Monday, September 10, 2012

A/V Equipment for Conducting Oral History Research: Portable, Low Cost Recommendations for Individuals and Organizations

If you or someone you know plans to make an excursion to "the homeland" and plans to record individual and family histories, you might be wondering about what types of recording equipment you will need to take with you.  Is it possible to find equipment that is affordable and portable, yet effective?  The answer is YES!  Below are some recommendations based on equipment that our oral history researchers use for conducting interviews.  We hope that these recommendations will be helpful to the family genealogy researcher as well as the professional oral history collector.

VN 702-PC
Digital Voice Recorder: The most basic technical need that you will have for conducting oral history interviews is the ability to record the interview audio.  We recommend recording in digital audio, the most versatile and convenient method of recording.  Creating digital files will enable you to save the files on a computer and also allow you to easily transcribe the interviews later. For recording interviews, we use Olympus products because they have proven to be excellent when it comes to clarity, ease of use, and reliability. The company offers a wide range of digital voice recorders that are easy to use and to download the WMA files to a PC or Mac (Olympus is compatible with both platforms.) However - make sure that the model number has "PC" at the end of it, or the audio will not be downloadable. We are partial to the Olympus VN 702-PC, which costs about $40-50 at

Olympus AS-2400 PC
Transcription Kit
Digital Transcription Kit: Although this isn't something that you need to take with you on fieldwork (unless you want to), it will come in handy when you are processing all of the audio that you have collected.  While it is easy to use an online audio player to stop and start audio (if one is merely just listening to it), hours and hours of audio recording that must be transcribed is done more conveniently with a foot pedal for starting and stopping. That's why we highly recommend purchasing a transcription kit complete with a foot switch, stereo headset and integrated software that allows you to play and store files, such as a DSS player. We used an Olympus AS-2400PC Transcription Kit, which was compatible with the digital voice recorder mentioned above. It works great, costs under $200, and transcription is so much faster than stopping and starting your audio player on your computer with a mouse!  For this reason, this piece of equipment is quite useful for organizations that are collecting numerous oral histories.  If you are an individual or a family who is collecting just a few family histories, it might make sense to just use the mouse and skip the cost of this piece of equipment.

The Canon LIDE-200

Photo and Document Scanning: Very early on in the research, it occurred to us that interview participants might have photos or documents that they would be willing to allow us to scan if we had the on-site capability in place. This meant that we would need to bring a scanner with us to the interviews, and so we were obviously going to need something portable. At first, we considered the wand scanners that seem so impressive in the airline catalogs like Skymall, but further research revealed that those devices weren't reliable enough and the images wouldn't necessarily be focused unless our hands were perfectly steady. We also ruled out the slide-through "neat receipts"-type scanners because we couldn't imagine that Lemkos would want their rare and precious originals being fed through a strange machine. The scanner, therefore, would have to be a portable flatbed scanner.  Luckily, Canon makes a great lightweight flatbed scanner for under $100: The Canon LIDE-200 Portable Color Scanner.  You'll be amazed at the quality of the scans created by this portable and low-cost device that can fit in most carry-on bags.
The Canon Vixia HF-11

Video: If you are not satisfied with recording only audio, you might want to consider taking a good quality high definition digital camcorder along with you.  At the suggestion of our friend Olia Onyshko, a very talented filmmaker (among her film credits is the documentary Three Stories of Galicia), we did some research on the current state of portable camera technology. We definitely wanted to upgrade to a high definition camcorder, but needed something ultra-portable because lugging a huge shoulder camera across Poland and Ukraine would have been much too cumbersome. Most of the decent HD cameras seemed to cost in excess of $1000, but we managed to find the gem that we were looking for: the Canon Vixia HF11 High Definition Camcorder.  The HF11 retails for about $1500.00, but we managed to snag one on Ebay for around $400, and it is in great condition.  It does everything that we need it to do for both indoor and outdoor filming, although we purchased additional accessories such as wide angle and telephoto lenses (though this is not necessary for filming's more for capturing outdoor shots.)  Storage was a definite concern since filming in 1020 megapixel (mp) high definition eats about 24 megabytes per second (mbps.) For that reason the camera's 32 GB built-in hard drive came in handy, but we took a few extra 32 GB Class 10 SD cards (about $35-$50 each) in our fieldwork equipment kit, as well as two extended life lithium ion batteries. After a few interviews (mostly at the end of the day) we simply download the data to a 1TB Seagate external hard drive (approx. $90) and freed up space on both the camera's hard drive and the cards.  Despite it's compact size, The HF-11 really performs. The extra lenses allowed us to capture the stunning beauty of the Carpathians. For stability, we also use a lightweight collapsible tripod (around $20-$30) that expanded to 4 feet high.  Pertaining to the camera's audio recording, we noticed that the Vixia's built-in audio capture was hyper-sensitive - it picks up everything (including someone's stomach growling - no kidding!) As a result, we found that an external microphone was not required for our purposes.  The Vixia's built-in microphone did just fine for recording indoor interviews. To address low-lighting issues indoors, particularly in the evenings after the decadent feasts we were served (no one's stomach growls for long around Lemkos) we used an attachable LED light, which speaks to the good design of the Vixia HF11 - there is a connector port on the top of the camera for adding additional portable lighting.  Finally, we'd like to also mention that one extremely cool feature of capturing HD video on the Vixia is that you can lift good quality still photographs from the video during the editing process.  (Of course, you will need video-editing software for any film editing that you will want to do.  We use Final Cut Pro for Mac.)

We wish you the best of luck in your endeavors to preserve oral histories for your family and/or for posterity!  Na vse dobre!

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