old cottage with people outside

Oral history

Oral history offers us a unique and special way of bringing history to life because it allows the stories of ordinary people to be told in their own words. Speaking to people about their lives adds a new dimension to our local and family history research and lets us record events, places, emotions, attitudes and ways of life that are rarely preserved in written sources or the archaeological record.

Oral history recordings can make exhibitions and displays more exciting or they can be presented on a website. The process of making these recordings is an interesting and enjoyable way of bringing people of different ages and backgrounds together.

Oral history projects: ideas and inspiration

Oral history projects tend to fall into two camps: some concentrate on recording people’s whole ‘life stories’, whilst others collect information about particular subjects. For most SRP projects, this subject-based approach is likely to be best – where you use your interviews to build pictures of what rural life is like in your area, how people interact with their landscape, and how it has changed through time.

An excellent way to get ideas for your own oral history project is to find out what other local groups are up to. Many oral history projects have their own website with information about what they are doing and audio clips that you can listen to. The following websites will give you a flavour of the imaginative ways in which oral history can be used.

Ambleside Oral History Archive
Interviews covering all subjects relating to life in Ambleside, beginning with memories from the 1880’s. Topics covered include domestic service, farming and country life, hiring fairs, hunting and life in the Big House.

Dartmoor National Park"Moor Memories" oral history project
Stories of everyday life on Dartmoor from the people who live and work on the moor and who have contributed to the way it is today. You can hear samples of people’s stories on-line, including reminiscences about harvest time, catching rabbits and making butter.

Exmoor Oral History Archive
Interviews giving a unique insight into life on Exmoor during the 20th century.

Formartine Partnership Oral History Project
Groups in rural Aberdeenshire (Belhelvie, Ellon, Turrif, Fyvie and Udny) are interviewing local people about their changing ways of life.

Living Memory Association
An Edinburgh-based group that brings people together through the sharing and recording of their memories. Encourages young and old to exchange information and provides training for participants.

North East Folklore Archive
Focus on the rich musical and folklore traditions of North East Scotland’s farming and fishing communities. The archive includes recorded interviews, photographs, diaries, manuscripts, songs and tunes. Some sound clips are available on-line.

Mountain Voices
Oral history of people who live in mountainous regions around the world – an imaginative and very engaging website with a truly international theme.

Planning your own oral history project

A questionnaire is a good starting point for all oral history projects as this allows you to focus on what information you want to gather and will give your interviews some structure.

If you are interviewing people on specific subjects it is a good idea to gain as much knowledge about your chosen subjects as possible before compiling your questionnaire. In this way, your questions will be much more meaningful to your interviewers and this should help you build a better rapport during the interview.

The order that you set your questions is important:

Begin with general questions to gently launch both you and your interviewee into the task in hand.

Follow these up with more specific questions covering the topics you are especially interested in.

Also, think about how you pose your questions:

Questions that begin with ‘Tell me about …’ will encourage people to start talking about a subject and should provide you with opportunities to prompt them further where you wish to tease out more information or specific details.

Try to avoid using leading questions (I expect that …), or questions that require a single word answer (Did you enjoy this…).

It is a good idea to prepare your interviewees by giving them a copy of your questionnaire a week or so before their interview. This will give people an opportunity to think about what they want to say and gives you a better chance of recording more detailed testimonies.

The best place to conduct interviews is normally in people’s own homes, where they feel comfortable and relaxed. If your interviewee is elderly, it may be helpful to have a family member present to help get you get set up, to jog memories and help with any difficulties that may arise.

Don’t worry if you don’t manage to get through all of the questions on your questionnaire – if you strike up a good rapport with your interviewee you will find that your conversation will balance out with other useful information. The purpose of your questionnaire is to act as a guide: it shouldn’t prevent you from exploring other relevant topics that crop up during the interview.

However, if an interview is in danger of drifting too far off your subject area, do not be scared to steer it back on track – it is your job to manage the interview and your questionnaire will help you to do so.

Recording equipment: what will you need?

Selecting the correct recording equipment for your interviews is an important job. However, don’t feel that you have to spend a lot of money on this: the best rule of thumb is to choose something that is tried and tested and to avoid any new-fangled equipment that doesn’t have a proven track record.

The most important things to consider are:

Ease of use
It is vital that you know how to use your recording equipment - if not, whole interviews can easily be lost. For this reason, keep things as simple as possible and that way, less can go wrong!

Portability
You will be interviewing people in their own homes, so your recording equipment should be as light and compact as possible.

Reliability
Some manufacturers have a better reputation than others - sales assistants should be able to advise you further.

Sound quality
This is very obvious, but vital. You want your interview recordings to be clear and easy to listen to - if they have lots of hissing and crackling people will find them difficult to listen to and will be less likely to make use of them in the future.

The Oral History Society recommends the use of minidisk recorders, which are light and portable and create very good quality sound recordings. However, they also advise that recordings made using a minidisk recorder are transferred to CDs (specifically, gold CD-R) to ensure that they remain accessible in the long term (minidisk recordings will only last for 5-10 years): 

Tape recorders and cassettes can also still be used. However, do bear in mind that they are being phased out by manufacturers and are likely to become obsolete in the short-medium term. If you do decide to use them you should copy your recordings onto CDs, as described above.

Post-interview tasks: archiving, summarising and transcribing

Once you have completed an interview, it is a good idea to make copies of your recording and prepare a written summary or transcription of its contents.

Archiving
Your interviews will become a useful resource for researchers now and in the future, so you must do all that you can to ensure their long-term preservation and accessibility. The best thing to do is to make at least two copies of each interview, reserving one as your master copy and making the other (or others) available to researchers.

You should also consider what you wish to do with your recordings in the long term. Temperature and humidity affect the stability of sound recordings and it may be a good idea to deposit your collection in an archive where it can be stored in a stable environment. A list of archives that collect sound recordings is given at the end of this document.

By depositing your collection in an archive and/or web-mounting your interviews, they will also become available to a wide audience.

Interview summaries
An interview summary will help researchers to decide whether they wish to listen to a whole interview or not. It should ideally be both concise and comprehensive at the same time. The following information is ideal:

Interviewee’s name, with some brief biographical details (date of birth, occupation and background)

Interviewer’s name

Date and place where the interview was recorded

A note of the main topics discussed

Interview transcriptions
A transcription is a written version of everything that is said in a recorded interview. This takes longer to do than an interview summary, but can be very useful because it gives researchers access to all of the information contained in your interview without having to listen to it. This is especially helpful for researchers who are far away and is also beneficial from a preservation point of view because it reduces wear and tear on recordings.

Not all oral historians like to prepare transcriptions because they feel that oral histories should be listened to, not read. Transcribing dialect and accents can also create problems because there may not be written conventions for particular words or ways of saying things. You can decide whether you wish to make full transcriptions or not, but you should always prepare interview summaries for all of your interviews.

Legal complicance: consent forms and copyright

Oral history is fun and interesting, but as it involves gathering information about people, there are some legal guidelines that we must observe.

It is important that everyone who participates in your oral history project understands what you wish to do with their recordings and how they may be used in the future. Although the people you interview may give their permission to be recorded, to comply with copyright law, you must obtain their ‘informed consent’ before using the recorded material in displays, publications or on websites.

The best way to do this is to ask each interviewee to sign a copyright clearance form, listing the different ways that their interview may be used. Some people may wish their interview to remain anonymous or to apply a time restriction before the recording becomes available to the wider public. These options can also be added to the form.

A sample clearance form is provided here as a template for use on your own project. The easiest way to manage the process is to ensure clearance forms are filled in and signed at the end of each interview. This also avoids confusion or complications in the future.

Finding out more: oral history ‘tool kits’

Free oral history ‘tool kits’ are also available on-line, which contain lots of useful information and guidance on setting up oral history projects. Many of the points mentioned above are discussed in more detail here:

North East Oral History Network

Oral History Society

Oral history training courses

Before starting off, you may find it helpful to attend a training course, where you can get first hand advice from experts and talk to other people who are interested in starting up new projects.

Heritage Skills UK
Regular one-day training courses on oral history are available free of charge to heritage groups in the Highlands and Islands. All costs, including travel and subsistence will be covered. See www.heritage-skills.co.uk or telephone 01463 715225.

The British Library and the Oral History Society
One-day training courses on oral history are held at venues across England, Wales and Scotland (normally, only one course is held in Scotland each year). Courses cost £70, with a £10 discount for members of the Oral History Society and concessionary rates for students, retired and unwaged people. Places are limited to twelve per day course and demand is high – early bookings are advised. See www.ohs.org.uk/training/

The Scottish Museums Council
Oral history training courses are offered at a cost of £90 to non-members (dropping to £35 if you are a volunteer at an SMC registered museum). Call 0131 550 4100 or check the SMC’s on-line training schedule for more details www.scottishmuseums.org.uk

Further advice

These sites contain more information and contact details that you may find helpful.

Aberdeen and Region Oral History Group
Forum for oral history groups in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, providing advice, networking and training opportunities.

North East Oral History Network/Oral history North East
A forum for oral history projects in North East England, providing support, training and networking opportunities for local groups. It has lots of very useful information, including an on-line ‘toolkit.’ This is a good site to bookmark if you are interested in oral history.

Oral History Society (UK)
Information on just about every aspect of oral history recording and archiving, including helpful advice on standards, guidelines, planning and carrying out oral history projects. This is another site to bookmark.

National collections

The following organisations hold national collections of oral history recordings and accept donations and deposits from individuals and groups. Your local archive, library or museum may also hold sound recordings and/or be interested in accepting your recordings – you will find contact details here.

British Library Sound Archive
The national centre for oral history in Britain, the British Library looks after a vast collection of interviews generated by its own programme of life story recording as well as interviews recorded and deposited by local groups across Britain. It provides advice and training in oral history methods and runs regular training courses in association with the Oral History Society. Its website provides links to oral history organisations in Britain and abroad.

Scotland on Film (BBC)
Not strictly, a national collection and unlikely to want copies of your own recordings, but this is a very good site, hosting a digital library from the BBC Scotland Scotland on Film series, which includes vintage film and radio clips on rural life during the 20th century.

School of Scottish Studies Sound Archive
The School of Scottish Studies has been involved in oral history recording for over fifty years and has gathered a large archive of interviews with people all over Scotland. The collection includes recordings from the School's own fieldwork collections, place-names surveys, Gaelic and Scots linguistic surveys, and recordings from oral history groups throughout Scotland. Samples of recordings and transcripts can be accessed here.

Books

There are very few printed books on oral history to choose from – especially compared to the volume and quality of information available on-line. However, if you do not have access to the internet, you may find these books useful:

Stephen Caunce, Oral History and the Local Historian (London; New York: Longman, 1994)

David Marcombe, Sounding Boards: Oral Testimony and the Local Historian (University of Nottingham: 1995)

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