Audio or Video for Recording Oral History: Questions, Decisions
By Doug Boyd
I am clearly preaching to the choir when I say to oral historians that audio interviewing creates an evocative and effective documentary record. I am an enormous promoter of professionally-recorded audio interviews. You can record professional sounding recordings using a $300 digital audio recorder. I love the fact that realistic and tenable standards have emerged for curating digital audio and that audio has always been something that I have felt that I could preserve on a large scale with a small to moderate budget. As an administer of many small, medium, and large oral history projects, I know well that as a general rule, I can structure an oral history project to conduct 10 audio interviews for the cost of 1 professionally recorded video interview. Video, for most oral history projects, has traditionally proven far too expensive. Spending rare and precious financial resources on the capture and preservation of poorly lit, low-resolution video with substandard audio did not prove better than standard, high quality audio capture of oral history, simply because video added a visually stimulating element. When you factor in the fact that video preservation proves prohibitively expensive and labor intensive for the majority of archival repositories, my practical preference has always favored the classic audio interview (See Boyd’s essay on Digital Video Preservation). I have always advocated a “responsible” approach to video oral history. Do not capture more than you can afford to curate. If you factor in the fact that video has always provided major preservation challenges from a long-term curatorial perspective, it was easy to make audio interviewing the default.
I should reveal at this point that I also very much love video for oral history. I grew up as cable television asserted dominance and I was one of those kids whose minds were blown by witnessing the transformation of music, something that I had always perceived as an audio-limited art form, as it was being expressed in a new genre, the music video. Cable television heavily conditioned my biases and personal preferences for mass media consumption. Interestingly, I have found that this very same conditioning during childhood shapes my preferences and behaviors in adulthood as an oral history producer, researcher and consumer. No matter what, I am instantly drawn to the story in oral history. However, when you factor in a face to connect with a voice and a story, the story seems to, personally, resonate more profoundly with me. Nevertheless, on the traditional “broadcast” medium of television, one rarely saw an oral history interview. Most oral history projects lacked the level of funding required to broadcast their productions.
Until just a few years ago there was a distinct line drawn in video production called “broadcast quality” video. What this meant, primarily, was a minimal threshold for resolution, high quality lighting, and high quality/low noise audio recording. This meant, that for video being shot broadcast, the production team or crew needed prohibitively expensive camera and audio equipment which created a medium that required an investment of over $25,000 for a deck to even play back the high quality video that was captured. For video that was not broadcast quality in resolution there were very few options for distribution. The Internet has completely shattered analog limitations for video distribution and as a result, has completely redfined and reshaped the concept of “broadcast quality” video. In addition to a myriad of options for video distribution, the capture of video has now become ubiquitous.
The majority of us now carry in our pockets, sophisticated high definition video cameras in the form of smartphones. Individuals can upload video captured on a cell phone within seconds of capturing an event. Global perceptions of major international events such as the recent “Arab Spring” were documented using lower resolution, low-lit, poor audio. Major cable and network broadcast entities now broadcast pixelated video that would never have been considered “broadcast quality” several times a day. However, we are seeing Internet venues such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Vimeo dominate video consumption.
Additionally, many free content management systems such as WordPress or Drupal are creating high quality templates and themes that specifically cater to video sites. This can have a very high impact for a very low cost. See the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries’ WordPress sites for the following oral history projects:
- From Combat to Kentucky: Interviews with Student Veterans (http://www.nunncenter.org/c2ky)
- Quest for the Perfect Bourbon: Voices of Buffalo Trace Distillery (http://www.nunncenter.org/buffalotrace)
Both of these projects are featured in a WordPress theme that cost under $30. The impact of the digital video, in terms of the numbers of online users around the world, is dramatic. The video for both of these projects were professionally generated. From a collecting and curating perspective, these were very expensive projects. Does the high value of video make up the cost? The Nunn Center produced an award-winning documentary from the interview footage. This documentary was the featured video launching the Education Archive playlist of YouTube’s newly launched Intelligent Channel. Although the documentary runs regularly on Kentucky Educational Television (KET), the distribution potential of YouTube transcends state borders in ways that broadcast cannot.
Quest for the Perfect Bourbon: Voices of Buffalo Trace Distillery
Digital audio projects have amazing opportunities for distribution as well. With emerging tools such as Sound Cloud [http://www.soundcloud.com], as well as the ease of digital audio editing tools such as Audacity, Sound Forge, or Peak, very powerful oral history content can be distributed in a wide variety of ways including digital exhibits, simple websites, as well as on radio. Radio is no longer limited to the broadcast range of its antennas. The Nunn Center produces Saving Stories, an award-winning radio series featuring oral histories from our collection. In addition to being broadcast, these episodes are archived on the website and can bring new opportunities for content to a blog:
- Saving Stories: Remembering D-Day: June 6, 1944 (http://nunncenter.org/remembering-d-day-june-6-1944).
As Jennifer Cramer and Erin M. Hess point out in their OHDA article “What Endures:” Producing and Publishing an Oral History Podcast podcasting is an easy, efficient, and a very powerful way for distributing an audio project.
As the ubiquity of video continues to rise, I would argue so does the expectations of the future user. While I am certainly not recommending the smart phone for video recording “best practice,” I do feel the cultural effects of ubiquitous video will eventually transform oral history practice. However, video remains a major preservation challenge and, in general, it is more expensive than audio oral history projects. However, despite the expense, I find fundraising for a video oral history projects far more easy and successful today. Potential funders tend to be drawn to the allure of video. This does not make video an inherently better medium for oral history, however, video may be more attractive to both funder and consumers.
At the Nunn Center, I favor and often implement a hybrid audio/video approach. Professionally captured video can be a very nice complement to a much wider and more comprehensive audio documentation project. If you do thirty audio interviews, evaluate those interviews, and select ten interviewees to interview on high definition video, you have more efficiently allocated your limited resources. This approach creates an outcome with the dual advantage of achieving comprehensive audio documentation while still providing the project “bling” with limited digital video.
I still believe that the responsible approach is to not collect more than you can afford to curate and that audio can be more comprehensive. You should, first, strongly consider your desired outcome before proceeding with your choice between audio and video. With the outcome in mind, ask yourself, what can you afford to curate? So if you are asking yourself whether you should be doing audio or video interviews for your oral history project, consider the following:
- Do you have an archival partner? What can they curate?
- If you have a limited or one-time budget, strongly consider audio. Video costs add up quickly (camera, technician, lights, microphone, data storage, preservation) and video costs can be ongoing with preservation.
- A high quality recorded audio project is not inherently lacking when compared to a video project. No better, no worse—just different. Audio outcomes for dissemination still include digital exhibits, web, podcasting, radio as well as distribution using engaging digital tools such as Sound Cloud or archival tools such as OHMS. Still images mashed up with digital audio can be an engaging “video” distribution of audio interviews as well.
- Professional level audio recording technologies are, in general, easier to operate than professional level video recording technologies. Interviewers can easily and seamlessly operate an audio recording rig. It is very difficult for an engaged interviewer to also run a video recording rig. This means, audio projects require fewer staffing resources.
- Due to highly proprietary nature and the exponentially larger data file footprint of digital video, professionally recorded audio projects are much cheaper and easier to curate than video projects.
- Audio editing, podcasting and publishing is a very popular form of distribution. See Jennifer Cramer and Erin M. Hess OHDA article “What Endures:” Producing and Publishing an Oral History Podcast
- Audio projects recorded in 24-Bit/96KhZ average 2 gigabytes per hour. Video projects recorded in standard codecs such as AVCHD, H.264, MPEG 2, or HDV tend to average between 13 and 30 gigabytes per hour. More professional video formats can be 100 gigabytes per hour. Video is pushing many well-funded repositories past their limits for digital storage.
- As I said previously, one should not plan to collect more than you can curate. This is a recipe for disaster.
- Video recording technologies have dropped significantly in price and the high resolutions and professional features have become much more affordable.
- The ubiquity of web-based video outlets makes dissemination of video oral histories quick and easy. YouTube does not distribute audio only files.
- There are many popular tools in existence such as Sound Cloud for disseminating your audio project. Additionally, simply embedding an audio player on a blog post or web page is simple and effective. When it comes to excerpts, either audio or video is relatively easy to disseminate in simple and inexpensive ways. When considering the online distribution of entire interview, it is far easier to disseminate audio only projects. Common video sites have time limitations, which can hinder the online presentation of entire oral histories. Oral history interviewing tends to extend longer that the imposed time limitations.
- Fundraising for video oral history projects is getting much easier, even though video projects are much more expensive. Funders, generally, see video as a “higher value” product. This is not necessarily true, however, perception can be an important reality in the world of fundraising. Do not forget to build in the cost of preservation.
- Speaking of preservation, digital video is far more proprietary in terms of technologies currently being deployed, and obsolescence proves swift and cruel in the world of digital video. Your digital video project is at a far greater preservation risk than your audio project.
- With digital video, you can capture both a high quality audio and video signal. You can strip the audio signal from the video and make an audio backup of your digital video, which can mitigate the preservation risk of video somewhat. If you lose the video to obsolescence, you will still likely have the audio record.
- I still consider “good video” for oral history to include controlled lighting and high quality audio which usually requires higher-end external XLR microphones. Use of XLR microphones usually requires either higher end and more expensive equipment or technological add-ons. (See Scott Pennington’s OHDA essay Video Equipment: Guide to selecting and use and Doug Boyd’s OHDA essay Three Point Lighting and Oral History)
Last year, I had an undergraduate come in to the Nunn Center to request an audio recorder to record a World War II veteran who lived in his hometown. I loaned the student the recorder for the weekend. As is common with undergraduates, part of this transaction included “friending” me on Facebook and I accepted this request. This was a Friday. Sunday evening, I was notified that my new “friend” had uploaded to the web and announced on Facebook a documentary based on his audio interview. He had taken scanned photographs, low resolution historic film footage downloaded from the Library of Congress, and created a 30-minute “video” documentary presentation of his audio interview. This student taught me a powerful lesson about the current mindset of our users. In some ways, it doesn’t matter if it is audio or video. What matters is that the interview was a good interview and it was recorded well, however it was recorded. What matters is that the interview gets used and that the powerful stories embedded in oral history become part of the historical record. What matters, finally, is that the digitally recorded interview was conducted with the original intention of professionally archiving this oral history for posterity. Digital technologies provide profound possibilities for distribution of your interview. Consider these possibilities throughout the collecting and curating phases as your individual digital interviews begin their paths toward global dissemination and potentially profound significance.
Citation for Article
Boyd, D. A. (2012). Audio or video for recording oral history: questions, decisions. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/audio-or-video-for-recording-oral-history/.
Boyd, Douglas A. “Audio or Video for Recording Oral History: Questions, Decisions,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/audio-or-video-for-recording-oral-history/
This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.