JP Metras Sports Museum Internship

Oral History Equipment: To Video or Not to Video?

Since oral history involves recording the stories of individuals, the director of the Metras Museum and I needed to make decisions on what type of recording equipment we wanted to purchase.  As noted by the UK Oral History Society, “Choosing the right recorder depends very much on your budget and what you plan to do with the recordings subsequently. Bear in mind that audio formats and professional advice are in constant flux so it is vital to seek up-to-the-minute advice.”

This is great advice.  Initially Ted (museum director) proposed purchasing a video camera in order to create a record that captured both the audio and the visual elements of an interview.  There are certainly advantages in archiving video oral histories.  Perhaps the greatest of these advantages is the ability to capture the non-verbal communication involved in an interview.  Relying solely on audio, or a transcribed version of the audio interview, often means that non-verbal cues are overlooked in finding the meaning of a particular phrase or statement.  Additionally, video equipment has steadily fallen in price, making it an affordable option if your budget allows for it.

However, I had a number of concerns with going down this video route for our project.  First, I am unfamiliar with the particulars video equipment and editing.  As much as I want to spend time and money learning how to create cool documentary style footage of our interviewee’s, I had to keep in mind that this is a three month project, and it would be an inefficient use of my time and the museum’s resources to spend the first month learning how to navigate my way around video equipment and editing software.  Video also requires additional thought to the quality of audio (needing external mics), the quality of lighting (you don’t want 3 hours of footage with a shadow), and the quality of frame (we would need an additional staff member to ensure the camcorder was framed appropriately throughout the interview.

Yet aside from these minor concerns, there is the very real concern about the impact of video recording technology on the interview.  One of the qualities of a good oral history interview is the intimacy of the experience.  Throughout the process the interviewer establishes a relationship with the interviewee.  Similar to all relationships, there is the element of trust between both parties.  As an interviewer, you want your interviewee to be as comfortable as possible.  This often means deciding on a relaxed space for the interview where the interviewee will be at ease in sharing his/her memories.  This is often enhanced when the recording equipment remains peripheral to the interview process.

In this respect, the subtle red recording light in an audio recorder that is placed on a nearby table is less apparent than a person directing a video camera on a tripod that is aimed directly at the interviewee.  There is a good chance this equipment will alter the dynamic you hope to create in your interview, and as a result alter the nature of their stories.  I know that when I was videoed for a brief exercise in Oral History at Baylor, I felt incredibly self-conscious of my responses and how they would appear on film.

This is not to detract people from using video recording in their oral history projects.  In fact, there are a number of good online resources for people interested in utilizing this equipment.

For the above mentioned reasons, we are going to stick to straight audio recording for our project.  Who knows?  In the future the museum might re-consider using video.  In the next post I want to walk through field standards for audio files, and discuss the variety of digital audio recorders being used in oral history projects.  I will then show you what recorder we went with and take a look at our software for managing the audio files.

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