Transcribing audio and video archive material

Barnsley Archives hold records relating to all aspects of life in the Borough of Barnsley and its collections include newspapers, books, sound and film. This project sought to engage and upskill remote digital volunteers to help Barnsley Archives and Local Studies interpret, digitally transcribe and publicly share recently acquired sound and film collections.

Young woman with red hair holding green headphones
Photo by Letícia Pelissari on Unsplash

Transcribing audio and video archive material

This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.

1. Project background

Our target was to engage 12 remote digital volunteers from anywhere in the world. They needed a minimum level of digital skills — able to use Microsoft Word, emails, carry out basic web search, and using Zoom platform — but previous knowledge of heritage and archives was not essential.

We engaged 23 volunteers, mostly from the Barnsley area with the furthest geographical volunteer based in New York, USA.

The age of volunteers spanned 18 to 74 and ranged from retirees to people looking for work. Most had no previous experience of heritage and archival work, but had a keen interest in Barnsley history.

Motivations for volunteers to take part included:

  • giving something back to their community and finding out more about the town they live in (this was the majority of volunteers)
  • gaining employability skills
  • supporting heritage-related education (one volunteer used his volunteering to support Records Management at Masters level).


The sound and film collections were digitally converted from unusable formats such as cassette tapes, reel tapes and cinefilms, which volunteers and ourselves had no equipment to play them, and the converted digital material was uploaded to cloud storage so that links could be sent to volunteers to access.

Internal stakeholders involved in the project

  • Freelance heritage professional with experience of managing volunteers and working with sound and film collections.
  • Volunteer Manager responsible for recruitment of new volunteers.
  • Archivist provided specialist knowledge and access to the collection.
  • Digital Curator to upload sound and film clips and make them accessible to volunteers.


2. Recruitment

Recruitment information was shared with professional networks including Social History Curators’ Group, Museum Detox, Museum Development Yorkshire newsletter and Barnsley CVS. We also utilised free advertisement on the University of Leicester’s Job Desk and Barnsley Museums’ social media platforms. We sent emails via staff’s personal networks and also ‘word of mouth’ through our existing volunteers.


3. Volunteer support

We conducted a self-reflective survey at the project outset to understand how volunteers felt about the project, for example, what they would like to get out of it and to rate their current level of digital skills. Using this information, we tailored support required for each volunteer and disseminated transcribing work accordingly. In addition we provided:

  • Online induction training sessions
  • Monthly informal one-to-ones coffee chats on Zoom were offered as a way to receive feedback and comments as well as clarify any queries.
  • Monthly online presentations/conversations by various external organisations working in the heritage sector to offer different perspectives. E.g. National Fairground and Circus Archives showcasing their unique collection. This was to demonstrate that archival collections and digital volunteering can exist in a variety of contexts.
  • Monthly newsletter provided project updates and relevant resources sent via emails.
  • Christmas event organised as a token of appreciation and to show behind the scenes
  • Ongoing email support for those not requiring informal Zoom coffee chats


4. Digital technology and tools

Types of technology remote digital volunteers used throughout the project:

  • Transcribed oral history clips, some using Express Scribe transcribing software.
  • Contributed towards our podcast using their own home/phone voice recorder to share their thoughts about the project and volunteering work they have been doing. These are uploaded onto Barnsley Museum’s Podcast webpage on Podfollow.
  • Undertaken research on a film clip at the archive using archival equipment (Barnsley Archives for searching Barnsley Chronicle newspaper
  • Created blog content uploaded onto the Barnsley Museum’s website
  • Attended training session with external trainers through Zoom including training with VocalEyes on film audio description
  • Communicated with the project team by email and Zoom
  • Blog and podcast – using Podfollow platform and internal content management system.


  • Licence fee for each Express Scribe software (professional version) – c.£70
  • Zoom licence fee – £360
  • External training with VocalEyes on film audio description – £1,170
  • Blog and podcast – using podfollow platform and internal content management system. Free.


5. Project Stages

1. Staff recruitment
Recruitment of freelance heritage professional.
Project team set up with clear division of responsibilities and targets.

2. Conversion of material
Material digitally converted from unusable formats (cassette tapes, reel tapes and cinefilms which volunteers and ourselves have no equipment to play them)
Digital material uploaded to cloud storage so links could be sent for volunteers access.

3. Digital Volunteer recruitment and training
Recruitment of digital volunteers via networks and existing volunteers.
Online induction training sessions delivered.
Development of monthly programme with external speakers to provide sector-specific insights to volunteers.

4. Digital Volunteer management
One to ones, Zoom and email support as well as monthly newsletter being sent out.

5. Evaluation and development of Guidance and Policy
Project evaluation with all volunteers via Zoom and email.
Organisational evaluation, including assessment of remote volunteering, and update of organisational volunteer handbook to reflect learning.

6. Celebrate!
Thanking volunteers for involvement and sharing project successes.


6. Key learnings

Fixed output, flexible process

Adapt training and resources to meet individual remote volunteer’s needs and requirements. Some volunteers struggled to use transcribing software. Some volunteers need more technical support and encouragement. While all volunteers produced the same outputs, we enabled volunteers to work at their own pace.

Transcribing is a long and challenging process

Each sound clip can differ in quality, and it is not always simple to transcribe. Provide clear guidance on how to transcribe at the project outset and conduct regular check-ins to motivate and reinforce participants.

Managing remote volunteers can be as time-consuming as managing in-person volunteers

Ensure you build regular opportunities for volunteer communication into your plan. Review organisational policies and resources that specifically support remote volunteers. Our volunteer handbook is being redesigned to support ongoing remote volunteering, and we will share best practice/requirements with all staff.

Remote volunteering is still rewarding and meaningful

Just because they work independently and from afar, it doesn’t mean remote volunteering isn’t fulfilling and meaningful. Our volunteers fed back the project had been enjoyable and improved their sense of wellbeing (and connection to the place they live).


7. Key challenges

Volunteers will drop out

Expect and accept that remote volunteers will come and go often without warning. It is the nature of volunteering and not necessarily a reflection on your project. Ongoing volunteer recruitment should be planned every few months based on what you can manage. Set up a standard ‘introduction to project’ template and/or online recorded training resource for ease and edit when necessary.

Transcribing work takes a variable amount of time

It can take a longer amount of time if the original audio is unintelligible, volunteers require more support or it is not 100% accurately completed. Staff should plan in proofreading time as part of the project.

Automated transcription software vs manual transcription

Volunteers often stated that they preferred manually transcribing because the automated software did not work well with regional dialects and poor sound quality. Don’t be surprised if volunteers just want to do it themselves.


8. Useful links

YouTube Resources


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Published: 2023

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Transcribing audio and video archive material (2023) by Barnsley Museums and Archives supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


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