For the Record: Editing and the Production of Meaning in Oral History

By Wilmsen, Carl | The Oral History Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

For the Record: Editing and the Production of Meaning in Oral History


Wilmsen, Carl, The Oral History Review


Introduction

Accuracy is perhaps the central goal of editing oral history transcripts for deposit in archives. Editors aim for accuracy in portrayal of meaning: getting what the narrator meant to say right and setting it down on the written page in a way which is readable, easily understood, and likely to be interpreted as intended. Yet, the concern for accuracy focuses a great deal of attention on what was said during the interview. The assumption is that if we are faithful, to the extent that differences between the spoken and written word allow, to recordings of the interview, we will convey the narrator's meaning fully and accurately. While this is a legitimate assumption, it leads to an overemphasis on the interview as the magical moment when meaning is produced. Oral history is not just what happens during the interview, however. Rather, it is comprised of the lengthy process of researching, interviewing, transcribing, editing, and preparing the transcript for deposit in an archive, and in many cases, returning again later to the archive to make corrections in those transcripts.

What role does editing play in this overall process? How does editing affect the meaning that is ultimately produced in an interview transcript? I want to be clear that in addressing these questions the editing I am referring to is editing a transcript for deposit in an archive. This distinction is important because, while many of my comments apply to the editing of audio and video tapes, as well as to the editing historians do when transforming a set of interviews into a historical account, the act of depositing transcripts in an archive has important implications for the production of meaning itself.

Editing is embedded in the social relations of oral history production. While we are accustomed to thinking of social relations, political context, and memory shaping the meaning produced during an interview, these same factors shape the production of meaning in the editing process in much the same way they do during the interview itself. This means that the interview transcript is, to the same extent as its corresponding tape recording, a jointly produced set of meanings. Thus, the tape and the transcript represent separate records of jointly produced meaning, and can be thought of as two different, albeit related, types of social text.

In making this point I do not wish to argue for or against editing (or for or against transcribing, since editing presupposes the prior act of transcribing), but to initiate an examination of the process of producing a finished transcript for the archives to understand more fully how that product conveys meaning. Since transcribing and editing involve issues, choices and decisions about how best to adapt the patterns of speech to the stricter conventions of the printed page, the assumption that archival transcripts are the most literal may well be misplaced. If this is the case, it is incumbent upon practitioners and users of oral history to examine critically the production of archival oral histories to understand more fully and engage the issues it raises.

Editing as a Socially Mediated Process

To do so, it is necessary to assess the implications of editing being embedded in the social relations of oral history production. The social relations of the interview, the politics of the narrator's and interviewer's individual lives, and the interplay between memory and accepted history all mediate the meaning that is produced in oral history transcripts. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Editing and the Social Relations of the Interview

As are all oral history interviews, those conducted for deposit in archives are social interactions. They are substantially more than an exchange of information in a conversation between two or more people. They are carefully staged communicative events, which follow specific protocols for the purpose of eventually communicating through some use of print or audio/visual media to a wider, undetermined audience. …

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