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Section III: Oral history: collection and management

3.1 Oral history
3.2 Introduction: oral tradition and oral history

 

3.1 Oral history

David Lance

1. introduction

From the earliest days of sound recording, historical content and significance have been major criteria for the selection and preservation of audio documents by archivists. Speeches and lectures, reports and descriptions of important events, personal narrations and reminiscences, interviews and discussions have lo been collected as historically valuable records by a large number and variety of archives. Until quite recently, however, the relationship between sound recording and historical documentation was haphazard. Most collected material had been recorded - often by broadcasting organisations - for immediate practical ends. Any subsequent preservation by archivists aware of its permanent historical value was generally incidental to the reasons for which the recordings were original made. In the field of historical sound documentation as with many other classes of records - archival collections, therefore, traditionally consisted of recordings that were created without objective regard to historical considerations and which survived, very often, only by accident and good fortune. During the past thirty years, however, oral history has developed as a practice in which historical research and archival collecting have combined to eliminate to some extent the previously arbitrary manner by which the past was documented in sound. This development was made possible by the availability of relatively cheap portable tape recorders from the 1950s onwards. These provided the tool by which historians could convenient produce their own research sources, and archives their own collections, by selecting specific people, subject or events for documentation by recording. It is the systematic creation of historical sound recordings to form oral history archives that this chapter is concerned with. What is oral history? It may be defined as a method for obtaining historical reminiscences by interviewing people who were participants in or witnesses of the matters they describe and recording their recollection verbatim on magnetic tape. This purely practical definition should not obscure the fact that oral history, which has been considerably developed and refined over the years, can be a sophisticated research tool. It is, nonetheless, essentially a term which has come to describe a method of collecting historical Information and it produces a particular form of data that has become yet one more class of document available to the archivist. It is widely held that the practice of oral history began in the USA where, in 1948 at Columbia University, Professor Allan Nevins was instrumental in setting up a programme 'to obtain from the lips of living Americans who have led significant lives, a fuller record of their participation ... in political, economic and cultural life. Although a professional historian, Nevins' interest was primarily archival In the sense that, by recording, he wanted to capture and preserve information which otherwise would be irrevocably lost. In this he was also preoccupied with further documenting the lives of regional, national and international leaders, an interest that was to dominate the development and use of oral history for the next twenty years. Only in the past decade has the balance been shifted, mainly by social historians interested in collecting information about the history of urban and rural working class groups and communities. As a result, oral history now also 'moves among the generality of the population, noting and recording prejudices and reactions ... to garner human experience in all its richness'.

In addition to these trends, there has been an explosion of interest in this field of sound documentation which is illustrated by the extraordinarily wide range of studies in which oral history methods have been used. For political and economic history, social and cultural life, business and technology, science and the arts and in the affairs of societies and individuals at many levels and types of interest, oral history recording has been initiated. For practitioners in all fields of oral history the main objective is to create - in Nevins' words - 'a fuller record'. To some this has meant supplementing existing records; for others it has involved recording the hitherto unrecorded. In countries or within groups that do not have a tradition of formal record keeping or written history, oral history offers unique opportunities to preserve for the future a more complete record of the past.

It is not the purpose of this chapter to give detail information or advice about the methodology of oral history. There is a large existing body of literature dealing with research techniques, interviewing method recording practice, transcribing procedures and giving analyses and assessments of oral evidence. Some of major publications dealing with these aspects are listed in the bibliography to this chapter.

2. general principles

The general objective of any archive recording programme should be to use oral history methods as a means both documenting and of preserving the past. The process product of such work ought to open up new fields of research. It should also seek to meet the broader educational interests of present and future generation by showing them the conditions of life and the variety of experiences of their parents and grand-parents and reflecting and illustrating characteristics or change which make a particular society or culture distinctive.

In realising these ends, the absence of documentary and printed records will usually indicate the primary subject on which oral history recording would most usefully be focussed. Filling wide or absolute gaps in the historic record are fundamental objectives for a creative recording programme and, when they also represent subjects that ar only alive in the memories of the very elderly, they are gaps which need to be filled first. However, recording can also be based - even in generally well documented fields - on particular features which are not covered by the existing records. It may be the case that the paper records which have been preserved have, for example, an administrative or hierarchical focus, and that much more information can be added to the historical mosaic of some subjects by oral history recording.

Since oral history has an important role in reflecting the past as well as uncovering it, recordings may also be carried out to preserve a sense of place, time, personality or event. Such recordings may produce little original information but they can create an original sound document, giving colour and atmosphere and a feeling for history that, in an important way, transcends the collection of data to give a unique dimension to oral history records.

3. planning an archive recording programme

Most oral history archives have been set up with either a regional or a special subject emphasis (although there are notable exceptions, such as the U.S. Presidential Libraries, where the collections obviously focus on specific individuals). Thus a recording programme may be about the history of a particular city, province or country or, alternatively, it may be concerned with social history, military history, political history and so on (or possibly some aspect or combination of them). Stated in its broadest terms, the general purpose of most programmes, therefore, is predetermined by this regional or subject setting.

On its own, however, the particular setting which a recording programme is required to reflect goes only a little way towards determining what the actual content of it will be. This has to be worked out and specified. For example, a regional archive may implement a general recording programme dealing with many aspects of the locality: its leading citizens, its traditions and customs, its government and politics, its industry and agriculture, its art and culture. The subject orientate archive will tend to work within narrower limits but it will usually have - in common with the regional archive - the task of structuring its special field of interest into appropriate component parts. For example, a military history archive might organise a programme to deal with the history of land, sea and air forces; of arms industries and wartime agriculture; of political and military leadership; of social and economic condition in wartime. In other words, before a new programme can decided.

The quality of oral history collecting may depend to a considerable extent on the effort and expertise that is put into the planning of the programme. Objectives should be formulated on the basis of developed knowledge and the most recent scholarship that is available, so that the programme the archive devises will make the most relevant and valuable contribution to its field of study. As the subject range of many archives is extremely broad they may have to plan programmes consisting of a wide variety of individual recording projects. This, in turn, requires a comparably wide range of available subject expertise the planning stage. If this is not to be found entirely within the collecting institution, then the archive would in identifying and developing the potential objectives of its programme.

These objectives will need to be specified in sufficient detail to provide a precise content and a working structure for the recording programme. Towards this end a formal plan can usefully be formulated. Its purposes would be to define the subject scope of the programme; to enable the work to be organised to agreed priorities; to provide a means of monitoring the overall development of the programme and the results that are being achieved.

4. structuring the programme

The identification of appropriate topics goes some way towards providing the archive with the means of organising a coherent recording programme. To be most helpful, a content plan for the programme might be drawn up and projected so as to provide an overall and comprehensive scheme that will enable the archive to plan its work over several years. As an example, such a plan is set out below which was designed to meet the needs of a national archive in the field of economic history.

Studies of the main traditional industries: rubber, tin, opium, palm oil and timber. These projects could document more fully the organisation, structure, practices, conditions and changes within each industry and the nature and scale of their association with particular communities.

Projects should also be organised to record traditional methods and conditions in agriculture, fishing and the local craft industries.

The establishment and development of the various shipping interests and activities must be documented. Separate projects should cover the local infrastructures set up by major European shipping lines and the creation and conduct of locally financed and developed shipping networks (e.g. the steamship companies, the coastal tramps, the lighter and sampan trade).

Studies of banking and finance should be developed to cover:

- The development and organisation of local branches of European banks; 11 local family
- The foundation and methods of small banks and their growth and development into major public companies;
- The methods, roles and importance of traditional moneylenders;
- The creation of the stock exchange;
- The organisation of capital support for the major national industries.

Systems for the collection and distribution of local raw materials and of foreign consumer goods should be studied and the methods by which European based companies operated through local middlemen need to be documented.

The changes or adaptations that had to be made in trade and business during the Second World War need to be investigated. The means by which new trade and markets were developed and the extent to which traditional commercial activities were maintained are of special interest. By prescribing the general historical objectives of the programme in this way its implementation can also be organised most effectively.

As indicated in section 2, the age of the potential informants is a fundamental criterion by which to establish an order of priorities for the archive's work. An equally important consideration is the need to record as quickly as possible those key individuals who, for one reason or another, have made a singular or distinctive contribution to the archive's field of study.

5. preparing the recording projects

When the scope and order of an overall programme has thus been decided the next stage is to elaborate its component parts so that each constitutes a clearly defined recording project for the centre to undertake. The projects must be historically coherent, in the sense that their subject and chronological limits are set to cover distinct chapters or episodes in the archive's field of interest. The boundaries of such projects should also be limited so that each one represents a research field that can be documented satisfactorily by the kind of relatively small and representative selection of interviews that economic constraints almost invariably impose on oral history recording.

Once these general requirements have been met the next stage is to work out in reasonable detail the objectives or research aims of each project. As an example of the kind of subject demarcation that is necessary in oral history research, a list of topics is set out below which guided interviewers in a project carried out at the Imperial War Museum. This project, designed to investigate conditions of employment for women working in industry during the First World War, was first structured to cover the following main areas:

Recruitment Finance
Training Free time
The job Traditions
The work place Management
Transport Industrial relations
Food The War
Health Demobilisation

Each of these topics was developed in some detail, the extent and nature of which may be demonstrated by one example. Thus, for 'The job', the following questions influenced the interviewers' approach:

- What was the official description of your job? How did the description compare with your actual work? Outline a routine day on the job.
- Which jobs were preferred? Which disliked and why? Under what circumstances did people change jobs?
- Describe the equipment used at work. Were any adaptations necessary for war production?
- What were your wages? How did they compare with earnings in previous employment? Were men and women paid the same? What did you think of the level of pay? What were the opportunities for overtime and promotion?
- What hours did you work? Were they typical? What were the shift and holiday arrangements?
- What did you wear? How much of this was provided by the employer?
- Did people make changes (e.g. for convenience or style)? What did you think about women wearing trousers? How did other people react to them?
- Were there shortages of staff or materials? Was there sufficient technical expertise? What was done about the shortages? What were the consequences of them?
- Did any new developments arise during wartime (e.g. in the job, the equipment or the product)?

The foregoing is not given as a prescription for designing oral history recordings projects. Obviously approaches must vary according to the subject being investigated, the research aims of the archive or the kind of informants who are to be recorded. But this example should further illustrate the degree and nature of preparation that oral history research generally requires. In this process the formulation of project papers, as above, imposes the necessary historical discipline on those responsible for organising the recording programme. In addition to defining clearly the aims of each project, such guidelines also go a long way towards ensuring high standards of planning and help to secure consistency of approach by the interviewers who are to carry out the work.

6. approaches to individual studies

In many oral history projects informants will be selected for recording because they are representative of a particular group of people or a particular field of experience. Additionally, individuals may be chosen for interviewing as key informants because their unique or special experiences are of outstanding historical importance and essential for documenting a particular field of research satisfactorily (often such interviews are equally important for biographical purposes). These informants, leading politicians or trade unionists for example, sometimes warrant intensive interviewing. They also require special care so that the scale of recording is kept in proportion to the kind of contribution they have to make.

There are a number of possible approaches - not always mutually exclusive - to individual studies and the kind that is most appropriate should always be individually assessed. For example:

A full scale autobiographical interview or series of interviews with a prominent figure may be justified in cases where the person's life and work are largely undocumented.

In cases where the key person is dead, a series of biographical interviews with the third parties who knew him well may be worth carrying out towards the same ends as in the previous example.

There may be special events or episodes with which the individual is particularly associated (or which are relevant to the project at hand) and about which there is little available documentation. In such a case the individual study might be focused only on the areas or periods of special significance.

In an otherwise well documented life there can be minor gaps which it would be valuable to fill and recording might therefore best be devoted to, as it were, oral footnoting.

Finally, individual studies may be validly carried out to produce a 'voice-portrait' of the person concerned. In this case neither the aim nor the expectation of the interview would be to produce original information. The object would be to create, through the medium of recorded sound, a distinctive kind of document illustrating and reflecting the individual's personality or style more than his record.

In choosing the appropriate approach for the particular person, the scale of the interview should be related to the objectives of the project and geared to the existing records concerning the particular informant. Thus, it may not be desirable to hold back the progress of a major project by many labour intensive and time consuming individual studies, while it would certainly not be sensible to interview a leader in depth if the recordings are only likely to add occasional new glimpses to a generally well documented career. The extent to which individual studies should feature in any archive's recording programme or, indeed, whether such studies should be the archive's main or sole pursuit is a matter which the particular collecting centre must decide in the light of its own policy and priorities. However, for systematic planning and in order to build up a balanced collection there are good practical and historical reasons for archives to structure their work on a subject or topic basis. In general, detailed individual studies tend to be very much more labour intensive and time consuming than topical projects. In the latter case a great many informants can usually be interviewed on the basis of one main piece of preparatory research, while in the former only one interview (or several interviews with one person) will often be recorded for similar effort. The historical justification for a subject approach is that many - possibly most - research fields include several levels or perspectives all of which need to be represented if the subject is to be satisfactorily documented. A labour history project, for example, might naturally lead to intensive interviews with important trade union leaders and in this way individual studies can be appropriately and economically developed from within topical projects.

7. some methodological considerations

The design of a recording programme and the construction of individual projects require a measure of methodological as well as subject judgement. Planning must include a process of assessment that should be based on practical experience of how oral history works best as a research method and an archival collecting technique. Obviously, this standard of judgement can only be provided by historians who have used oral history methods and have a good understanding of their nature and also of their limitations.

Oral history is now well enough established in many countries for methodological advice to be readily available. However, the selection of an adviser may present greater problems than the choice of subject specialists. For approaches to oral history vary not only between countries, but also within them. For some practitioners oral history is academically research directed; for others it is more archivally or broadly based; some oral historians see the value of the information collected as being directly related to the proximity of the recording with the events it describes; while others hold to the belief that the oral tradition communicates accurate and valid data across decades or even centuries. Such differences illustrate the range of approach and account for varying practices. It follows that a suitable adviser must be carefully chosen on the basis of the needs, purposes and functions of the archive in which the new programme is to be established. Therefore, selection may need to follow a survey of the aims and methods of other oral history practitioners or established recording programmes.

In cases where a methodological adviser is not locally available it may simply not be possible to establish a programme on a broad front in the short term. To do so would be at the probable cost of producing poor quality results at considerable expense. In these areas, programmes are best developed gradually, allowing skills to grow out of practical experience based on small projects with limited objectives. By encouraging and nurturing the development of local expertise, acquired from individual recording projects that are feasible in the short term, the quantity and range of work can be expanded into a coordinated programme at a later appropriate time.

Whether for individual projects or for broadly based recording programmes, some general questions should also be applied to test the practicability of any oral history research under consideration. For example:

Since oral history is dependent for worthwhile results on individual memory, is the subject proposed likely to be amenable to this fallible human faculty? Generally those subjects work best which are concerned with patterns of activity as opposed to single incidents that require precise factual recall.

Are the people available to be recorded sufficient in the number or categories required to cover satisfactorily the subject which is proposed? Here the more distant in time the events and the more complex their structure then the more difficult it may be to locate informants and to document the proposed subject satisfactorily.

Does the proposed project depend on key individuals and are they available and sufficiently articulate and reliable to provide the kind of information that is required?

Is the chronological span to be covered or the range of information to be sought practically manageable within the format of an interviewing project? In general, the objectives of any individual recording project are best limited in scale to a period and a subject range which can be conveniently managed and within which results can be clearly assessed.

How sensitive or controversial is the subject of the proposed project and would informants be likely to talk openly and at length on the matters involved? It would obviously be unwise and unprofitable to invest resources in areas where self-censoring could be expected to be a major problem.

How well documented by other kinds of records is the subject of the proposed project? If the project is unlikely to add much new documentation to the existing records, it would hardly merit a large investment or a high priority.

By the application of these kinds of questions and by taking the best available methodological (and subject) advice the most appropriate content and construction advice the most appropriate for an archive recording programme may be formulated.

8. organisation and staffing

Once prepared, the oral history programme needs to be set within an organisational structure that will efficiently and effectively accommodate the particular functions involved in this field of sound archivism. The main functions are research and interviewing, technical processing and documentation (which includes transcribing, cataloguing and indexing). The suggestion made in this section presume an appropriate measure of financial support and the local availability of suitably qualified staff. Individual programmes will have to modify the structure to match their resources if these are insufficient to establish and sustain a fully professional archive.

The research and interviewing work of the archive should be carried out by qualified staff selected on the basis of providing the broadest possible range of specialised knowledge available for the development of the particular programme. Interviewers should generally be history graduates, but the archive staff responsible for selecting, designing or supervising recording projects should also have a higher degree and research experience. In addition to suitable subject knowledge, however, certain organisational aptitudes and qualities of personality are also needed. The tasks of preparing, organising and conducting individual recording projects and ensuring their proper co-ordination within an overall programme are parts of an administrative and management process as well as an historical one. Equally important are the personal characteristics - speed and clarity of thought and expression for example - necessary to use oral history interviewing methods to best advantage.

A full time research staff provides the optimum mean of implementing a programme. If this is not obtainable at least the overall control of each recording project should be in the hands of an experienced oral historian. By using a small group of permanent staff interviews as project managers, the archive can develop quite a large recording programme with supporting interviews who should be trained and properly supervised - employed on a short term voluntary, freelance or contract basis. By this means the number of permanent research staff may be kept to a reasonably economic level.

The number of research and interviewing staff will obviously depend on the scale of the programme that the archive plans to implement. For the collecting centre as a whole to operate efficiently, however, it is necessary to understand the relationship between the recording programme and the other functions which the archive has to carry out. It is not possible to provide figures that are exactly and universally applicable for all oral history recording, since methods and organisation will vary to some extent between different archives. It may be said, however, that one full time interviewer should be able to record up to one hundred hours of reminiscences a year based on about fifty interviewing sessions. (This, and other figures quoted in this section, are given as a rough guideline based on the practical experience of the Imperial War Museum's Department of Sound Records.) On the basis of this unit figure an archive can estimate a growth pattern for its collection and calculate the various kinds of resources that will be necessary to support it.

To illustrate the scale of staff support necessary for technical processing, one technician should be capable of copying to full archival standards about 600 hours of recorded interviews a year. Archives do not, however, need to reach this level before the appointment of a qualified technician can be justified since the maintenance of equipment and the conservation of the collection should also be the technician's responsibility. An oral history collection has no special or distinctive technical needs or problems. In fact the requirements of new programmes are likely to be more straightforward than those of some other kinds of sound archives dealt with in this book because recording interviews is technically less demanding than, for example, recording music or animal sounds and because oral history archives are generally less concerned with restoring and preserving old recordings.

The main documentation procedures in an oral history archive are transcribing, cataloguing and indexing. Transcribing - the process of presenting the information content of recordings in a typescript form - should be carried out by typists with a good general standard of education and a clear understanding of the structure and use of language. Their task is to produce an accurate typescript of each interview and - by the appropriate use of sentences, paragraphs and punctuation to make it as literate a document as possible without altering the words or sense of the speakers. Transcribing is an extremely time consuming process; on average one hour of tape may take eight hours to transcribe and three hours to proofread and correct. If the archive wants and can afford to transcribe all the interviews it records, the output from one full time interviewer would be more or less sufficient to keep one transcriber permanently occupied.

Cataloguing and indexing oral history interviews is also very labour intensive and it may take in the region of four hours to compile full catalogue and subject index entries for one hour of tape. These documentation services should be under the control of an experienced and well qualified cataloguer who is capable of designing and applying suitable systems for the organisation of audio documentation and who is supported by an appropriate number of staff able to apply consistently disciplined rules for the organisation of a collection.

In organising and staffing an oral history sound archive it cannot be stressed too strongly that the functions described above are part of a single and integrated process. It is therefore essential that a reasonable balance is struck between recording and the various stages of processing the resultant material. To achieve this requires the establishment and, as the recording programme develops, the maintenance of proper ratios between the various categories of archive staff. To summarise what has been detailed above, the ratio of two interviewers: two transcribers: one cataloguer may be a useful equation for establishing a balanced organisational structure, with one technician being capable of providing the necessary technical support for up to six full time interviewers.

9. technical standards

The technical aspects of oral history work, as mentioned earlier, fall squarely within the general field of sound archivism. Such matters as equipment, tape, recording standards, copying, storage and preservation requirement have therefore been left to the technical chapter of this publication. Where there is proper concern for the technical quality of its sound documents, the oral history equipment as most other kinds of professional sound archives.

While oral history sound archives therefore have no technical needs that are peculiar to their field of work, there is some debate among oral historians - and one that has a direct bearing on the financial aspects of planning - as regards the relative importance of the sound recording and the written document (i.e. the oral history transcript). This debate exists because many oral historians regard the tape recorder as but an electronic notebook and are only concerned that their recordings should be sufficiently audible to enable a typist to reproduce interviews in a written form. This kind of attitude to the recording is most frequently found in university centres where access to oral history collections is provided to an exclusively academic clientele. Since typescripts do provide more rapid and convenient access, this position is at least understandable when the sole interest in oral interviews lies in the research use of the information they contain. In such circumstances a strong case can be made for using a cheap cassette machine on which to record interviews.

Even for university collections, however, this argument is not entirely convincing. Its major flaw lies in the fact that interviews are oral records and their audio dimension contains a significant part of their message. The presentation of information verbally is qualitatively different from the style in which the same data would be presented in writing by the same speaker/author (the extent to which informants will seek to alter the form and content of their oral history transcripts is, perhaps, the best and most convincing evidence of this). In spoken reminiscences stress, pause, tone, pace and volume are among the characteristics of oral history interviews that the sound document alone fully and satisfactorily preserves. It is impossible to reproduce all the qualities of the oral record in a written form and the nuances of the spoken word give the sound document its own distinct character and value. Provided these audio characteristics are properly recorded and preserved, the resultant documents have wider and no less important applications than use by historians and other scholars. Thus in broadcasting and audio publication, in museums and elsewhere for exhibition purposes and in schools and colleges as teaching aids - as well as in scholarly use - lies the fullest application and dividend of oral history.


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