Because you can’t write down everything that someone tells you it is a good idea to use an audio or video recorder.
Your recordings will be unique historical “documents” which other people need to be able to hear and understand easily, so it’s worth getting a good quality recording. If you can’t afford to buy any equipment you might be able to borrow some, maybe from another oral history group.
There are many different makes of portable audio recorders. 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 (for example from the British Library’s oral history department: firstname.lastname@example.org).
In recent years ‘solid state’ digital recorders have replaced the analogue recorders (such as audio cassettes) and older digital formats (like minidisc) that many oral historians used. Called ‘solid state’ because they have no moving parts and record audio directly to a memory card or built-in hard-drive memory, there is a bewildering range of makes, models and formats available. Some recorders use ‘proprietary’ or compressed digital formats which are not internationally-recognised and may not be future-proof: these should be avoided, especially as some will record poor quality audio. Compressed files (such as MP3) can also audibly degrade when they are converted to another format. Further guides can be found at the links below:
- Vermont Folklife Center, Digital Audio Recording Equipment Guide
- USA Oral History Association, Digital Audio Recorders
Whichever model of digital recorder you choose it should have the following features:
- Be able to record in stereo using two external microphones (preferably with professional XLR sockets)
- Be able to record uncompressed PCM WAV (or .wav) files at 44.1kHz 16 bit and/or 48kHz 16bit. This is a good standard of recording quality using a widely-recognised format. 3 hours of stereo audio at 48kHz/16bit roughly equates to 2GB of storage space on a memory card (different recorders use different types of card).
- Have a USB2 connection to allow the recorded files to be uploaded easily to a computer for renaming, security copying and long-term storage.
- Be capable of being powered by both rechargeable batteries and mains supply.
As these recorders create digital files rather than physical objects that sit on shelves, it is vital that all your computer systems are capable of dealing with large audio files, and are secure and backed up. Careful thought needs to be given to naming the audio files with unique numbers so they can be easily located later. Expert advice about backing-up digital files has changed in recent years and multiple computer external hard disc drives are now favoured over CD-Rs and DVD-Rs for long-term storage (see below).
Whatever recorder you decide to use it is important to use an external microphone. Internal microphones built into the recorder often give poor results. For one-to-one interviews indoors, the best external microphone is a small tie clip or lapel microphone. If your recorder is stereo and has two microphone sockets you can get two microphones – one of for your interviewee and one for yourself. They can be attached discreetly to your clothing and give excellent results. For interviews outdoors a uni-directional (or cardioid) hand-held microphone is best as it will pick up less unwanted noise. There are also special microphones designed to record groups of people sitting around a table.
Many oral historians favour audio for its ease-of-use, portability, and intimacy; but video equipment has fallen in price and size in recent years and is becoming a more affordable option. Video has its benefits (for example apart from the interview itself, photographs can also be filmed for later use), but done badly it is perhaps best not done at all. And oral historians have mixed views about the impact of a video camera on the intimacy of the interview relationship.
Many projects now use miniDV video format, which is a digital medium. Copying to other formats could result in a loss of data, so one option archivally would be to copy from miniDV to a second miniDV tape, simply for the security of having more than one copy. You can copy to a higher grade tape format, DigiBeta being a standard, but the costs then become very high. Ideally, you might want to have the recordings copied as uncompressed avi files onto a hard drive. Further migration to MPEG-4 or JPEG2000 (an emerging standard) would be considered best for preservation.
These two websites offer online training packages about using video for interviews:
For advice on filming try:
The British Library has published some general guidelines on video preservation which is online at eap.bl.uk.