Oral History

Planning Oral History Projects

One of the opportunities presented to us by resilience funding was to build the capacity in the Community Engagement team to design and conduct oral history projects. Oral history struck us as an excellent way to engage people with their past, to get them talking and thinking about how they relate to their past and their surroundings.

Our first stop was the Oral History Society, whose website is an excellent resource for anyone interested in getting started with oral history or even learning more about what it is, how it works and how to do it. A group of staff and volunteers attended training delivered by the OHS which gave us the basic skills and techniques that were necessary to begin designing and conducting a project. This workshop and the supplemental materials and help that the OHS gave us was invaluable as we were starting out doing Oral History.

First Steps

We had two ideas for projects we wanted to do. The first was an oral history of the floods that affected York in 2015, an important event that we believed would present an interesting but relatively small-scale and self-contained project that would be a perfect pilot project for us. The second, more ambitious project was an oral history of the Coppergate excavations. These ideas gave us a focus, but before we could begin interviewing, we needed to think systematically about how we would conduct them.

Before we began thinking about gathering data, it was important for us to think about what we would do with the material we generated. By doing oral history we are creating unique historical documents, and as the preservation of heritage and history is at the centre of what we do as an organisation, a robust process for the safekeeping of the material we generated was one of the first things we thought about.

We put together a workflow which in the course of our first project developed into an Oral History Archive procedure. This procedure needed to sit alongside our other archive procedures, and meet several practical needs.

Firstly, it needed to be realistic. Procedures for archiving needed to be achievable within the resources we had available to conduct our projects, and when we identified potential pitfalls we devised solutions which we had the technical knowledge within our team to implement. Speed was also a factor, for instance in the choice to summarise to a template rather than to transcribe, so that material could be processed and archived in a timely manner.

Secondly, it needed to be understood by our team so that we could work to it. We could have used other formats to produce this, for instance flowcharts or workflow diagrams but we settled on a clearly stated set of procedures to convey the process to the team who would be working on the projects.

Finally, as we planned from the start to do multiple projects we attempted to design the procedure to be generic, able to be applied to any project, but also comprehensive. We broke down in detail step by step how we would do our projects in a way that treated the material we gathered in a respectful and responsible manner.

We took seriously our responsibility to keep our oral history legally and ethically sound. Fortunately there are excellent resources on the Oral History Society site which break down the relevant legal concerns in easy to understand language. Taking this advice we drafted a generic Oral History Copyright Release Form that was hopefully easy to explain to our participants, allowed them the opportunity to place any restrictions they wished to on their contributions and allowed us to accession their interviews in a way which was transparent and which our participants felt comfortable with.

Once we had the framework in place with these policies to gather data responsibly, we evaluated them to make sure they fit with the advice we have received from the Oral History Society. We continue to evaluate these policies to reflect points which occur to us as we conduct our projects, and update them accordingly.

Project Planning and Promotion

Once we had in place a framework for how we would gather the data, we began to plan our first project. We began with thinking about why we were doing the project; what questions we were aiming to explore and identifying who we were hoping would participate in the project. As part of this, we researched the topics that we would be examining. For Waterproof Memories this research phase involved looking at similar projects such as the Northern Colorado Flood Oral History and looking at press coverage and governmental publications on the 2015 floods. For our Coppergate Memories project, this involved research in our own archive to construct a timeline of the excavation, and who was involved.

Here is an example project plan that we are currently working from for our Coppergate Memories project. In this plan we first drew up a mission statement of why we were doing the project, then identified the key themes we wanted to explore. From here, we were able to think about the research questions that would inform the questions we asked of our interviewees. Finally, we thought about potential outcomes of the project, and put together a realistic timescale.

From this plan, we drew up two more detailed documents. Firstly we drew up an Information Sheet for interviewees which explains to potential interviewees why we are doing the project, what we will ask them, how an interview works and what will be done with their contribution.

Secondly we drew up an initial Question Sheet with a list of suggested questions for participants, and a loose structure for interviews. We found while conducting Waterproof Memories that it was useful to periodically go back to the Question Sheet and revise it to reflect common themes that were coming up in interviews that we hadn’t expected. Once we had these documents and processes in place, we were ready to begin our project.

We then had to think about who we wanted to approach and how we would promote and recruit from these groups. For our Waterproof Memories project, one of the initial groups we approached was our own staff, to get their memories of the flooding of the JORVIK Viking Centre. We then wanted to promote the project in the wider York community, and started to think about the various channels we were going to publicise the project through.

With our marketing team, we created posters and leaflets to raise awareness of the project, and circulated a press release to raise awareness of the projects. We also used social media and attended community events to talk about the project, why we were doing it. These all resulted in some response, but our most fruitful method of promoting the project was through word of mouth, where our interviewees talked to others in the community they knew and recommended to us people who we should get in touch with. In building these networks, the best physical resource we invested in to promote the project were business cards with the project email, a simple and relatively inexpensive investment.

We have taken lessons from Waterproof Memories and applied them to how we approach publicising Coppergate Memories. We have targeted our press releases and advertisements to venues we believe our participants will read, and use pre-existing networks that exist within our organisation to get our initial participants, and plan to build outwards from those initial contacts.

Once we had our first responses from people interested in participating in the project, we were ready to begin actually doing oral history.

Doing Oral History Projects

Our training from the Oral History Society was extremely useful in terms of practical skills, and we once again consulted their website for advice on how to do an interview before beginning our first project, Waterproof Memories. Beginning our project by interviewing our own team was in retrospect an excellent way to get started. It allowed us to familiarise ourselves with the equipment and become more comfortable in the role of interviewer.

These initial interviews tended to be relatively brief, but we got some very interesting memories and after we had a couple of hours of content, we listened back to what we had done, and while we were summarizing were evaluating our recordings; the quality of the audio, participants responses to certain questions. We revised our question sheets and made notes for how we could improve our interview approach based on this evaluation. We tried to keep up this kind of reflective practice throughout the project, and found it very helpful.

Beginning to Interview

We were then ready to begin interviewing members of the public, who had begun responding to our calls for participants in the local press. We found a comfortable room, set up our equipment and began interviewing.

There were a couple of things we learnt early on. Some were very simple, like having a jug of water and glasses on hand at all times in case our participants started coughing. A notebook to jot down points mentioned in our conversations to circle back to was something we started using early on.

We used our question sheets to make our interviews consistent, ensuring in each one we were exploring the key themes of the project.

After we had done the interviews, we archived them to two portable hard drives following our archive policy, and made interview summaries. We used a summary sheet like this to record participant details and to summarise their interview.

Summarising Interviews

You can see an example of an interview summary filled out here. We have started off with metadata about the interview, the interviewee and the date and place of interview. We have also included technical details in case there are problems in the recording, to help evaluate and troubleshoot. We clarified the rights status of the interview, and we summarised the content.

In this interview, Benedict has talked about oral history. At the start of the interview, we have used our standard opener ‘When and where you were born’, and asked about the participant’s background. We then moved onto a narrative, and with each change of topic, we have time-stamped where in the track it takes place. With some sections, we just give an overview of what is discussed; with some sections we give a more detailed summary.

This is far less time consuming than a transcription, but we can see at a glance what topics an interview covers, and skip around a long track if, for example, we wanted to pull out a certain section for exhibition or publication, or if someone researching a particular topic only wanted to listen to content that was relevant.

As we were summarising these interviews, it was an excellent opportunity to listen back and think about how the interview sounded. We kept the notebooks used in interviews beside us as we were writing these summaries, and would occasionally note points that would be useful to remember in future interviews. These would range from technical details, like interference on the track, to ideas for questions to ask. We found this small step of reflexive practice really helped us improve as interviewers.

Editing Interviews

We very early on made the decision that we would edit our interviews as little as possible, only editing if there could be a potential legal problem that would expose ourselves and the participants to legal troubles. In identifying these topics, we referred often again to the excellent advice of the Oral History Society’s Legal and Ethical pages which give guidance on current best practice in the UK. If we had any potential issues, we noted these down while summarising the interviews, to re-check later. If we were unsure as to any point, we sought advice.

When we came to edit audio for presentation in our exhibitions and online, we used a piece of software called Audacity, which is a free and open source piece of software. This software can be initially daunting, but it is widely used and so tutorials and hints are readily available online, as is a wiki with a very comprehensive manual and tutorial pages.

Building Networks

Once we began interviewing, we found that our participants were our best advocates. Fully half of our participants for Waterproof Memories ended up being referrals, and in our Coppergate Memories project personal networks seem an excellent prospect for recruitment of participants.

One interesting way in which our participants recruited for us was by publicising the project through pre-existing social media groups. These were set up in the wake of the floods; Facebook is an increasingly popular method of community organising, and an avenue worth researching if conducting a project that involves recent events or a current shared experience.

The networks that can be used for recruitment will change with each project. With Waterproof Memories we were working on a project whose participants were within a narrow geographic area, and who had a shared experience. They were therefore likely to know each other. In our Coppergate Memories project we are exploring the history of a specific event and many of the people involved in the event have kept in touch, so we have networks professional and personal to recruit through.

As part of our project planning process in future, we will identify any groups that can we work with to recruit participants. We will also certainly look at social media as a means to publicise our projects to pre-existing community groups who may be interested, as well as the more old-fashioned but still very effective approach of physically going and introducing ourselves.

Developing Oral History in Our Organisation

Since we began Waterproof Memories in February 2017, we have applied the oral history methodology in a number of different projects. We have viewed it as a great tool both to engage participants in community projects and more recently to create engaging and interesting content for exhibition. Our YourDIG exhibition space, opened in January 2018 with the support, built in a dedicated facility for audio interpretation. We used the oral history skills we had learnt to create this content.

In the case of each of our first two exhibitions, we applied in miniature the methods we had developed for conducting Oral History projects. We first created a theme sheet and potential questions for our participants, taking the interpretive themes of the exhibition and choosing questions which would expand on these. We did the interviews, summarised and accessioned them following the same procedure as any other interview and then chose short selections of audio for presentation in our exhibition space. This has proved to be a very accessible and engaging form of interpretation, and an excellent complement to the other elements of these exhibitions.

Now that we have, with the generous support of Arts Council England Museums Resilience funding, developed the skills to do oral history, we are thinking how we can incorporate it into future projects. We hope that if you are thinking of using the method in your own projects, our reflections on learning these skills and putting them into practice have been some help.