skip to primary navigationskip to content

Oral history

Michael Bravo and Sophia Davis

Written texts tend to deal with limited types of issues, and tend to be available only from limited social groups. If your historical research concerns a fairly recent set of events, oral histories can open up the set of perspectives available to you. Like finding an archive of letters and diaries, you may find an oral history archive with a wealth of personal information on your topic: rumour, personal grudges, local myths, oppressed minorities, conflicting interests, the kind of tacit, practical knowledge that isn't normally written about, and so on. You may also wish to take a more active role and do your own interviews, guiding your interviewee towards certain topics. In what follows are some guidelines for how to get started with oral histories, including details of archive resources, suggested reading and some tips on interview technique.

Sound archives, directories and journals

  • The National Sound Archive at the British Library [http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/bldept/soundarch/], on whose website you can find the National Life Story Collection.
  • The Oral History Society [http://www.ohs.org.uk/], which runs training courses and has some excellent practical advice on interview technique on its website. You can also find an example of the kind of consent form [http://www.ohs.org.uk/public_docs/copyright.pdf] you will need your interviewee to sign in order to give you copyright over their spoken words.
  • Weerasinghe, L., ed. Directory of Recorded Sound Resources in the United Kingdom. The British Library, 1988.
  • Oral History (deals more with British history)
  • Ethnohistory (deals more with historical anthropology)
  • Journals dedicated exclusively to oral history are the exception rather than the rule.

Bibliography

Most of us are accustomed to learning by reading, even if the subject is speaking and listening. Some of the references in this bibliography provide information on the practical aspects of doing oral history. The most important advice, however, is 'Get hands-on experience!'. Practical experience is crucial. Almost every serious oral historian has lost a wonderful interview owing to a duff recording, or the tape finishing at the crucial moment in an interview, etc. This bibliography provides some references to how-to-do-it guides, and also refers to some of the literature about historioloquy – the rhyme and reason informing the practices and interpretation of oral history.

Getting started: recording, archiving and transcribing

This section is very important to learn, whether through reading or common-sense (for those who subscribe to the idea). It not only recommends recording techniques and equipment , but suggests ways to avoid accidentally re-recording over your best material, and rules for making backups from your masters. These materials work very well in conjunction with some 'hands on' practice. The best introduction available in Britain is:

  • Thompson, P. & Perks, R. Telling it how it was: a Guide to Recording Oral History. BBC Education
  • Humphries, S. The Handbook of oral history: recording life stories. Inter Action, 1984. This material has been used in conjunction with a very useful oral history workshop run during Lent Term by the Wellcome Institute at Essex University.
  • See also Dunaway, D., and Baum, W.K. (eds), Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology. 2nd ed., Altamira Press-AASLH Primer Series, 1997.

Oral techniques in the history of medicine

  • Adam, Rachel & Van Riel, Rachel. In Sickness and in Health. Castleford: Yorkshire Art Circus, 1987.
  • Berridge, V. 'Opium and Oral History'. Oral History 7.2 (1979): 48–58.
  • Cornwell, Jocelyn. Hard Earned Lives: accounts of health and illness from East London. Tavistock, 1984.
  • Morantz, R. et al. In her Own Words: oral histories of women physicians. New Haven: Yale U.P., 1986.
  • Merrick, Julia. Archive of psychiatrics therapeutics (1940–1960) at Warwickshire County Mental Hospital. n.d.
  • Rivers, 'Essay on Oral History'. Modern Methods in the History of Medicine. Athlone Press, 1971.

Historioloquy: the theory of spoken history

  • Goody, Jack. The Interface Between the Written and the Oral. Cambridge: CUP 1987.
  • Howarth, K. Remember, remember: tape recording oral history. Pennine Heritage, 1984.
  • Edge, David. Astronomy Transformed: the emergence of radio astronomy in Britain. New York: Wiley c.1977.
  • Niblett, Chris. 'Oral Testimony and the Social History of Technology'. Oral History 8.2 (1980): 53–57.
  • Perks, R., ed. Oral History: an Annotated Bibliography. London: British Library National Sound Archive, 1990.
  • Prins, G. 'Oral History'. New Perspectives on Historical Writing. Ed. P. Burke. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990. 114–139.
  • Seldon A. & Pappworth, J. By word of mouth: elite oral history. Methuen, 1983.
  • Thompson, P. The Voice of the Past: oral history. rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1988.
  • Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition as History. London: Currey 1985.
  • Vincent, David. 'The Decline of the Oral Tradition in Popular Culture'. Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century England. Ed. Robert D. Storch. London: 1982. 20–47.

Conducting your own interviews: some tips

Before you begin

Come with a question plan. You ought not to be rigid in your questioning – you want them to do most of the talking and it is best if the conversation flows naturally – but it is important that you guide the conversation. You can do this by having prepared a logically structured outline.

Choose a quiet place with little background interference, sit close to the interviewee and set the microphone/dictaphone up fairly close to them. Do a test run and play it back, to check the recording equipment is working correctly.

During the interview

To begin with, make your interviewee feel comfortable. You will find out much more and with much more animated and engaged description if you relax your subject right at the start. Begin by asking some questions about their earlier life for example. These questions need not be ones to which you wish to know the answer; their purpose is purely to start the flow of conversation and make the interviewee relaxed.

When you have started moving on to the topics you are interested in, ask open questions like 'how did you feel about that?' Try to avoid closed questions unless you really want to know something specific. This encourages description; you have come to hear them talk, not you! Along the same lines, ask follow-up questions to encourage them to expand on certain points and to relate motives and feelings, rather than merely a series of events. Ask 'why' questions, for example. Try not to be suggestive with your questions (i.e. to supply a possible answer), as memories are mutable at the best of times.

Finally, don't tell them what you are doing whilst you are interviewing! You may be excited about your theories on the topic you are questioning them about, but your interviewee is a primary research resource. Their views on secondary issues are not part of your research, and may confuse the direction of the interview.

Afterwards

Be thankful. Now is the time to explain a little bit more about yourself and what you are doing.

Discuss the copyright or clearance form. It is unethical and often illegal to use interviews without the informed consent of the interviewee. Copyright of the words spoken is in the hands of the speaker and remains so for 70 years (whereas copyright of the sound recording is in the hands of the recorder and remains so for 50 years), so it is vital that you get your interviewee to sign a form that gives copyright of their words to you. It is common practice to make them aware that their words may be used in publications, broadcasts, exhibitions or the internet, although for an MPhil essay only the former is likely to be relevant. Sometimes an interviewee may want to see the written material before it goes to print. For an MPhil paper, this is not likely to be an issue, although it is polite to send a copy at some point by way of thanks.

Leave contact information in case of a follow-up interview, or so that you can later trace down documents or photographs that they may have shown you during your time with them.

Back at home

Make a transcription of the recording. This is time consuming, but well worth the effort.