Reportback: Indicating Editing

December 2014 PSN – Indicating Editing

Participants: Sherna Berger-Gluck, Sara Sinclair, Amy Starecheski, Allison Tracy.

As oral historians continue to develop their collective audio editing skills and editing audio at the request of a narrator has become feasible for many, an issue has arisen for which there seems to be no standard in the field. Should we show where an interviewee has edited a transcript or audio tape? If so, how? If not, why not? What if they have deleted content? What if the content is only closed for a period of time? Do we treat this differently from a permanent deletion? 

This question raises questions central to the field of oral history in new ways. How do we balance the privacy and authority of the narrator with the researcher’s desire to know everything possible about how the document was created? Who keeps the unedited drafts of oral history tapes and transcripts, and why? If oral history is a primary source document, what part of the complex, drawn-out, intersubjective process becomes a source, and what becomes a secret? This topic also brings up a fundamental question that is especially relevant when doing oral history with communities that have been historically marginalized and oppressed: To whom are oral historians accountable and how do we balance multiple "accountabilities"? 


The session began with each participant explaining why the topic was of interest to them/when they first encountered it in their own work.


  • The question came up in her dissertation research, as she prepared to deposit her interviews in a separate archive at NYU.
  • This was the first time that Amy was able to offer her interviewees the opportunity to edit the audio of their interviews.  With this new practice arose new questions: how to/whether to indicate edits to audio in a way that would mark deletions for future researchers.


  • In much of Sherna’s oral history practice, interview transcripts were not produced. As a result the question of print and audio matching is less interesting to her than how audio edits are indicated.
  • Describes practice of turning off the tape recorder and negotiating with the narrator how to discuss something. What resulted from this process was suggestive enough that people could read between the lines. As a result, a graduate student accused her of excising material in the 2nd edition of  From Parlor to Prison. In other words, the student had gleaned enough in her original reading that she was then convinced that something was different in the 2nd edition. 
  • She is interested in how the choices we make to indicate edits, help/or don’t help researchers to make sense of the information they have.


  • Realized that there wasn’t an established standard practice in the field as she began to grapple with these questions, as they arose through her work at the Stanford Historical Society
  • Editing to audio is minimal, and is done to address sensitive issues.  The handful of instances audio has been edited, have been contained to specific sections rather than throughout the recording.
  • Editing happens when (like Amy) it makes the difference between depositing and closing permanently.
  • Another small category of audio that has been closed for a period of time (rather than edited and deposited).
  • General editing procedures are outlined in preface, and anything that seems to cross the line from editing for clarity to changing the content of the interview, is noted in the preface.
  • Indications are made to transcript when something has been deleted, and audio clip appended to beginning of interview audio to notify researchers the audio has been edited


  • These questions arose when working on a project for the New York Department of Environmental Protection
  • The project budget didn’t have room for any audio-edits, and the archivist that was supervising the project was concerned about the efficacy of edits to transcript should the audio not also be adjusted.

Some highlights from the conversation:

  • If an archive plans to destroy raw audio and transcript after a set number of years, providing narrator with a copy of raw material would facilitate possibility of making future further revisions if so desired.
  • Making the case to our narrators for closing materials VS. the destruction of records
  • Narrators’ right to make deletions at any time needs to more explicit in all of our agreements.
    • The challenge of working with archivists who find this practice overwhelming
  • The tension between oral history’s responsibility to our narrators and future researchers needs to be faced more directly.
    • This process needs to adhere to commitment we make to our narrators as collaborators
    • Edits ultimately reflect the narrative that people wish to present of themselves and their own lives.
      • Identity is fluid and may shift over time
  • Technical innovations have drastically impacted our ability to edit our audio
    • Even within archives that only make written transcripts available now, should audio ever be made available it would be necessary to supplement that addition with some explanation of the discrepancy between the two records – this is an important reason to keep a record of edits to the transcript
  • Is there a difference between choosing not to tell a story at all, and choosing to remove it after the interview?
    • Sherna describes practice of pausing the interview to talk to the narrator about how to think through telling a story in such a way that they will be comfortable with it being on the record
    • Believes that this practice results in at least some of the story being shared, this in contrast to a narrator telling a version they do not ultimately want on the record and choosing to delete it later
  • Specific questions about how to mark audio deletions
    • With silence
    • With beeps
    • Do edits purposely frame the content missing or are transcripts/audio files edited in such a way that there is no suggestion of what has been removed?
  • Discussed the value of a roundtable at OHA in 2015. Allison said she had already been planning on submitting a proposal for something along these lines and that she would keep us all in the loop.
  • Discussed the relation of this issue to the larger project of revising OHA Evaluation Guidelines.