Archival repositories are full of words and the vast majority of these words are written or printed but the spoken word came before the written word. The earliest communities handed down their memories by passing on stories to succeeding generations. However the development of the written word proved to be revolutionary in terms of how humans recorded history and also preserved memory. For the past few centuries history has tended to be recorded on paper. Oral History, however, seeks to return to the spoken word as a means of exploring the past.
On Thursday 13 May Dr Graham Smith of the Oral History Society and lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London visited Archive Services to hold a training day on oral history for our staff. It turned out to be an extremely informative and challenging event that explored important aspects of oral history – both practical and theoretical.
The practical aspects ranged from technical matters such as the best types of recording devices, digital file formats for storing the interviews, and the ideal sample rate, to less technical items such as the location and duration of the interview and even the best way to sit while interviewing. We also looked at the best questioning methods for helping to make the subject feel at ease quite quickly.
We were able to practise interviewing each other and quickly discovered how difficult it can be at times to share personal information or feelings and how vital it is to be prepared with the right types of questions! We listened to a number of examples from the BBC sound archive of interviews that quickly went very wrong with disastrous – and usually amusing – results.
Issues discussed touched on the question of whether the majority of historians are more comfortable with using written sources as evidence. Did this reflect, for example, an assumption by historians and archivists that written evidence is more reliable than someone’s memories? However is the aim of oral history not only to establish the concrete facts but also to cast light on a person’s subjectivity? Is it to show how perceptions – even where erroneous - can shape his or her behaviour? Oral history can thus sometimes reveal why people behaved in a certain way.
Another key feature of oral history is that it can give a voice to the type of ordinary person who is not normally recorded in our archival collections. For example almost all the lives captured in the letters, diaries or commonplace books are those of the privileged and educated. Oral testimonies of so-called ordinary people can therefore provide us with window of how life really was for the vast majority of people.
We also looked at the issue of transcribing the interviews. This is a very time consuming process, however it does make finding specific information in an interview much easier, especially if the transcription is in digital format. A word-processed transcription, for example, can be searched for any keyword that relates to a particular area of interest. On the other hand with a recording it may be necessary to listen to the recorded interview in its entirety. However there is then a danger that researchers begin to see the transcription rather than the recorded interview as the primary document. Another feature of transcriptions is that they can lose a lot of non-verbal information that might be integral to the understanding of what has been said – for example a tone of irony in someone’s voice can change the entire meaning of a statement.
Ethical challenges can also occur, the most obvious of these being when the interviewee says something that might have repercussions for a third party. This can be the revelation of sensitive personal information or else it might be comments – perhaps relating to class or gender or ethnicity - that others might find offensive. There can also be ethical issues relating to the way a person is interviewed. Were the questions leading? Was the interviewer putting some pressure on the interviewee to get them to reveal more than they wanted? Ultimately the interviewer’s questions are to facilitate and guide and to allow the interviewee to tell their story in their own words.
Oral testimonies are important items of historical information that complement the written record. Although oral history has its roots in antiquity it is only in recent decades that it has grown to become a recognised branch of historical research. People write and people speak – and while two different pictures can emerge from these areas the value is in the creation of a contextual history based on both.
All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring training session that increased our awareness and understanding of the field and also made us more determined to ensure that we as archivists play our part in ensuring that oral testimony is increasingly regarded as an important primary source.