Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Aural in Oral Histories

Step One in recording oral histories:  Bring recorder.  Important lesson learned.
Step Two: Know how to turn on recording mode properly.

Once the technology of recording was mastered and we recorded our interviews with some of Thurston Woods’ residents, each of us had the opportunity to take what we had recorded and begin a process to describe the content of the interview and identify what we thought were important stories and sound clips in the recording.  Changing and improving technology allows all of us to take what we have heard in the interview and make it available for others. 

While the technology is interesting – and potentially very valuable in allowing people looking to learn more about Thurston Woods access to our recorded information – the process of listening to the interview again, and sometimes again and again, made me more aware of what I was hearing.  It wasn’t only the words and ideas and stories that made an impression, it was the character and sound of the interviewee’s voice and the sounds in the background that brought an added dimension that I didn’t quite expect to hear.  Perhaps it was a bit of a wistful character of a voice describing walking through Thurston Woods with her husband and children to go to the store, or the background sounds of the birds, people and automobiles that illustrated the degree of daytime activity on the street where we were conducting our interview.  Perhaps it was the sound of an oxygen system in use at another person’s home that provided insight into how this person interacted with others in their neighborhood.  It struck me how these ambient sounds create meanings that are lost as soon as we move from recording to transcription.  Using only the written word makes it difficult to understand the shadings in the response to a question; it reinforced to me how important it is to have residents take the time to talk to us about their stories in and around Thurston Woods…so residents, thank you very much!

Listening for the subtleties in background sound in our oral history interviews has changed how I listen to my surroundings.  I commute to Milwaukee, and after a day of listening to recordings I realized that during most of my commute the most consistent sound was air handling.  Air conditioning on the train, air handling under the highway overpass, air conditioning on the bus.  What does that tell me about  our priorities?  Granted I would absolutely prefer to hear the air conditioning blowers on a 90+ degree day while riding the Route 30 bus, but I think I need to also be aware that I don’t hear many other sounds of the city as a result of my quest for cool.  As a "foreigner" what information might I be missing about Milwaukee by not hearing the city clearly?  A topic to ponder on Monday’s commute with the white noise of the air conditioners….