What is oral history?
The recording of people’s memories for posterity, now well established in community history gathering and archiving circles.
Unlike written sources, oral history can
- Bring out the ‘hidden histories and secret stories’ of individuals and communities
- Challenge perceived wisdom and previous assumptions
- Even help with social cohesion
It can do this because it is an interactive process. The interviewer is able to ask questions designed to get a response and can delve deeper. One can challenge statements, deflect slander and follow up interviews later to glean more information, in a measured and considered way. This leaves the possibility of discovering new and very interesting things about a person, family and community which might not have been found in any other way.
It is important to be inclusive
Projects should engage all social classes; young people as well as the old, long term and shorter term residents, and those on the periphery of communities whom, nonetheless, will have been affected by the actions and events from within them.
It is important to gather the views and opinions of people, as well as their memories, because oral history is about perceptions as well as plain facts. It allows communities to reflect on where they live, gives them a better sense of place and gives them back their own history.
Historians must research all the different sources, however they may be recorded. They should not discount oral sources because they are the result of looking back on events in the distant past. Despite memory being selective and a mixture of facts and opinions, it is just as trustworthy as one person’s written account of an event made at the time or soon after. Oral history allows the ‘other person’s’ view to be taken into account, as well as those ‘designated’ to record history.
Nostalgia or Scholarship?
Are you aiming for critical community history or a parochial celebration? Nostalgia paints a certain picture of the past, even when it involves poverty and wars, but it is not the whole story.
Oral history should bring out everything, warts and all, if it is to be of any real use to historians.
This can be problematical:
- Tensions can arise between ‘incomers’ to a community and long term residents, creating arguments about what sort of approach to take
- The challenge is to share the authority conferred on community historians by engaging the wider community as much as possible in the making of their own history
- It can be a slow, painful process of reflection, discussion and negotiation of roles and responsibilities, of processes and products
but scholarship will be the winner over nostalgia as a result.
Politics of memory
Collective remembering determines the identity of a community, so shared experiences and allegiances are important. Some interviewees’ feel more comfortable attaching their personal memories to the ‘official line’. Others have been waiting for the chance to tell their version.
Life Story approach
Our knowledge of a whole life adds important context to historical information, helping us to understand better what is being conveyed. The particular standpoint of an interviewee, affected and informed by their life experience, is crucial to this process. Recordings that stop at a point in the past, ignoring what has happened to the interviewee since then, miss the opportunity to investigate how they feel about things nowadays and what the future holds for their community from their point of view. This is why young people may be included in oral history projects as interviewees as well as interviewers. The rapid pace of social change makes their perspective, however brief in historical terms, an interesting and valid one for community historians to consider.
Preserving more than written transcripts
There used to be a general belief that written history is better than oral history. Today, we live in an increasingly audio-visual world: media literacy is important, enabling us to better understand the world around us through words, images and sounds. Younger people are quite prepared to listen and watch recordings, as well as to read transcripts, which only tell us part of the story. Listening to an elder talking with a rich accent, using dialect and expressions like ‘this is going west’ enables us to glimpse a disappearing world and the voice contains rich information of its own
Video adds a new dimension to oral history via expressive gestures, faces, and by introducing the ability for interviewees to show and react to objects and photographs, demonstrate skills and so on. Group discussions can make more sense if we can see who is speaking and how people react to others, for example.
Preparing for interviews
- Don’t record people reading from prepared notes: this is not oral history
- Interview one person at a time for best results, if possible.
- Choice of location for recording: people usually prefer their own home or room, where they feel more relaxed and will give better information
- Remember to look after yourself: Don’t put yourself in danger.
- Create audio labels at the start of recordings, containing details of interviewees’ names, dates, place and project (but don’t do it in front of them). This tests equipment and offsets loss of physical labels
- Consider using a 'Life Story' approach to provide context and to be re-usable for different topics
- Develop key questions, based upon prior research and knowledge, to give structure to an interview but do not reveal them to interviewees.
- Preliminary interviews prior to recording – keep brief
- Minimise obtrusive noises: keep pets, chiming clocks quiet!
- Use memory ‘triggers’ like photos, but always describe them for the listener
- There is no ‘one way’ to interview people. Put yourself in the place of the listener to the recording and imagine what you would like to hear
- One-sided conversations are better than the usual two-sided ones: remember to listen; spontaneity is what you are after.
- Try to be sympathetic, empathetic and diplomatic throughout and don’t impose your views; although challenging a statement is acceptable
- Maintain eye contact as much as possible and talk as little as possible: smile and nod to show that you are listening
- Allow interviewees to express grief and anguish, but also allow them to decide whether to continue with the recording or not; it can be therapeutic
- Ask objective, open-ended questions one at a time, waiting for full answers before continuing; do not be inquisitorial or ask leading questions
- Allow interviewees time to think before butting in.
- Make notes during the interview to ask supplementary and follow-up questions later; do not interrupt.
- The nearer the interviewee’s mouth the better
- Avoid cable being touched
- If you speak up, only one microphone is needed.
After the interview
- Always get consent forms signed (see copyright section below), and obtain the written consent of parents or guardians for children
- Keep the recording safe
- Label but do not edit it
- Make copies for other purposes as soon as possible
- Offer a free copy to the interviewee
Wessex Film and Sound Archive will preserve recordings on behalf of interviewees and communities, provide a free copy (extra ones at a small charge) to the depositor, and make available on site research copies for its users (copyright permitting) assisted by catalogue details.
Warning: Using cheap, unsuitable equipment only produces recordings which are difficult to listen to and transcribe effectively. Computer software will not compensate for this later.
- The equipment used is crucial to the outcome of any oral history project.
- Funding agencies (like the Heritage Lottery Fund) expect you to use good quality equipment and to include it in your overall budget, along with training in its use.
- Wessex Film and Sound Archive will lend basic audio cassette recording equipment free of charge to a project for six months. Better quality recorders and microphones should be used by community historians if possible.
- A microphone should always be separate from the recorder, not an integral part
- Always record to the highest quality allowed by the recorder and microphone. For example, do not record to MP3 quality if PCM is available, even if that means you get less duration.
- Lower quality copies can be made later for listening purposes, allowing the original higher quality original to be preserved for posterity.
- Use one recording medium – cassette, disc or card – per session; do not compile (if you lose it, then only one session will be lost in the process).
The use of video for oral history
Domestic digital video camcorders are available for the same price as a good quality digital audio recorder, and can record in High Definition too. The added dimension provided for oral history recording has encouraged greater use of this equipment. Some tips:
- It is much easier to use two people than a single interviewer. This is because the skills of camera use, including knowledge of lighting and microphone technique, are separate to those of interviewing
- Interviewees are best recorded against a plain background and never in front of a window
- Decide whether you want the interviewee to look directly at you (the viewer) on the recording, or to one side, and position the interviewer accordingly. Interviewees tend to look at the interviewer during recording.
- Always use a tripod, for image stability
- Use the camera’s zoom function to take in movements, rather than move the camera itself around
- There are two copyrights in oral history recordings: one in the recording itself, the other in the words on the recordings.
- The former is owned by the person making the recording or their organisation/project
- The latter is owned by the interviewee and their heirs
- At present, duration of either copyright is 50 years from the end of the year in which the person died
- Poetry, music and other works (which may form part of an oral history recording) hold separate copyrights of their own and must be cleared with the owner before copying for display or publication
If a community wishes to benefit in any way from oral history at or near to the time in which the recordings were made, a consent form must be signed by both parties. This can take the form of
- A blanket consent for all possible uses of a recording
- a helpful list to which a person can agree or not, with a further section allowing them to stipulate whether particular sections of a recording are not to be made public until after their death, for example.
Interviewees also have Moral Rights in their words. This means that:
- They cannot be misused in any way
- The speaker should be acknowledged at all times, particularly in publications and displays, unless they wish to remain anonymous.
The Data Protection Act 1998 requires that their personal details are not given to a third party without permission, nor made public, for example on a database.
More details and practical advice
'Oral History Guidelines' booklet available for £2 + postage from the Hampshire Archives and Local Studies Service reception.