liberary science

Oral Histories and the Tech Needed to Produce Them, Part 1: Cameras, Audio Recorders, and Media Storage, by Nick Hurley

Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.19.45 PMLast summer I had the pleasure of spending several weeks in southwestern Germany, visiting family and conducting interviews with five local residents who lived through the Second World War. In doing so, I fulfilled a goal I’d had in mind ever since the death of my great-grandmother in 2013. She had been one of a host of relatives and family friends that regaled me with stories from “back then” every time I’d come to visit, and her passing made me realize that I had to do more than just listen if I wanted to preserve these memories for future generations. This time around, I would sit down with each of the participants—the youngest of whom was in their late 70s—record our conversations, and eventually send each of them a copy of their edited interview on DVD. While I had a clear idea of why I was undertaking the project, and had done a lot of reading on oral history practices (including this fantastic online resource), I was less confident in just how I would go about carrying out the actual interviews. I was inexperienced with audiovisual equipment or video editing, and the seemingly endless number of tech-related questions I faced concerning things like cameras, microphones, and recording formats left my head spinning.

It took a significant amount of research and self-instruction before I was comfortable enough to purchase the necessary gear I needed. These two posts are my attempt to share what I learned and hopefully save other oral history novices some of the headaches I endured putting together an interview “kit” which, at a minimum, will consist of a camcorder (possibly), your audio recorder, and a way to store your footage.

The Camera

You’ll need to decide early on whether or not to record video as well as audio for your oral histories. While choosing the latter option will greatly reduce the amount of equipment you’ll need to buy, it really depends on the nature of your project. If you do decide to film, steer clear of mini-DV and DVD camcorders, as these record on formats that are quickly becoming obsolete. Your best bet is to go with a flash memory camcorder, which utilize removable memory cards that can be inserted into your laptop for easy file transfer.

High definition (HD) camcorders are fast becoming the norm over their standard definition (SD) counterparts, and they’ve become affordable enough to make them a viable option for amateur filmmakers. In terms of capture quality, AVCHD usually means a higher quality image but a bigger file, while MP4 files are compressed to reduce size and are a bit more versatile in terms of how they can be manipulated and uploaded. Either way, you can’t go wrong, and will get a great looking picture. I’ve shot exclusively in AVCHD so far with my Canon camcorder and have had no issues.

The Audio Recorder

If you’re going to splurge on anything, it should be this. You may or may not elect to include video in your project, but you will always have audio, and the quality should be as clear as possible—especially if you plan on doing any kind of editing or transcribing. There are a few things to consider when choosing a recorder:

  1. Whichever model you go with should have at least one 3.5mm (1/8”)Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.10.03 PM stereo line input, to give you the option of connecting an external microphone, and one 3.5mm (1/8”) output, so you can plug in a pair of headphones to monitor your audio.
  2. If you know you’re going to use an external microphone, having one or more XLR inputs is a plus. XLR refers to the type of connector used on some microphones; they are more robust than a 3.5mm jack and harder to accidentally unplug, making them an industry standard.
  3. Some recorders are meant for high-end professional use and have a plethora of features and buttons you’ll simply never use. Look for one with an easy to use interface.
  4. WAV and MP3 will be the most common options you’ll see format-wise, and many devices can record in either. WAV files are uncompressed, meaning they contain the entire recorded signal and are therefore much larger than MP3 recordings, which are easier to move and download but sometimes experience a slight loss in audio quality.

Media Storage

The three main types of memory cards that you’ll encounter are SD (Secure Digital, up to 2GB), SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity, 4-32GB), and SDXC (Secure Digital eXtended Capacity 64GB-2TB). Almost all cameras, computers, and other tech manufactured after 2010 should be compatible with all three types, and the cards themselves are fairly inexpensive. Useful as they are, memory cards shouldn’t be considered a means of long-term storage for your files. For one thing, you’ll run out of room fast; while things like compression and format will determine the exact amounts, for planning purposes you can expect to fit only about 5 hours of HD video on a 64GB SDXC card and 12-49 hours of WAV audio on a 16GB SDHC card. Even if you’ll only be doing one or two short interviews, you should still plan on migrating your files to a more secure storage media as soon as possible after you’re done recording. Cards can be broken or lost, and digital files, like their analog counterparts, will “decay” over time if simply left sitting.

Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.12.54 PMMy raw footage is stored on two external hard drives. Any editing work is done using one of them, while the other is stored in a separate location as a backup. Edited interviews are likewise copied to both hard drives once they’re completed. (This practice of having multiple copies of the same material stored in separate locations is known as replication, and is an important aspect to any digital preservation plan; for more info, check out this great page from the Library of Congress.)

Again, these three pieces are the minimum you’ll need to properly record and store audio and (if you desire) video footage. Depending on the circumstances and scope of your project, however, you may want to utilize some optional gear and accessories, which I’ll bring up in Part 2. Until then, feel free to contact me with any questions, and thanks for reading!

Nick Hurley is a Research Services Assistant at UConn Archives & Special Collections, part-time Curator of the New England Air Museum, and an artillery officer in the Army National Guard. He received his B.A. and M.A. in History from the University of Connecticut, where his work focused on issues of state and society in 20th-century Europe. You can contact Nick at nicholas.hurley@uconn.edu and follow him on Twitter @hurley_nick.

Jennifer Snow, Digital Scholarship Librarian

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 11.29.44 AM1. What initially intrigued you about research/teaching in digital humanities or media studies?

I began my work at UConn as the History Librarian six years ago, and I have slowly grown my skills and interests from there.  I have a Master’s in History, although I was trained in the traditional research methodologies.  Digital humanities didn’t really feature in my education.  However, as I worked with scholars and colleagues on various projects, I saw key ways that the Library could be more involved in digital humanities.  As research and scholarship change, the Library must adapt as well to remain relevant.  My skills and knowledge in this area are mostly self-taught, and I enjoy teaching others and seeing students become excited over the research possibilities opened up by a digital approach. 

2. Has entering the DHMS realm changed your approach to research and teaching in general? If so, how?

Absolutely!  I find my research and teaching to be much more collaborative now.  I’ve learned as much from students and scholars as they have from me.  We each bring our own expertise to the table, whether it’s a technological skill or subject knowledge.  I also actively seek out from others what they would like to learn, so I can tailor workshops and research consultations to their specific needs.  Whenever I work on a new project, I immediately think about who else might be interested and have something to contribute.  It’s a very different experience from individual work on an article for publication.  The projects I work on are multidisciplinary, and I have grown as a researcher from these collaborative opportunities.

3. You have three (commitment-free) wishes to receive support for your research/teaching in DH or media studies: what are they?

First, I would love to have more staff in the library dedicated to DH.  Web developers, graphic designers, coders!  We are always trying to do more with less.  It would be nice to never worry about finding time to work on a project because there is plenty of people to work on it.  Second, the opportunity to offer student internships or assistantships would be great.  I think this will be forthcoming in the future, though, so I am very much looking forward to that.  It would be a wonderful opportunity for students to learn more about DHMS and to work on interesting projects.  And third, more time is always welcome!  There are so many fantastic projects out there that I want to be a part of, but unfortunately, there are only so many hours in a day, and I have other responsibilities.  

4. First struggles and successes: do you have any best-practice advice?

My advice is really to just dive in!  If there’s something you’re interested in learning about, whether it’s a new tool, platform, or something else, don’t hesitate to start working with it.  Try and find other people who have a similar interest, and you can help each other.  Look for workshops, seminars, and meet-and-greets related to digital scholarship.  DH is collaborative by nature, so networking is hugely important.  There will definitely be struggles.  You may not master a particular tool as quickly or easily as you had hoped.  You will have other things competing for your time.  My advice is to not get discouraged and keep plugging away.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, whether from the library or from your own departments. 

 5. How would you like to challenge yourself in DH or media studies? Or what is a project you most seek to realize? 

As the Digital Scholarship Librarian, I am tasked with working beyond the humanities and branching out into the social sciences and sciences.  This is certainly a challenge for me as my background is squarely in the humanities.  However, I am working on developing skills in areas such as data visualization that can be of benefit to people in the sciences.  I would absolutely love to work with a researcher outside of the humanities who is new to digital scholarship.  We can educate each other and become more well-rounded researchers because of our collaboration.  I somewhat actively avoided the sciences in my academic career (to this day, I have never set foot inside the science buildings at my alma mater!) so this is definitely a new area for me.  The silos between the disciplines have begun to break down as research becomes more multidisciplinary, and I’m very excited to be part of that.

Jennifer Snow has a BA in History from Vassar College and an MA in History and Master in Library Science from Florida State University.  She currently serves as the Digital Scholarship/Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian for UConn.  Her academic background is in early modern French history, and she has worked on a number of digital scholarship projects on a variety of subjects.  She has published articles and a book chapter on topics related to digital scholarship and critical pedagogy.qa