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Oral History Workshop

For those who missed the Oral History Workshop, our expert, Roger Kitchen from Living Archive has prepared this online guide. 

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The Four Golden Rules of Collecting Oral History

No.1….You only get what you ask forClick for more information...

Before setting off to interview anybody you need to prepare that list of questions. 'You only get what you ask for' - but what do you want to find out? 

This is where research comes in. You can go to an interview unprepared and 'wing' it, but you will get a lot more information if you have done some research and know some background to the subject you're researching. Research other historical sources, read local histories, but don't forget your own experiences. If you're interviewing someone about school experiences 80 years ago, remember that you went to school too and your experiences can help shape your enquiries.

Try to frame all your questions in an 'open' rather than 'closed' manner. Closed questions are like those that start with 'Did you…?' Open questions start with a W - what, when, where, why etc.? and also of course one H - how? Compare these two questions:

'Did you come here tonight on a bike?'
'How did you come here tonight?' 

The first invites a 'yes' or 'no' answer, the other calls for a more detailed explanation.

Your list of questions might have two parts to it. The first (if you think it necessary!) takes the interviewee through some crucial milestones in their life (e.g. 'Where were you born?' 'What was you father's occupation' etc). The second is related to particular details, milestones or events particularly related to your research topic.
Whatever you want to find out , when you start recording give your name and the date and then your first questions will always be:

1. What is your name? (if you lose all notes accompanying the tape people in the future will then know who is speaking)
2. When were you born? ( do not ask 'How old are you?'- because that can sometimes provoke a bashful response!)
3. Where do you live now? (so you know where to send a copy of the tape and a thank you letter afterwards)

It is so important to remember that your list of questions is not a questionnaire - indeed if you only ask the questions on your list during the course of the interview you will have done something very wrong - you will not have listened and reacted to what your interviewee says!

Give the list of questions to your interviewee before you turn up with the tape recorder. You can tell them about your project and explain why their memories are so important to you. It also give them a chance to think about the topics you want them to talk about and prepare themselves better.

No.2 …. Be interestedClick for more information...

The people who you will usually be interviewing are not famous media personalities who are used to being questioned about their lives. They may lack confidence in the value of the contribution they can make. They think their lives are unimportant and 'ordinary'. You will discover they are not, but in order to convince them you are genuinely interested you must demonstrate that you are really interested.

The best way to do this is by maintaining eye contact with them. When they turn to look at you during their conversation make sure you are not looking at the tape-recorder, your list of questions or your watch! I also advocate that you do not take notes during the interview for this reason. It's not easy to do this!

Other body language helps too. Nodding, facial expressions including smiles, surprise, concern etc. helps register interest.

A natural way to show interest is also to accompany their comments with a 'Yeh, yeh' or a 'mmmm' of agreement. Try and curb this inclination and give non-verbal encouragement because you are recording them on tape and this extra noise cutting across their voice makes editing a 'clean sound' of their responses impossible. For the same reason try and develop a silent laugh!

If you have successfully demonstrated that you are interested then interviewees will relax and lose their apprehension. They will then be really disappointed when you finish the interview. Think about it. How many of us would not enjoy the opportunity to talk without being interrupted to a willing audience about our life experiences (which up to then we thought nobody except ourselves was interested in) 

No.3 …. ListenClick for more information...

Listen and don't interrupt. Let people tell their story. This is probably the most difficult thing to do. There might be lots of interesting points that you want to follow up, but hold your curiosity until they have finished answering your question. 

" I joined the Army with old Bill Smith. Course, years later he had his leg bitten off by a shark, but….". Your instinct may be to jump in and cry, 'Leg bitten off by a shark? How did that happen?'. Curb your instinct, otherwise you may never hear the story you're really there to find out. Wait until the reply has been given and then ask by all means, 'I know this is nothing to do with our research today, but I'm fascinated, just how did Bill Smith get his leg bitten off by a shark?' After that reply you can revert back to your list of questions. 

If you listen you will pick up all sorts of clues from people's replies that will need following up. This is why if you only ask the questions on your list you'll have done something very wrong! Interviewees might use adjectives that need explanation - 'I was so angry?' Ask them why. They may not give full explanations - they may be talking about an incident at school, but they haven't said how old they are and which school they were at. Listen and then follow up.

Listening is not easy, especially if you are not taking notes and you're giving the eye contact and body language encouragement that interviewees need. One of their replies might provoke 2 or three questions and the replies to each follow up might provoke more….It takes a good deal of concentration and sometimes you may forget to follow up everything. Don't worry. You can always go back and ask more questions on another day!

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Use your questions only as a guide, not as a strict questionnaire. Don't sit there slavishly looking at the questions - it can distract you from the eye contact you need to be making. After the first interview, you'll probably remember the next topic anyway: if you don't then say so - 'Now what else did I want to find out?' - refer to your list and then look up and ask the next question, rather than have your head buried in the list of questions. 

Don't forget again that this is an interview, not a conversation. You're there to gather your interviewee's story, not for them to hear yours. The time to start the conversation is at the end of the interview, when the tape recorder is turned off!

No. 4 …. RespectClick for more information...

It's very easy when you have researched a topic in some depth and you listen to more and more people tell their stories about that topic to forget that you don't know it all! It's very easy when interviewing 'ordinary' Bill Smith to stop listening and start judging - 'He's wrong there' 'That can't be right because two other people told me differently'….The one thing that collecting oral reminiscence teaches you is that history is not black and white, it is innumerable shades of grey.

Don't forget why you are interviewing Bill Smith. He was an eye witness to the topic you are researching. He will have his own particular memories of that topic. Of course some people's memories are more vivid than others, of course the passage of time does sometimes mean that people will make mistakes, but you should always conduct an interview demonstrating to the interviewee that you have respect for them and their memories.

Many interviewees will be nervous about being interviewed. They are not famous and nobody up till now has ever said that their memories are important. They may be worried that they haven't got enough to tell you. If you do not show you are interested, if you don't show you have respect then they may well lose confidence. 

You can help them in 3 main ways:
1. Retain an innocence. Normally your age, or gender will help here. When they use phrases such as 'you know …' as a shorthand as in 'Well, you know what it's like to have the cane', they haven't actually told us anything!. You may well know what it's like to have the came, but you need to feign innocence and say, 'No, I don't know. What is it like to be caned?'. Without using that approach you can lose so much detail. It is of course very difficult to use this approach with someone who knows you have shared the same experience. In this case you might try, 'Yes I do know, but the person listening to this tape in the future probably won't, so can you describe what it was like?.
2. Hide your knowledge. As you do more and more research you will get more knowledge. There is a temptation to demonstrate this to your interviewee. They may then wonder just why you have bothered to come and ask for their memories, or they will pepper their replies with lots of 'you knows', with the consequent loss of detail.
3. Use your knowledge. In your research you might well have found out information that you'd like your interviewee to comment on. Rather than boast about this research 'I read that…' - retain that innocence by framing your questions with a 'Somebody told me that….' and then invite them for their comments.

Six Tips for Getting a Good Sound

When you are interviewing someone you could just take notes. By using a tape recorder you can collect everything they say verbatim. You can also capture rapidly disappearing local accents. For just a little extra effort you can make audio recordings of a high quality. Without being too morbid, think of yourself as an archaeologist rescuing precious artefacts. You maybe have just one opportunity to capture this vital evidence, so do it in the best way you can.

No.1 …. A good microphoneClick for more information...

Get hold of as good a tape recorder as you can to make your interview but, most important of all, invest in a tie clip microphone so that you do not have to use the built in microphone. A microphone is unlike the human ear, it does not filter sound, but picks up the sound nearest to it. The nearest sound to a built in microphone is the sound of the tape-recorder's motor, hence the noisy quality of that type of recording

No.2 …. Move it closerClick for more information...

Place the tie clip microphone ( or any other type of microphone you use) about 6 - 9 inches away from your interviewee's mouth. Leaving a microphone on a table between you can make for poor recordings.

No.3 …. Background noisesClick for more information...

Be aware of the noises around you. Turn off radios, TVs and record players. Get rid of the budgie and don't sit the person next to an open window overlooking the motorway. A well-furnished room with carpet, furnishings and books to deaden the sound is an ideal environment.

No.4 …. Recording Level

Many tape recorders have an Automatic Record Level. If you have to set the level manually, make sure that you have a good strong signal take peaks on the edge of the red if your recorder has a VU meter. Too low a level of recording (on a cassette tape) and you'll have a lot of 'hiss' on the recording. Too high a level and you'll have distortion.

No.5 …. Decent mediaClick for more information...

If you are recording on cassette, buy branded names, rather than 10 for a £1 off the local market. You can use 'normal' tapes for recording voice, there's no need for metal etc. 

No.6 …. Practice makes perfectClick for more information...

Practise with your tape recording equipment so that when you arrive to do your recording you are confident that everything works and you know how to use it. If you are forever checking the equipment during the recording this can affect your concentration on the interview itself. Look on the tape recorder as a notebook. If you were using a conventional notebook you'd make sure you had paper, a writing implement and knew how to write before you went to record any interview!

Five Tips for Conducting an Interview

No.1. …. Finding people to interviewClick for more information...

You can place adverts in the local paper, you can make personal approaches to people, but if you are not known to people a very good idea is to use a third person to ask someone on your behalf. This trusted person can then vouch for your genuineness.

No.2. …. Make contact before the interview properClick for more information...

Go and see your interviewee with your list of questions to explain what you're doing and to give them time to prepare themselves before their interview. They may well tell you some great stories and you'll curse that you haven't got the tape recorder with you. Don't worry we all tell stories and you'll be able to get them to tell the stories again when you return with the tape recorder later.

No.3. …. Check your equipment before you goClick for more information...

See Recording Tip No.5. Check batteries. Make sure you have more than enough tapes or mini discs. Practise so you are confident about using the equipment.

No.4. …. Getting goingClick for more information...

Make sure the interview is in a comfortable seat. Listen to check background noises. Rig up your tape recorder. Fix up the microphone. Check your sound levels, lift the pause button and away you go. Don't forget your first questions, 'What is your name' etc. 
Don't rush it! Remember to listen and ask follow up questions. Use your list of questions as a guide, not as questionnaire to be slavishly followed.

No.5. …. FinishingClick for more information...

When the interview is over, stop the recorder and then rewind a little way and listen to a few seconds to check that the recording has been made. Don't play back great chunks to your interviewee - they've often never heard their voice on a recording and they can be surprised and embarrassed. They'll have plenty of time to hear the full recording when you send a copy of the tape later.

Take the tape out and remove the plastic tabs on the side so that it cannot be accidentally recorded over. In the case of a mini disc move the tab to prevent re-recording. Label the recording with the name and address of the interviewee, the date and your own name as interviewer.

Don't run away, but thank the interviewee and accept their almost inevitable offer of a cup of tea. Check that it will be all right to come back if, after listening to the tape, you think of other things to ask. Ask if there are other people who they think might be able to help you with memories - you can then approach them with the words 'So and So thought you might be able to help me…'

Explain that you will send them a copy of the recording and a Deposit Instructions and Copyright form which will ensure that their contribution is added to the archive in a manner that they are happy with.

What Next...

Contact the coordinatorJoe Thompson (01379) 646046; joe@22villages.org to book the equipment (minidisc system, microphones etc) and decide who you wish to interview.