Category Archives: Scholarly tech

Scholarly Tech: Transcription and Text Expansion Tools

A Graphophone, an improved version of Edison's first phonograph, which became the basis for the Dictaphone. The foot pedal provided power much like a sewing machine.
A Graphophone, an improved version of Edison’s first phonograph, which became the basis for the Dictaphone. The foot pedal provided power much like a sewing machine.

There often comes a time in a writer’s life when you have a need to transcribe an interview or other recording. It may be that you’re just trying to capture a brief, passing quote from a video, or you need a verbatim transcript of a 90-minute oral history interview for your book or doctoral dissertation. While there’s nothing wrong with quickly jotting down the former on the fly, accurately transcribing a lengthy interview can be a tedious and sometimes challenging task. If you can’t afford to farm the job out, there are software-hardware solutions which can be useful. In particular, I’m referring to transcription software used with a USB foot pedal and a text expander.

Today’s transcription technology dates back to the 1880s, when Alexander Graham Bell helped adapt Edison’s phonograph to create what became the Dictaphone. Eventually, in the pre-digital age, purpose-built transcription machines using microcassette tapes became standard, but have been superseded by desktop and laptop computers. For me, I use NCH’s Express Scribe Transcription Software (for PC and Mac) with a USB foot pedal; the program seems to have become the standard, in part, because it was free—they made money by selling foot pedals—and because it works so well. (It has keyboard/mouse controls, but a foot pedal seems essential for serious work.) It currently comes in free and premium versions, with their foot pedal being the only one that works with the free edition. In addition to sound recordings, it can also handle various video files.

Text or abbreviation software is another way to make the transcription process (as well as writing in general) easier, though some people find such programs annoying. Actually, most major word processing programs, such as MS Word and LibreOffice, have an autocorrect feature which can substitute words or phrases after an abbreviation is typed—e.g., “asap” can be made to expand to “as soon as possible.” These are especially valuable if you’re doing something like medical transcription, which involve lots of technical terms; they can also help in typing often-used words or phrases, including the character names in your novel or screenplay. If you find autocorrect lacking, there are standalone PC and Mac programs that will work as easily in your word processor as in your browser.

The first such program I used was the much beloved PRD+, which had a well-deserved cult following among medical transcribers, but which failed to make the transition from MS-DOS to Windows. I then gloomed onto Shorthand for Windows, which I used with great satisfaction for many years; while my wife still uses it without a problem, that was not my experience of late. I found a viable alternative in FastKeys (Windows), which is actually a collection of utilities, including an auto complete function much like that found on smartphone keyboards; however, I basically use it for text expansion. It’s free to try, registration is only $US9.99 and I found technical support to be excellent.

Though these and other abbreviation programs have a lot in common, there are some differences in how they operate. As such, I strongly recommend you try to take an extended test run before you buy, just to make sure you’re comfortable with it.

Scholarly Tech: OCR and Smartphones

Commercial Camera Company Photostat ad from the July 1, 1920 issue of American Machinist.
Commercial Camera Company Photostat ad from the July 1, 1920 issue of American Machinist.

Optical character recognition (OCR) is a little considered research tool that can prove both handy and valuable for students and scholars. This is especially so if you combine its abilities with the ubiquitous smartphone.

It wasn’t that long ago that scholars commonly resorted to taking index card notes in pencil when examining books that could not be checked out of a library or material found in an government archive. Some libraries had Photostat machines, which enabled one to “photocopy” material, until they were usurped by cheaper and more convenient electrostatic copiers from Xerox.

If you go to a special collections room at a college or university library today, the most common device researchers seem to use to copy material is the cameras in their smartphones and tablets. Compared to arranging to have Xerox copies made (the amount of which might be limited by library policy), the process is much simpler, more convenient, and certainly cheaper. (It is also environmentally more sustainable.) As such, researchers like me are able to gather greater amounts of material much more quickly.

This brings up the issue of what to do with all this new material? One way to handle this bounty is to use OCR software. Scaled-down OCR programs are usually included when you buy a multifunction printer-scanner. The quality of these programs is variable; so, if you want to do OCR on the cheap, I recommend you look for a scanner that bundles software from ABBYY. ABBYY seems to be the gold standard for OCR, having been used in scanning books from major libraries for Google Books. However, if you want to do it right, consider buying ABBY Fine Reader Professional 12 (Windows), which I use to handle all sorts of text documents, including those captured with my smartphone. (There are also corporate and Mac versions.) The latest version is especially valuable, as it is optimized to handle smartphone images. Once ABBYY has processed the images, it can then spit out a document in several formats, including Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat (pdf), from which you can then copy and paste the text you want.

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC (and other pdf programs) can also perform good quality OCR on photocopied material, though the initial conversion is to the Acrobat format; from there, they can further convert it to MS Word.