Teresa Bergen: A Breakfast Talk- “For the Oral History Curious”

2020.02.11 - Teresa Bergen - Oral History Curious

Skye Doney: Teresa Bergen joins us today from Portland. And she has just published a book. Can I—

Bergen: Oh, yeah.

Doney: Do you mind if we send this around?

Bergen: No, go ahead.

Doney: Transcribing Oral History with Routledge. It’s only been out for a few months but it’s already receiving very positive reviews. Mary Larson calls it, quote, “a fantastic resource not just for transcriptionists but for oral historians more generally who need to better understand how representation of their interviews affects people’s understandings of them.”

And I have had the pleasure of working with Teresa for at least three years. I was trying to figure out where our first email was. I think it was three years. And this has included working together through some incredibly difficult audio of Professor Mosse from 1971 that was recorded by an alum who for some reason thought he needed to record it secretly and had a tape recorder strapped to his chest under his coat and a mic coming out to his hand—

Bergen: You never told me that.

Doney: Yeah.

Bergen: That’s why it sounded like that.

Doney: Yeah, it’s partly, so every time he moves, we hear it. (laughter) But he would sort of follow Mosse as he paraded around the stage, sitting in the front row. That, combined with Mosse’s accent, which is both Prussian and British and Midwestern, made for some challenging proper nouns we tried to figure out. Randall deFlichi – Renzo de Felice, Arnsjunger – Ernst Juenger, and Arnold Breaker – Arno Breker, the famous sculptor. But perhaps the most famous, I think, or the one that made me laugh out loud was when we thought “fondesacal,” trying to figure out what “fondesacal” was, it turned out to be fin de siècle, the end of the nineteenth century. But on that one, we’re in very good company. There’s this article by Joan Scott where she talks about “fantasy echo.” “Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity,” which she got from an undergrad student while she was TAing for Mosse, who wrote a whole paper on “fantasy echo,” mishearing fin de siècle. So we’re in very good company.

All that is to say, while there is amazing transcription software, it’s still really important to know our historical context. And it was only with Teresa’s patience and perseverance that we were able to get workable transcripts of that particular audio. I will leave it there. It is all yours.

Bergen: All right. (laughs) Thank you. Before I forget, I want to take a picture of everybody who came out here today, because I’m so excited we have this nice breakfast audience. I hope you don’t mind. Is that okay? (taking picture) All right. Thank you, people. So thanks for that introduction, Skye. And yeah, I want to thank the UW Archives and the Mosse program for bringing me out here as a guest. It’s exciting to come to UW. And I’ve been working on Troy’s materials for, what, like twelve years, off and on? Whenever you have the budget.

Reeves: Yeah. Ever since we started, I think.

Bergen: So even though I live in Oregon and don’t have much connection with Wisconsin, I feel like I know UW a little bit from all of those years of transcribing.

So first, I’ll tell just a little bit about how I got to be in this place I am now. So, how many people when they were kids thought, I want to grow up and be a transcriptionist? [pause] Yeah, me neither. So how do you become a transcriptionist and do that as a profession and have that for a living? Well, it helps if you’re like, maybe like me, you’re a novelist. And you’ve written many novels but you really haven’t found too many people interested in publishing them. So you have to find another way, various ways, to earn your living.

So I kind of fell into this. I have a bachelor’s in journalism from UC Santa Cruz. And then I have a master’s in fiction writing from LSU in Baton Rouge. So my first encounter with oral history was when I was an undergraduate at Santa Cruz quite a few years ago. It was not too long after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Has anyone ever even heard of that earthquake?

Dana Freiburger: I was in it, so—

Bergen: Oh, yeah, because you’re a Californian, too.

Freiburger: Silicon Valley.

Bergen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So people say maybe 6.9, maybe seven, I think it was a 7.1. They downgraded it later to 6.9. But anyway, it was a big earthquake and so everybody who lived in that area at that time, I’m sure you remember where you were.

Freiburger: Yeah.

Bergen: Like everybody has their earthquake story. So it was a good one for one of those kind of soon after the fact oral histories where it’s like the recent crisis kind of oral history. So I got to work on that project as an undergraduate. And that was really fun. I got to choose some people to interview, and find a topic to interview them about and transcribe it. And even though that was my very kind of amateur undergraduate project, it’s still, that collection that my classmates and I did—I think there were only five of us, it was like a small seminar—it still gets lots and lots of use in Santa Cruz. So that’s really gratifying to think that something you did as an undergraduate all those years ago still means something to people and they still use it. So that was like kind of my early thing with oral history, and also getting a chance to add to the historical record, which is really important to me in the work I do.

So then later I went to grad school at LSU. And I needed a student job right when I got there. And since I’d already had a little bit of oral history experience I got a job just as like a student transcriptionist in the oral history center, the Williams Center at LSU. So that began a long association with them. So I worked there first just transcribing and then I ended up with this weird kind of history route through—I won’t go into all this long story—but I ended up doing a lot of historical work in Louisiana. So I worked as a graduate research assistant for a historian, and I was working on this encyclopedic history of LSU. So I read more years of an alumni magazine than anyone should ever have to. Like the reference librarians would just laugh at me when I came in because it seemed like the most boring thing to them. They’d be like, “Ha, ha, Teresa, you want more years of the Alumni New?” I read 85 years of that magazine trying to find things to put into the encyclopedic entries for LSU. Then I went on to work for Louisiana Public Broadcasting for a bit as a researcher on a miniseries they were doing on the history of Louisiana. And that was lots of fun primary source kind of archive stuff. And then I went back to the oral history center at LSU and was doing indexing and editing for them. Not so much interviewing. I mostly worked on more the processing after the interview side.

So I did all that. And then I moved to Oregon and tried to get a job there. And would you believe it, nobody in Oregon, like at the historical society, they were not impressed by my extensive knowledge of the history of Louisiana. (laughter) So I really failed getting a job there. So then I was trying to get a writing job, too. And those were kind of sparse and terrible pay. And you’d go to an interview at a magazine and they’d say, “Well, we suggest you supplement it with like a night or two of bartending or something so you make money.” And you know, that didn’t seem very great. I had a master’s degree. I didn’t want this really low-paid writing job and then having to work as a bartender or a waitress or something.

So I thought well, I have a chance to, I talked to my friend who ran the center at LSU and she said, “You can do some freelance transcription for us if you want.” So I started on this twenty-plus years. Because that ended up just being more interesting and lucrative and doable than a regular writing job. So I’ve kind of grown these two parallel careers over the years of working with oral history, mostly transcription, indexing, editing, and then doing freelance writing. So my writing is completely different. I write for like websites and magazines. I write listicles. I write, like in the last week or two I wrote like tips for creating your home terrarium. (laughter) And like how to keep your indoor pet happy in the winter. So it’s a very strange kind of job.

But once in a while, the two things come together. And especially when I got asked to write that book—oh, yeah, you’re looking at it now. So, yeah, I got recruited to write that by the acquiring editor of the “Practicing Oral History” series at Routledge, because she knew I was a writer as well as doing transcription. So that was kind of a weird thing to have those two worlds come together, because usually they’ve been kind of separate for me.

So when she asked me that, I was like, are you crazy? A whole book on transcription? What on earth is there to say? You know, you listen to it, you type it, you send it to the person. But once she convinced me to think about it and to write a proposal, I realized there was a lot of stuff. You know, if you do something every day, you don’t think that much about it. But once I started to break down what I was doing, I had more information. And I was like, oh, I could fill up a chapter or two. And then I started to look into other aspects of transcripts. Then I interviewed a bunch of people, too. I interviewed about thirty people around the world that had something to do with transcripts, whether they were transcribing them or using them in their research or maybe making stuff out of them like films or podcasts or museum exhibits.

So I’m going to just share a little bit today about what I learned between doing this work and interviewing people. But first, so I know most of you are working in some kind of history. But how many of you are doing interviews? Quite a few. Okay. Or how many of you are working with, are some of you working with transcripts, too? Okay. Well, hopefully this will be of some use. But if not, at least breakfast will come soon. (laughter)

Okay, so one of the first surprising things I realized when I was working on this book was how many different fields use qualitative research and transcripts. So I’ll just mention a few of the ones I came across. Museums using them for listening stations or to print the text in an exhibit. I found out documentary film makers use them, which I hadn’t quite realized. I’ve worked for some documentary film makers. And if you think about it, you have all these hours and hours of film, and how on earth do you organize them and remember what’s where? So it helps a lot to have a transcript. And they want like every thirty seconds, so they can go right to their place. So I have a lot of time stamps in those transcripts, like every thirty seconds. Folklorists, linguists, who want something really specific, because they’re interested in every pause and inflection. So they use even a whole different transcription system. I don’t work for them, because that’s too complicated. Market researchers. I interviewed a tour guide in Australia who just gives walking tours. And she was doing oral histories to inform her tours, which I thought was really cool. Like maybe she quotes from them during the tours and gets a whole different perspective than in the regular written record. Federal agencies. I’ve done a lot of work for the park service and the Corps of Engineers. So it opened up my world to a whole kind of dam lingo I didn’t know about before. (laughter) Non-governmental agencies all around the world. I found out that some of them in different places are doing interviews with a lot of people from really politically repressive regimes and then using what they find to change policy, which was kind of a cool thing to put it into use right away. Corporate historians, and all sorts of social scientists.

And I’ve worked for a lot of social scientists. And the thing that’s really striking to me that’s so different with a lot of social scientists versus oral history is that, so the oral history is about an individual person. And you’re finding out who they are and where they’re from, and what their dates are they did this and this and that. Whereas some of the social scientists are kind of opposite, where they’re anonymizing everybody and aggregating the data. And then—this was the most horrifying thing when I first found out this—destroying the recordings. Because it’s a whole different thing they’re doing with confidentiality. When I first found that out, because I was reviewing a book by some social scientist and I asked her where they were archived. And she’s like, “Oh, they’re destroyed.” I was like (gasps) Yeah, that was horrifying. But anyway, they have their reasons.

So, why do we even want a transcript? Anyone think of any advantages of a transcript? [pause] See, who thinks about this stuff? They just exist.

Samm Newton: So you can read them?

Bergen: Hmm?

Newton: So you can read them?

Bergen: Yeah. And that is important, because it’s so hard to go through a whole bunch of audio. So it’s all written down for you. It’s easier. You can search them if it’s an e-copy. You can just do a keyword search if you’re looking for certain keywords. The transcriptionist has hopefully done some of the work, or the editor, a lot of times (laughs) before you get it, where the spellings have been verified, and you’re confident that things are correctly spelled, even in foreign languages sometimes. (laughs)

And then really important is usually the transcript has been sent to the narrator for review. For the narrator has had a chance to say, “Yeah, that’s right, that’s what I meant to say,” and correct anything that’s wrong. So that’s a really important thing that you don’t have if you’re just going right from the audio.

But not everybody is totally enthusiastic about transcripts. So there’s debate within oral history. And are you all aware of this kind of debate? Again, see, who thinks about this stuff? Until you’re asked to write two hundred pages about the subject.

So, the problem that oral historians usually have with transcripts is that it discourages listening to the audio or viewing the video. And this is absolutely true. I mean, most people, it seems like, if they have a chance between going through—what do you think, do they ask for the audio or the transcript?

Reeves: Transcript.

Bergen: Yeah. And I agree, it is kind of sad. Because you lose a lot in the transcript. Even if you do a really good transcript, you’re going to lose a lot of the inflections. You’re going to miss the personality of the person a little bit if you don’t hear them talking. So I would suggest if you’re working with someone else’s materials and you have a chance to listen to it, especially if it’s like your really important project, then try to listen to at least some of it to get the flavor of the speech. I mean sometimes you’re in a hurry, you just need a few quotes and you’re not going to listen. That’s okay. But if you have the chance, it is better.

And why do you think another reason is people don’t want to transcribe? [pause] What do you think? Why don’t you transcribe a lot of stuff? Yeah.

It’s expensive.

Bergen: It’s the most expensive. And why is it so expensive?

It takes forever.

Bergen: It takes freaking forever. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Have you all transcribed? Yeah. It’s slow, huh. It’s slow and tedious.

Newton: I don’t hate it. I kind of like it. I like busywork. I don’t know. You just hole up for a little bit and go for it. I don’t know.

Bergen: I love it. Most people don’t. But I love it. Like for me, since I do the writing, too, it’s like a different part of my brain and it feels really restful to me. I feel like this channel, almost like some psychic thing. Like it’s coming in my ears, and I’m just sitting there, and it’s coming out my fingertips. I like that feeling a lot. It’s really restful and meditative to me. As long as the audio is good. (laughter) Yeah, so those are some of the reasons there’s debate about it.

I thought I’d just, I don’t want to talk forever, breakfast is going to come soon, but I thought I’d give a few interview tips, since most of you are doing interviews. So I don’t do very many oral history interviews, but I do a ton of interview for my freelance writing work. And these tips, most of them will go for any kind of interview you’re recording. And I’ve listened to, I was trying to think of how many, I don’t know, I’ve probably listened to a couple thousand oral history interviews.

Reeves: At least.

Bergen: I don’t know how many. So many, in the last twenty years. Okay. So, what do you think, one-on-one or group interview?


Bergen: Hmm?


Bergen: Yeah. One-on-one. Usually. There’s some exceptions. But the group interview, of course people talk over each other. And also people are different distances from the microphone. And they speak faster, usually, because they want to get their word in before somebody else. And then sometimes two or three of them are speaking fast at the same time. And it kind of ruins your research, because you lose a lot.

There are exceptions, though. Like I work for one project in Oregon, for Reed College, where they have you know homecoming every year like universities do. And that’s their one chance to get a whole bunch of people from the class, you know, twenty-five years ago or thirty years ago. So they do these heinous group interviews (laughter) sometimes with thirty people in them at once.

One time I went as a volunteer to just help. And I was so mean. Because you know, they told them at the beginning to say their name first every time they speak. Because there’s no way anybody’s going to remember thirty different people. But they wouldn’t. And I’d just sit there and someone would speak. I’d be like, “That’s John!” (laughter) And they’d be like, “Sorry!” (laughs) But I knew it was going to come to me and I was going to transcribe. They didn’t ask me to be a volunteer again, though, I think I was too mean to the participants.

But yeah, if you ever do have a group, then tell them to say their name every time. And enforce it. Even if you have to interrupt them. Because it’s going to drive you crazy if you’re the one transcribing it.

They do have one kind of smart thing they do about that, though. The participants don’t realize it, but it’s sort of an audition. Because if you tell really good stories and have an especially good memory, they’ll invite you back for a one-on-one. So I think that is a pretty smart use of the group interview, and I can see why they do it.

Okay. Also, a lot of things will obscure the words. And often—too often—it’s the interviewer. So you want to seem engaged with the person. And that’s important. You don’t want your narrator to think you’re ignoring them. But saying, “Yes! I see! Mm hmm!” constantly, you can’t hear the narrator. You just ruin your own research that way. So make sure you just keep eye contact. Nod. Maybe even tell them before if you think it’s going to be too weird that you’re not saying anything. Say, “Look, I don’t want to talk over you so I’m just going to nod a lot. So don’t think it’s weird if I’m quiet.” You can tell them that before you turn on the recorder.

Test your equipment and speak normally from your chair. I get a lot of ones I can just see what’s going on in my mind. They go—oh, look, we have it right here. (slowly and deliberately, right into mic) “Testing. One, two, three.” (leaning back, mumbling) “Okay, I’m Teresa and I’m here with so and so.” (laughter) And you can just hear they’re doing that. Because you know, you’re real conscious when you’re testing. So make sure you just sit back where you’re going to when you test it. And your narrator, too. And if it has to be a little closer to one person, make sure it’s closer to the narrator than the interviewer. I get a lot of—people want to be able to oh, is it recording? What’s it doing? So they want to sit close to it. But really, the narrator’s a lot more important than the interviewer in your interview.

You want to do your research ahead of time about the person. Whatever you can about the person and the topic. And make a list of questions. The question list is important because you might get nervous when you’re with this person, especially if they’re someone that you admire a lot. You might just get distracted. It’s good to have the questions to go back to. But remember, you are not married to that list.

So I’ve heard especially a lot of really young interviewers, like I did a high school project where someone would say something really interesting, and they’d be like, “And then what year did you graduate?” (laughter) And I just wanted to shake them. Like, do a follow-up. So try to find that balance between covering the things you need to for your research and then following up on the interesting stuff.

Start easy. And they always say ask open-ended questions in interviews. Which I think is important, but I think it really helps if you start with about maybe three to five very easy close-ended ones. Thank you. And those would be things like, “Could you state your full name? What date were you born? Where were you born? What were your parents’ name?” They’re all standard oral history interview questions that are important for the record. But they’re also because your narrator is almost certainly going to know the answer. And that’s going to put them at ease when there’s a right answer, and they know it, and they kind of ease into the interview with that.

And you want to ask them just one question at a time. Because I have some projects where the interviewers—and these are like smart, professional, grown-up people—but they throw twenty questions. They’re like, “Okay, so first we’re going to do background. So we’re going to want to know like what your name is, what your parents did, where you grew up, and what your childhood was like and what your favorite pet was” and all this. And then you can see the narrator’s just like, oh my God, where do I start? So don’t do that to them. Just ask them one thing at a time.

And don’t get hung up on things like dates too much. Because I hear that happen, too. Where the person gets, they don’t remember exactly what date. And just quickly tell them, if they seem like they’re floundering, “Oh, don’t worry. We’ll look that up later.” Because I’ve had it when they start to get into the date too much—you guys, eat. You guys all eat. I’ll eat this when I’m done talking. But when they get into the date too much and they don’t remember, or any other kind of thing they don’t remember, then it throws their confidence. And you don’t want them to feel all shaken. Because lots of times the narrator’s nervous, too, because they’re not used to some—even if you’re younger and they seem like they’re this older, established person, they might not be used to answering all these questions. So you want to keep them at ease and not throw them off. And also, if they’re a real older, person, too, they might especially have a faulty memory and be self-conscious about that. That’s one reason sometimes older people don’t even like to be interviewed. Because they’re embarrassed they’re going to repeat themselves or not remember stuff. So just be gentle with them.

And then you want to steer them back, though, if they’re on really unproductive tangents and sort of gently steer them back. Shall I tell you a really ridiculous example?

Yes, please.

Bergen: Okay. So these were some young, they were grad students, but they were kind of young grad students. Two young women. It was in Louisiana. They were, you know, cute young women. And they went off to interview this guy who was probably sixtyish from a whole different community than them. So they should have known when he answered the door just wearing his underwear that maybe this interview was going to go a little bad. But they were game. They went in there. They talked. I transcribed this. What he mostly wanted, whatever they asked him, he wanted to steer it back to his sexual, not really conquests. Because he was God’s gift to women and he could not help it. And he had all these problems with these women throwing themselves on him all his life. Now this was not the topic of the research at all. But because these interviewers were trying to be polite, and were maybe a little young and naïve about it, they just dragged it on. They let him tell all his stories. I transcribed this all. They were being paid by the audio hour. I was being paid by the audio hour. That program spent a lot of money to get an interview about this guy’s sex life. Which was funny, but really not worth the money.

So you want to think about those tangents, kind of reining them in and not wasting your time. And especially, God, if you’re farming this out to someone at some point and paying them, you want to think about what you’re paying for. Because it is expensive.

And I’ll just say maybe one more thing here, and then I’ll see if you guys have questions. So you want to keep your end user in mind. So I have a lot of times where I get the audio and they’re kind of fumbling around with the recording and having trouble. And they say, “Oh, I feel sorry for the transcriptionist who has to deal with this!” Well, okay, I’m going to be in misery for a little while, but I’m not the end user. I’m going to charge extra because it’s so difficult. I’m not really the one that’s going to suffer. The person who’s going to suffer is the one that wants to use this interview in their research, whether it’s you or whether it’s someone in the future. So really make sure your recording works. And remember that this is for you, this is for the historical record.

And there may be ways to use interviews in the future that we don’t—I mean, I’m sure there will be that we don’t even know about yet. I mean, I remember back before the internet. It was a whole different world. And people didn’t even know that their interviews could be put out in all the ways they are now. You know, podcasts and multimedia stuff online and all sorts of stuff. So just do the very best you can. And think about how you’re recording this person’s words for posterity in addition to your own research.

So, yeah. I’ll just wrap it up there. But thanks so much. And if anybody has any questions, I will try to answer them.

Newton: I have a simple question, I think, or a detailed kind of question.

Bergen: Okay. Sure.

Newton: Like the question asking process, and like asking for clarification or wanting them to expand on something, I feel like I’m always on the fence about that. Like I’ve done some in the past where I don’t say anything and I just let them talk about whatever they want. They know generally what they’re supposed to be talking about. And then I just write questions down and ask them at the end, so that I don’t like mess up their train of thought. But then the thing I’m working on now, they’re sort of like ask the clarifying questions while they’re in the interview, rather than saving them for the end. Or maybe me writing questions down is weird for them, because maybe they think I’m not paying attention. So I’m curious if you have an opinion on that process.

Bergen: Oh, okay. Yeah, you don’t want to interrupt them when they’re really in the middle of a good story. Maybe when they stop to take a breath. Or you know what I hear sometimes interviewers do, like I say, you don’t want to say very much. But if someone’s been going on for a really, really long time, you just kind of quietly go like, “Mm hmm.” Sometimes it brings them back to remember like oh, wait, there’s a person there who maybe wants to control this interview a little bit. I hear that work sometimes, when somebody makes a very quiet verbal thing when someone’s been talking on for like pages of transcript.

I think you’re absolutely right to write them down. You can even sort of say to them quietly if they look at you, “Just for follow-up.” And then that might also have them realize oh, wait, there is a follow-up. So they might give you a natural pause then. But yeah, you want to do it all that day, too. You don’t want to do a follow-up interview unless you really have to. Because that’s a whole different thing to schedule.

Newton: Oh, yeah. I definitely meant like sort of towards the end, when they’re sort of, you know, while that session is still going, I guess.

Bergen: Yeah. I think, did that answer your question enough?

Newton: Yeah, I think so. I don’t know if there’s a benefit between like asking them questions midway or just writing them down and ask them later?

Bergen: Oh, I think it’s better if you can create sort of a natural pause and they’re already on that topic to maybe stay on it. But you don’t want to just have like a hard stop to what they’re doing. What do you think?

Reeves: Well I think, too, part of it is informing them at the beginning what the process is going to be like. So letting them know that you are going to be taking notes, and the main reason you’re going to be taking notes is to either ask follow-up questions or clarify. So when they see you writing stuff down, they know what that’s for. But I would agree with Teresa that if you can find a break, jump in with your follow-ups then.

Newton: Have them clarify in the moment?

Reeves: Yeah. Yeah. But there are sometimes where you’ll be amazed at how people can talk without a break. (laughter) I was talking earlier, I’m sorry, I’m going to hijack this for just a second.

Bergen: No, do. You’re a pro.

Reeves: The interview I was talking about earlier up here with the cat that was sort of pawing at the digital microphone with the dog howling in the background, I asked him to describe his Korean War experience. This was a forest fire fighter, but I knew he fought in Korea and this might be the only time anybody would ask him. I asked him this hugely open-ended question, can you describe your Korean War experience. My voice didn’t appear again on the recording for 43 minutes.


Reeves: So for 43 minutes, he launched into a monologue about Korea. Which was great, in one sense. In another sense, that’s not what I was there for. So being able to jump in, finding the place to jump in sometimes is really going to be beneficial. Particularly if they have, you’ve asked them a question, you asked them a question you want to know, but they’ve gone to a place deep into that question that really isn’t going to honestly be useful for what you’re trying to do. Find the break, jump in, and follow up.

Bergen: And some things are going to be more sensitive. Like if he’s talking about his war experience, that might not be a place you feel comfortable interrupting. Whereas if they’re going off on some political rant about kids these days—

Their sex life?

Bergen: –or their sex life, exactly, then you might like, yes, you’re very hot, but let’s get back to the topic at hand. (laughter)

Newton: Awesome, thank you.

Freiburger: For either of you, Troy or Teresa. Didn’t hear you mention interviewing family. And that was one regret I have is I bought one of these nice little recorder type of things. And I knew I could not just show up in front of my mom and go, “Talk.” But I knew she had stories that she might tell if kind of prepared. So I think there’s kind of a two-part question there in terms of anything you would say about interviewing personal family, like a parent. And then also approaching that as compared to a Korean War vet or something like that.

Bergen: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that can be a little sticky. Like I’ve thought about recording my mom, and I probably should, because she’s quite old. But my problem is if I put a recorder in front of her, she will never stop talking. I mean, my mom is a big talker, and I’ll have fifty hours before I know it. (laughter) So I don’t know. I guess if I was going to record a family member, I would think about, I would think about like maybe what I wanted to know that I didn’t already know that was going to die with that person. Like the knowledge that they had that nobody else had. I’d think about that. And I’d also think about like if there were favorite family stories that I’d like to hear in that person’s own voice, even if it was a story I already knew. Yeah, I think about things like that, maybe. And then maybe since it’s a personal thing, you’d want to ask kind of big, open-ended like, I mean, this is kind of stupidly open-ended, but what have you learned from life? Like what’s been most important? How do you want people to be remembered? What do you want people to know about you that they might not? How do you see yourself?

Any regrets or [unclear]

Bergen: Yeah, those kind of big questions that are very personal to family rather than what you’d probably ask, you might not ask all those questions to your personage you’re going to put in the archive.

Doney: And just anecdotally listening to a lot of oral histories, I think that the last open-ended question often gets the most interesting input from the interviewer after they’re comfortable with you.

Bergen: Thanks for coming!

Doney: Is there anything else you want to add? Sometimes that’s really surprising. Like they’ve had this thing, or this list of things that they are surprised like you failed them in some sense. Like why would you ask me about this? That’s just from, as a listener.

Reeves: Advice I give about doing family oral history, or oral history with family is that you need again to let them know in the beginning that you’re a historian doing this interview. Yes you are a family member, but you’re doing this for history. And you also either need to remind them or throughout the interview, and this would be great if it’s going to be transcribed, is families speak in code. Like Uncle Earl may actually be Tim. But everybody called him Uncle Earl. Earl Jeb. Or, “You remember that story with the washing machine?” Of course you remember that story with the washing machine. You’ve heard it forty-seven times. (laughter) Probably forty-seven times that day, depending on where your mom is, mom or dad are in their journey. But if anyone else is going to listen to that outside of immediate family, they’re not going to know. So you need to decode. And you’re probably going to need to decode, make sure they know at the beginning. But you’re also probably going to need to decode during the interview, too. Because again, you don’t know who’s going to listen to this or when. And people are going to be quite confused if all they hear is—

Freiburger: If they’re listening to or reading a transcript.

Reeves: They won’t have the key to unlock the door.

Doney: Other questions.

Svea Larson: What kind of technologies have you found to be most helpful in terms of recording these audios? And do use like a smart pen that tracks whatever goes onto your paper at the moment that it does? Or do you have a microphone in the center? Is this something you have found to be more or less helpful.

Bergen: Well, like I said, I don’t usually do oral history interviews. I usually do them more for just articles I’m writing. And so for that purpose, I just use my phone. I either use, if I’m in person, I use a recording app on the phone. Or if I’m on, I mean, yeah, on the phone. Or if I’m talking to them. It’s confusing, like if I’m on the phone with them versus I’m recording on the phone. So if I’m talking to them on the phone and they’re not there with me, then I use an app called TapeACall. Yeah. And then for transcription I use Express Scribe. Do you all have transcription software? Oh my God. You guys need transcription software. So you can—

Newton: There’s some at the library I think we can use. I don’t know.

Bergen: Well, it’s not expensive. I mean, I think there’s even a free version.

Newton: I think I had one that was just like a thing that you could slow down and use the, you know, it wasn’t anything fancy.

Bergen: But that’s the, okay, the most important thing is the—

Newton: It maybe was the one that you’re talking about.

Bergen: Yeah, it might be.

Newton: It was a website, sort of.

Bergen: Well, I have one called Express Scribe that you download onto your computer. The pro version only costs like thirty bucks, so it’s still pretty cheap. And the thing that’s so important about it is that it has the automatic back, the automatic backspace. So that when you stop talking and start talking again, it backs up a little bit. Because if you were trying to do this with some other kind of recorder and had to rewind, I don’t know, that would be terrible. So get that. Express Scribe.

Newton: I do think when I first came here, it was at the library, I asked them about it. And they do have transcription software somewhere in one of the libraries that you can use.

Bergen: But you have to use it in the library?

Newton: Yeah. But I have a subscription to an online thing that is really similar to what you’re talking about that wasn’t expensive. And I had a free trial for a while, and then just paid for it while I was transcribing and it wasn’t expensive. You could slow it down and like put time stamps and use key commands to backspace really quickly or to stop it and stuff like that.

Bergen: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Newton: It would like stop every 45 seconds or I don’t know, just lots of weird stuff like that.

Bergen: Yeah, mine, I use a function key. So F4 is stop and F10 is start again. So I’m typing, stop, start, stop, start. Yeah.

Reeves: We use the same software. And we use the free service until it’s, I think it’s pinged to your computer, to the IP address on your computer. And then eventually it says hey, you’ve run out of time, you need to buy the pro. But it’s not that expensive. But we also spend the money to buy the foot pedal that then attaches to your computer.

Newton: I was about to say, yeah.

Reeves: So instead of hot keys or control keys, we just have our foot. We’re listening and then when we let off, it backspaces. Or we can backspace it more. So we can keep our fingers on the keyboard. We do that. We don’t, Teresa does our transcription when we have funding. So we do summaries. But even doing summaries, it helps to be able to slow it down and be able to know that there’s going to be a backspace to get you back to where you want to sort of re-listen to that section. Yeah, Express Scribe, any sort of transcription software is going to save you so much time.

Bergen: Yeah, it makes it a lot less frustrating.

Reeves: Yeah.

Bergen: Yeah. I started transcribing on cassette tapes. So then I had this big, bulky Dictaphone machine with a foot pedal. And that thing was heavy! And my desk isn’t even big enough for it now. So when digital came in, I started, I was going to get, I was going to get the pedal for the digital like you guys have. But I was like, oh, I’m not going to pay, I don’t know what the pedal was, fifty bucks or something. I was like, I don’t know if this digital stuff’s going to catch on. I’m not going to spend fifty bucks. I started using the keys. But then I got so used to the keys, I never—

Reeves: Yeah, once you get used to them.

Bergen: And I travel a lot. So I don’t want to, like I transcribe on airplanes and in hotels and stuff. I don’t want to carry the pedal around. That would be funny, though, if I had a pedal on an airplane. (laughter) People would really wonder what I was doing.

Reeves: Yeah. Actually, that would be awesome. To record, we, I’ve just started to actually use my smartphone with an app, it’s only an iPhone app, by Rode, R-o-d-e. And then you can also buy, again, it costs money. But you can buy the attachment to plug into the phone that then has splitters for lapel mics. And it’s actually, the app itself is actually pretty good at minimizing the noise that comes. But, when we don’t use our smartphone, we use a small digital audio recorder made by Zoom. And we actually have a few of those. If you want to just try one, just email me and you could borrow one for a day or whatever for an interview, just to see if it’s something you’d like. The system itself, the digital audio recorder, the accessory kit, is under two hundred bucks. Which is still a lot of money, I get it, but it really does a good job. And it’s pretty small. I mean, our clamshell bag, by the time we have our, clamshell bag fits in my backpack and I can take it anywhere.

Newton: I also think you can rent them from the university.

Larson: Yeah. Can you rent them for more than a day?

Reeves: So if you borrow them from me, our program, you can have them for more than a day. The libraries, I’m not sure whether it’s like a three-day loan or a one-day loan. But yes, certainly the libraries, like College Library, MERIT Library, at least those two I know have digital audio recorders.

Freiburger: I think College has a pretty good collection of digital things. Go to College and three days, pretty straightforward.

Oh, really?

Newton: At OSU, if you were a grad student, you could like make a case to get it longer. I don’t know if they do that here.

Alex Scheepens: I have a question about the interview. How do you navigate yourself through an interview when you’re interviewing someone that’s a very intense emotional history? How fast? And when do you have to hold yourself back a little bit with questions? And when should you push with certain questions?

Bergen: Well, that’s probably going to depend what you’re asking them about. But I’d say try to give them, try to give them a little space. Let there be some quiet times. Don’t just follow up right away, because it will feel kind of relentless. Maybe like Troy was saying when you prepare people beforehand, talk about how things are going to come up, it’s okay, anytime—you can even have a signal anytime you want me to just stop and take a break just kind of point or say (whispers) “I need a break.” So sort of acknowledge that it could be intense and that it might be hard for them and that they can stop when they want.

And then what kind of stuff do you want to push on? Like do you feel that they’re holding back—what kind of stuff are you thinking they’re holding back that you want to push on?

Scheepens: Well, maybe things that are just too hard for them to talk about, because it’s relived experience. So, yeah, I was just wondering if that’s something that one should continue and push too hard? Or something that’s—

Bergen: Right. Okay, I think I’d say to them something like your experience is really important to the historical record and we’d love to know more about this. And I understand if it’s too hard to go on, but do you think you’re able to? I’d say something like that, acknowledging it and giving them the choice. Because of course you want to get everything you can for your research and for history. But it’s still, it’s their agency, right? They get to decide. It’s their interview. And you don’t want to leave them feeling like you like took something from them that they didn’t want to give. So I think you’ve got to balance there, even though you want to get everything you can. You’ve got to respect that it’s their story and their experience and their life. And there might be things they don’t want to tell you. I don’t know, what do you, you’ve probably dealt with some of that.

Reeves: So I guess what I consider what one of the unique things about oral history within the realm of qualitative interviewing is we oral historians are the people that our, the Oral History Association put out our principles and best practices. We really want the narrator, the person you’re going to interview, to be informed about the process from the beginning. And so that means talking to them about what you’re going to ask them and letting them know. And they will know, because they have the experience. But it’s okay to have a pause. It’s okay not to answer a question. You’re not going to get everything, no matter how much you try. But letting them know where you’re coming from, letting them know that yes, I would like to know about some of the more sensitive things that’s happened in your life and I know that might be troublesome to you. So we can certainly take a break. We can certainly stop an interview and start again another day. But they certainly have the right or the agency not to answer your questions, either. So there may just be times where you’re going to get what you’re going to get. And you’re not going to get all that you want. But that’s the other reason, maybe, you go back to them a few more times and let them know that you’re truly interested in what they have to say. As opposed to coming in for sixty minutes, asking the seven questions on your list, thanking them and leaving.

Bergen: I transcribed one once where the narrator was the son-in-law of the person he was interviewing. I mean, I’m sorry. The interviewer was the son-in-law of the narrator. And the narrator had been in the Korean War. And the son-in-law and the guy’s daughter suspected that he’d been involved in some heinous stuff in Korea and they really wanted to push him on it. So the son-in-law was just the most relentless I have ever heard in an interview.

The guy was like, “I don’t want to talk about it.” He was a little, you weren’t sure if he was all there mentally. It was really painful to listen to. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well, what about then? What about then?” He just kept on him and on him and on him.

And finally the guy just broke. And he started shrieking, “Okay! We cut their heads off! We cut their heads off!” And it was—yeah. I mean, I don’t know if it was true. I don’t know if he was just giving the guy something because like okay, you’re going to push me that much, I’m going to say something terrible. I have no idea. But it was really kind of painful to listen to. But also sort of instructive, because I’d never heard someone push that hard. And to see what they got was really startling. But again, since I don’t know if it was really true, I don’t know that it really did add, even though he did push and get a response, I don’t even know if that really added anything true to the record.

Reeves: Right. Right. And something that you said in your book that was illuminating to me, and something I sadly had never thought about, and I’ve worked with you for a decade, is that if you’re working with someone else who’s transcribing the interviews, let them know what they’re going to be listening to.

Doney: Yeah.

Reeves: Because imagine Teresa going through that and then transcribing it and then hearing a screech. And someone saying, “We cut their heads off.” And it might have even been we cut their bleepety bleeping heads off. That’s a lot for a person to deal with. So if someone else is transcribing your interviews, let them know what they might be getting into. Either specifically letting them know, or at least letting them say hey, this is different from interviewing Grandma about her life on the farm. This is some deep, possibly troubling stuff. And particularly these sections of the interview, I want you to know and be ready for.

Bergen: Yeah. Most stuff isn’t that intense. But certain areas. Yeah, if you’re doing work with things that are really going to get to people. Like child abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, war, anything like that. And you might not know. Of course you probably don’t know if your transcriptionist has some history of sexual abuse or something, because you’re probably not talking about that. And you don’t have to ask. All you have to do is when you first tell them you have a new project, be like, “Hey, I have a project on this, this and this. Are you interested?” And maybe note that some of it’s kind of graphic.

And then that also gives them the out, they don’t even have to say like, “Oh, no, I can’t do that.” They could just say like, “Oh, I’m booked.” Or not able to take it on or something like that. It gives them an easy out.

I get a lot of stuff from people where they’re like, “I have a new project. I’m going to send it to you.” And they don’t even tell me what it is. And I don’t think I’ve ever turned something down on content. I’m not super sensitive that way. But they don’t really think sometimes about how this is something that lives in your head. Because it’s very intimate to listen to these. You have these headphones on. You’re spending time probably alone in a room for hours listening to this more intently than anyone else is probably ever going to listen to this interview. So you know, it matters what you’re listening to. It might be something that sets you off. Or it might be something that you’re just like, that is the most boring thing I’ve ever heard of. Life’s too short. (laughter) So yeah, just tell people the topic if you’re farming out your interviews. And if it’s going to be graphic or sensitive.

Oh, I just realized. We’re keeping people over. Do people have like classes or more things to go to?

Doney and Reeves: Yeah.

Doney: Feel free to leave whenever. Or if you have another question, feel free.

Freiburger: Well maybe not too much a question. But just as grad students I’ve encountered a little bit of this kind of activity, but in probably different directions. But I think it’s something to keep in mind because it’s funding-related in a sense or other things. So for history of science, Eric Schatzberg, who’s no longer here, was teaching a class and had a deaf student in the class. And Eric really wanted to show a video. So I transcribed the DVD. Like an hour-long

Bergen: Thanks for coming. Do you want a card?


Freiburger: type of thing. And it was challenging for some of the technical reasons she said. But I got really good using video play software on my computer to go back like a millisecond, to go back and hear. Because this was set in realistic 18th century Luddite time period. So early 1800s. And they were using the vernacular and pronouncing it that way. And there was like one word I could just never figure out.

Bergen: Oh, doesn’t that drive you crazy?

Freiburger: Yeah. But everything else after like okay, twenty minutes, ah, finally the light goes off type of thing. But yeah, it was kind of a paid gig. So there’s moments like that that worked out.

The other thing was, last year at a conference it was the thirtieth anniversary of this particular conference. Certain people had been to all thirty of these conferences. They wanted history oral interviews there. So one person, they had dual cameras. So maybe this is a question of doing audio or audio and video. They had two cameras, just like you see in 60 Minutes, one on the interviewer, one on the narrator. And it was all set up and they had people scheduled for like an hour at a time to come in, of all these perennials, who had been there for all thirty years. So a huge, formal thing. I got to go out on the exhibit room floor with an iPad and just kind of hold it up in front of them and record them and say, “Can you tell me how your company has contributed to thirty years of” fill in the blank.

So you can integrate this more than just your research. It’s a skillset that I think—that’s why I’m here. To learn more about this. Because I think it really would be helpful to know. But maybe if there was a question in all that is when is it appropriate or not appropriate to do video on top of the audio?

Bergen: Oh, you want to warn people before you show up with a video camera. If you’re scheduling an oral history interview, and let’s just pass—oh, yeah. Thanks. Just pass these around. If anybody wants a card, feel free to take one, because I know people might be leaving any minute. Yeah, so you want to ask them first. I mean, I know times when people have refused to be interviewed because someone showed up with a video and they were expecting audio. Especially older ladies who didn’t get to go to the beauty salon.

Freiburger: Yeah, yeah, yeah, my mom would have been that.

Bergen: Totally. Yeah. So ask them ahead of time. Video, what I think a video is really, really good for, though is okay, I get these horrible interviews sometimes. I think of them as the photo album interview. So someone brings a photo prompt, which sounds like a good idea. But then you get this audio that’s like, “Oh, look at you.” Pause, pause, pause. “Oh, your haircut.” “Oh, that bike!” I mean, it’s totally useless. Especially since by the time I get them, it’s usually been separated from any kind of photos. So that would be a time that, if you want to use mementoes and photos and stuff, that’s a great time to have the video. Zoom in on the photos you’re talking about, on the mementoes and stuff. So that’s good. Or if you want to sort of show the person’s environment, video’s great. But just prepare them and think about it a little bit and have the skills so it’s not a terrible video.

Does it help you transcribe if you have video because you can try to mouth read?

Bergen: Oh, once in a while. Once in a while. Yeah, I put the little—but it’s also giant files, which is another thing to think about. So sometimes that’s a pain. Like it makes my laptop explode. (laughter)

Makes it heavier, right?

Bergen: It makes its little head go around and around and around. Sometimes it won’t even download, depending on the Wi-Fi connection. So yeah, you have to think about the storage, too, if you start getting massive files and sending them back and forth. I mean, it’s doable.

Dustin Cohan: I work with, I do oral histories with a vulnerable population. Do you have any experience transcribing the people that, maybe the information that they’re sharing is really sort of critical to their safety. But you also want to transcribe the interview for the purpose of historical record. And I know that sometimes you’re doing summary transcripts, so you don’t have to provide a word for word reading of it. But do you have any approaches to that where you deal with the transcript in maybe a more sensitive way or try to eliminate some of the things in it that might be very revealing. But not in the sense of story, more in the sense of like an address.

Bergen: Well I would probably leave that up to the editor. I’d probably transcribe it but then have the next person edit that out. But I would say that if you have sensitive stuff like that that was still important, consider a pseudonym, consider restricting the time. And also I’d make the, I’d want to make the transcript available but not the audio. Because the audio’s going to be so identifiable as an individual human voice. So if you can. But then I’d say probably since you’re the one that’s in charge of it, you understand the ins and outs of it more than the transcriptionist would.

Cohan: I’ll probably be the one transcribing it, also.

Bergen: Oh, okay. Well then yeah, either you’ll fix it afterwards or if you’re transcribing it. Just think about those pieces of information that are too sensitive and just, yeah, take out those super identifiable things for now. And you can do a restricted, I mean, some archives will let you do this. I don’t know how you guys stand on this, but I’ve worked for some people where they do restricted copies. So it’s not available for, say, they think about how old the person is now and when they’re likely to die and maybe make it sometime after that.

Reeves: Right. I think the only issue with that is that as we know, like an oral history program can’t stand up against a subpoena.

Bergen: True. True, true. Good point.

Reeves: So in the case of the interviews that Dustin’s doing, I think you could sort of sanitize the transcript. And then maybe the transcript is what you donate to the archives. And it might be one of those cases where the audio goes away.

Bergen: Yeah. That’s a good idea.

Reeves: And I hate saying that. Like that’s not my ethos. But I also don’t want these people who have given of their time to possibly have ramifications and repercussions from giving of their time.

Doney: Well, why don’t we thank Teresa. (applause) And if you have other questions, ask her now.

Bergen: Thanks so much for coming and supporting this, and participating and asking questions.

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