My PhD is entitled Memorial Benches: A Cultural Marker in the Landscape. It is a creative non-fiction place writing project which involves desk and field research.
With many years of business experience behind me I felt confident about initiating and conducting interviews in my search for stories about memorial benches, however, I needed to clearly establish my methodology. During a meeting with my supervisors we discussed oral history as a possible route forward but there was a gap in my skills because I had never used audio equipment to record interviews before and I needed to learn more about the technical aspects. Finding that the subject was not taught by the University, I applied for and was awarded a research support award from the Graduate School to join the Oral History Society (OHS), which is situated in the British Library, and there I was guided by staff to choose a two-day course— Introduction to Oral History.
Within the first hour of the first day, along with nine other attendees on Zoom, I learned that oral history was not a question and answer session, it was not even a conversation. Playwright and oral historian, Rib Davis, led the course and explained that oral history was different from other types of interview and went on to list why four familiar methods of capturing stories could not be classed as oral history:-
- Stories passed down orally from one generation to another were not usually recorded, thus, this tradition did not qualify as oral history.
- Reminiscence, which proved therapeutically beneficial for the interviewee, was not oral history even if it was recorded because it was considered therapy.
- Journalistic interviews, often distilled into two-minute news bites for radio or TV, could not be treated as oral history because they were edited and likely to have been commissioned for commercial or political reasons.
- Podcasting, where the interviewer and interviewee play equal roles was not oral history because interviewers must not appear as characters in oral history recordings.
An oral historian, then, encapsulated the voice for posterity; this was history in the making and primary source material in its rawest state; stories were recorded for the researchers of today and tomorrow. Such voice recordings were democratising, allowing people from all parts of the world and from all cultural groups to be heard. In a nutshell, these were archivable recordings of people’s unique lived experiences, spoken by them at length and in depth.
Besides making every effort to ensure excellent sound quality oral historians had to capture originality and truth. This meant the speaker should not be influenced to say any particular thing in any particular way and that my role would be that of an enabler— I would not get into conversation with the participant or comment on what they said, or question any of their responses, I would manage the process but not participate in the story telling. The only acceptable intervention would be to keep the speaker on track if they were talking about a significant event, and ask, ‘how did you feel at the time?’ Attendees practiced oral history techniques and our course leader ensured we had many opportunities to ask questions. Naturally, most of us were not used to being quiet while a participant spoke and we found it extremely difficult to control our body language— even a nod could indicate tacit agreement to whatever was being said at the time; we had to be ‘invisible’ in the recording.
We considered how resonance in the voice could indicate where a person came from, where they currently lived, their class and social upbringing, their age, gender, and even their current health. All this raised questions about anonymity and the ethics protocols that might underpin our research. It caused me some concern to learn that it was not feasible to anonymise participants when following oral history guidelines and, of course, it should have been obvious because all archived material has to be stored with its associated data and made available to the public, and that included the name of the participant and the date and place of recording. In my own project I wanted to allow participants to decide on their own level of anonymity, and I tried to square this new knowledge with what I had included in my as yet unapproved University ethics application.
Another aspect of difference between the oral historian’s method of research and the rigour of some PhDs related to transcription. A short searchable summary of what the audio recording contained would be necessary for the archive but a full transcription was not apparently common practice. If we were to undertake the time-consuming task of transcribing our interviews we were advised not to edit them in order to make the text easier to read— i.e. they should include the pauses, the ers and ums, the incomplete sentences, and irrational grammar. Before the course I had considered quoting short pieces of conversation in my creative writing, and any dialogue I included would have to be succinct and evocative to earn its place in the narrative— it would necessarily be edited.
With much to evaluate I gave myself some time to think. The saying goes that the more you learn the less you know and I realised that I had not previously fully understood the role of the oral historian, or indeed appreciated the prescriptive and precise nature of oral history. My project could certainly benefit from such an approach but if I were to adhere to these principles I would need to find extra time to establish a more rounded and fully engaged method of undertaking the work, find the money to acquire good quality recording equipment and then learn how to use it, and make advance arrangements with a suitable archive for the recordings to be stored before being made publicly available. All this would have a major impact on the scope and direction of my project as well as my timeframe. Consequently, a reassessment was required.
I discussed the subject again with my supervisors, and after further guidance regarding the University’s ethics requirements, I decided that instead of assuming the role of an oral historian I would devise my own hybrid format of gathering stories, mixing what I knew with what I had learned, and using a wide range of sources for my research. I wanted to ensure my methodology was flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the participants as well as meeting the requirements of my creative writing project. The course was well timed and the knowledge gained has really helped me to move forward with my project.
As a footnote, I have not ruled out the possibility of instigating an oral history project in the future, perhaps one that could build on my PhD and which could be conducted as a collaborative project.
Yasmin was funded through the Manchester Metropolitan Graduate School’s Research Support Award to attend this training. You can find out more about the award and upcoming deadlines by visiting the PGR Development Moodle area.