I think you make a great point. I do think it's very important for oral historians to strive for the best possible sound quality. At the same time, I believe capturing any recorded information is better than nothing. The idea of a smartphone app could simplify the recording process for many. Capturing - for the historical record - information that would otherwise be lost is a key element of the oral history process.
A number of amateur (and some professional) oral historians are intimidated or overwhelmed by the many equipment and recording format options available, especially in the digital era. Things were much simpler when the only practical choices for most projects were cassettes for original recordings and ¼" open-reel tape for masters.
One important reality of the oral history process is the urgency, especially with the elderly. Therefore, any delays while waiting for equipment selection or the introduction of a forthcoming new recording format can result in a missed opportunity. Individuals or project organizers with limited technical expertise or support can become stalled in their efforts while trying to decide on a recording format. I've seen potential oral history projects come to a dead end because of this. So again, I'm with you on the idea of a smartphone app or any technology that could result in the creation of more and better quality oral history recordings.
On a related topic, I also feel compelled to put in a good word in defense of oral history recordings in general. I do know there are lots of poor quality interview recordings out there, including some in our collections here. A major reason for this is that oral historians generally work in the field, not in a studio, which means they are often working in an unfamiliar environment, and one in which they have very little control.
I've conducted several hundred interviews and the vast majority were recorded in homes or workplaces I had never visited or seen. Upon arriving, there is a bit of a quick scramble to decide exactly where to do the interview. I always look for a room or space that seems as free as possible from interruption or background noise. In addition, I have also often requested that we move furniture for better microphone placement, turn off fans and air conditioners, etc. Good technique is very important and can compensate for other shortcomings; even, to some degree, the quality of the recording equipment.
Still, there are always variables such as the sudden operation of a gas-powered weed wacker directly outside of a condominium window. My point is that field recording has its challenges and they can contribute to less than ideal results. I know that in doing tape transfers or other work with oral histories it is frustrating to work with poor quality recordings. I agree that oral historians should get the best sound they can and there is often room for improvement. Still, the oral history process isn't a simple matter. In addition to having a comfort level with recording equipment, interviewers need to have a good knowledge and understanding of the subject matter and often have to deal with narrators who are un-talkative, uncooperative, or even intimidating. Then there are the chatty spouses, cuckoo clocks, barking dogs, and the occasional weed wacker.
Curator of Collections
& Oral Historian
The Museum of America and the Sea
75 Greenmanville Avenue
PO Box 6000
Mystic CT 06355-0990 USA
tel: 860.572.0711 ext. 5168
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From: Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Tom Fine
Sent: Friday, January 22, 2016 8:13 AM
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Subject: Re: [ARSCLIST] Cassttes - Re: [ARSCLIST] One more sticky-shed data point - Richardson treated tape
I keep hoping someone, like Storycorps, will create a smartphone app for capturing oral histories.
The app would include a step-by-step about where to place the phone, and a little super-simple and large-button recorder control. Maybe also a way to directly upload the oral history to Storycorps or Archive.org or some other appropriate venue. I really think the emphasis should be audio-only, because video makes a wide swath of people nervous and thus they clinch up on answering questions or any other participation in the interview. The beauty of putting a phone on a table, hitting record and talking is that it's super-unobtrusive, even less so than a 70s cassette recorder. The goal would be a friendly app that is made for people with no technical experience, particularly family members who want to get the old-timers voices and stories before they pass on. I think it would be a very popular app.
-- Tom Fine