Processing your oral history interview

Once you have successfully completed your interview you are ready for the next and final stage—processing your oral history interview.

Transferring your files

The first step is to transfer your audio files to a computer and re-name them if necessary. To ensure that the files you upload are preserved in their original form, create master copies of all your audio files by copying them and storing them in a ‘master’ folder on your computer (you could make them read-only to avoid deleting or editing master copies by mistake). Store the files you plan to transcribe or edit in a ‘work-in-progress’ folder.

Back up your master folder to an external hard drive or to a USB stick. You could also backup your files to Cloud storage platforms such as iCloud, pCloud, Dropbox or Google Drive. In case you are not quite sure what actually happens when you backup to the Cloud you can find out more by clicking on this link Cloud storage: What is it and how does it work?. In the meantime, here is a succinct explanation of Cloud storage taken from the same website, which sums it up very nicely.

Cloud storage involves stashing data on hardware in a remote physical location, which can be accessed from any device via the internet. Clients send files to a data server maintained by a cloud provider instead of (or as well as) storing it on their own hard drives. Dropbox, which lets users store and share files, is a good example.

Note: When transcribing and editing your audio files, only work with files you have copied from the master copy. Do not use master copies.


A transcript is a word-for-word text version of an oral history interview and, in the field of oral history, is considered a very important part of the process. In the future, a transcript may be the only record of an interview if the device on which the audio recording was made and/or stored becomes obsolete and inaccessible. Transcripts are often preferred by researchers because it is much quicker to read through a transcript of an interview rather than listening to the entire interview to find relevant information. However, a transcript cannot capture the tone of voice, the nuances and inflections, the expressions of emotion, the regional accents etc. of a person speaking all of which make oral history unlike any other type of history and something that should not be lost.

It is possible to transcribe an audio recording yourself but it does involve a huge investment of time and patience. For example, it’s estimated that a beginner can spend 10 minutes or more transcribing just one minute of audio (that’s at least six hours of work for each hour of recorded material).

If you prefer to go down the automated (and typically paid-for) route there are a number of software packages that enable you to turn your audio into text. Some allow you to use their services free of charge for a trial period while others limit the number of files you can process and/or the length of time you are allocated each month for processing. If you expect to exceed the quota allowed, you would need to subscribe to a monthly or annual payment plan. An alternative way is to use a pay-for-what-you-need service such as happyscribe.  You could also use an online transcription service such as TAKENOTE or UK Transcription.

DIY transcribing

The actual process of transcribing audio to speech is not difficult—all you need is access to a word processor or text editor, a media player to play your audio file together with a good degree of patience and then you simply type what you hear. However, one problem is the rate at which you can type and listen. One solution is to use software that allows you to pause, rewind, playback and control the speed of the recording. Express Scribe is a professional audio player for a PC or Mac which enables you to control the speed of playback from the keyboard or by installing one of the supported transcribing pedals which leaves your hands free to type. The Express Scribe interface includes a word processor so you can do your transcription within a single window. You simply upload your audio file to Express Scribe, press play and start typing.

Express Scribe for MAC
Express Scribe for PC


If you have neither the time nor the inclination to do a complete transcription then you should at the very least create an abstract or synopsis of the interview which includes a brief list or index of the main themes, stories and topics. One purpose of an abstract is to provide a summary of an interview which researchers etc. can refer to when deciding which interviews to follow up and listen to in full.

Preserving oral history recordings

Oral history recordings are an important part of our social history and so It is important to preserve and safeguard your recordings and transcripts. One way to do this is to deposit them in libraries, museums, local or regional archives, heritage centres etc. If you, with the agreement of your interviewee, do decide to archive the interview then you must supply the archive with the audio file, a transcript and/or abstract plus any paperwork which clarifies the ownership of any copyrights in the material. The archive will then be responsible for the storage and accessibility of the audio file.

If you and your interviewee decide to keep the recording then it is your responsibility to ensure that the audio file is backed-up and stored safely. You will also be responsible for honouring any access restrictions which have been requested by the interviewee.

Related articles:

The oral tradition of storytelling and its role in history

Planning an oral history interview – how to get started

Setting up your oral history interview

Recording an oral history interview – what equipment do you need?