unreliable. While this
may be true there is a need for proper storage and maintenance
regardless of the medium. CDs and DVDs are said to be good for 5
years, although some argue that they are writable for 5 years and
readable for 50. With the price in these dropping dramatically,
however (a blank DVD is less than $1 whereas they were $3-$5
just a year and a half ago.), it is certainly affordable, at least in
material costs, to rerecord these. Bare in mind that the cost of 1 90
Minute Beta Cam SP tape, the format used by bigger Oral history
projects, costs ~ $25, notwithstanding the cost of the camera itself,
and duplication equipment. Making DVD a viable format for those
with fewer resources
Ultimately it is the message and not the medium which we are trying to preserve,
and we must not get bogged down with technicalities. As long as diligence and
redundancy are utilized the important part of digital Oral history, the histories
themselves, will be protected.
The Vermont Folklife Center - Prepared by Andy Kolovos
Essentially a listing, as well as the pros and cons, of various audio equipment including;
Analog Audiocassette Recorders, Portable Compact Disk Recorders, DAT Recorders
(Digital Audio Tape), Direct-to-Laptop Recording, and MiniDisc Recorders. The article
states too that analog audiocassette is still a standard medium.
Basic Web Resource Site
Video Files & Editing
Brief article describing the basic differences and pros and cons of various file types (i.e.
avi, mpg, mov, etc.). This includes the operating system they were initially created for
(i.e. MAC or Windows) and what they are best used for (i.e. downloading or streaming.)
MPEG movies on the net.
Offers a very brief description of the different MPEG types (i.e. MPEG 1, MPEG 2, etc.)
as well as some information on encoding (i.e. Yenc, UU)
AVI Video File Formats: Resolution, Pixels, Colors and Compression (5/1999)
Article gives information on difficulties with AVI formats vis-à-vis compression, bit size,
and compatibility. Some information on CODECS (Compression/Decompression) is also
given. In very clear language this article illustrates some of the challenges inherent in
digital video versus analog - with analog video, for example, there are 2 main formats,
NTSC (the North American) and Pal (the European Standard), therefore, with analog an
Oral historian would only require 2 viewers (DVD or VHS) or a hybrid, whereas digital
files may not be easily shareable if the CODECS are not readily available.
Official Nebraska Government Website - Nebraska State Historical Society
Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer
5. Thoughts on Equipment and Media
Offers a comparative look at Analog and Digital recording in graph form, offering both
the pros and cons of each. Also offers opinion on audio versus video in Oral History
(suggesting that video is generally used to “record scenes, settings, photographs” rather
than the subject itself. Article also discusses microphones and audio and video media.
More of an overview article than one which sets out standards for Oral historians.
Preserving Oral History Recordings
Colin Webb and Kevin Bradley
This article discusses the National Library of Australia's attempt to improve access to its
collections and the challenges involved with digitization. Their Sound Preservation and
Technical Services unit (SPATS) is responsible for the preservation of the 1000-1500
hours per year of audio recording they are to archive. While they receive both analog and
digital recordings they have, since 1992 produced both a CD-R (as a working or
preservation copy), an analog reel-to-reel copy as a safety copy, and a service copy in
either analog or DAT (digital audio tape) depending on the original source. The article
also offers justification for using CD-R versus alternatives. There are also a short listing
of other organizations and the technologies they are using (i.e. US Library of Congress).
Finally there is information given regarding the costs, benefits and detriments for
National Library of Australia
Stairways to Digital Heaven? Preserving Oral History Recordings at the National Library
This article rationalizes the move to digital, suggests the eventual demise of analog, and
stresses the advantages of CD-R over reel-to-reel tape in terms of cost, storage, and
compatibility. The article also warns, however, of the eventual demise of CD-R for new
technologies, and the need to preserve histories while, at the same time, moving forward
with technology. Thus, while the standard of analog tape has enjoyed a long shelf life as
the standard for Oral historians, new standards will not be so seemingly permanent, and
re-recording on new technologies will ultimately be required.
From Memory - New Zealand's War Oral History Programme
A Guide to Recording Oral History
This article deals exclusively with audio recording. While it does not take a position on
digital versus analog it does recommend using the highest end equipment possible. It also
offers advice on how to minimize background sounds and distortions common to
• Supporting Access to Large Digital Oral History Archives
Samuel Gustman, Dagobert Soergel, Douglas Oard, William Byrne, Michael Picheny,
Bhuvana Ramabhadran, and Douglas Greenberg
This article relates to the Shoah Visual History Foundation (VHF) founded by Steven
Spielberg. This article perhaps best illustrates what could be achieved in Oral history
when budget is seemingly not an issue. The technology used in this project was the Sony
Beta SP the interviews were then digitized into MPG1 format. The reasons given for the
digital format chosen were acceptable quality and its `universality'. The preservation copy
was made in digital Betacam format. The article also offers a clear diagram on the
metadata structure in a flowchart.
• Curating Oral Histories - Survey Results
This survey illustrates the issues regarding the lack of a standard format in the collection
an preservation of Oral histories. It also offers insight to the relative importance given to
refreshment and/or transfer of the files, here again there is a range of responses.
• Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Vol3 No. 2 - May 2002)
Combining Digital Video Technology and Narrative Methods for Understanding Infant
Cory Secrist, Ilse de Koeyer, Holly Bell, & Alan Fogel
This article includes information about Adobe Premiere, including some information
about video types (i.e. NTSC vs. Pal), retrieval of the clips from your hard drive, and
some of the other bells and whistles which are available on Premiere (but likely useless
for Oral historians).
A Horror Story
As we began to work on our Oral history project, we sought advice on which
equipment to use. We made the `mistake' of asking people who were very technically
sound but who did not really understand what we needed the technology for. As a result
we ended up with software which was not compatible with our PC operating system (the
software required Windows XP, our university's standard was Windows 2000) 1 month
lost getting a new computer. We then got our Sony mini DVD camera and collected some
interviews. Our software, Adobe Premiere Pro did not recognize the mini DVD camera
and so we could not capture our videos with our software. We used the Pixela software
which came with the camera, we downloaded 8 interviews (about 20 hours work total)
and then tried to import them into Adobe Encore (the DVD production software). Encore
shut down without explanation. The CODECS were incompatible and there were no
downloadable CODECS to correct the situation. We then had to take these 8 interviews
and recod them as a different format (using Ulead video studio) this was a trial and error
project since we did not know if Encore would accept the newly recoded file or not. In
the mean time we had to return the mini DVD camera to the store and get a mini DV
camera. Ultimately we ended up having to have the computer's hard drive erased and
reformatted and eventually the 8 interviews were saved.