Tag Archives: Oral History

Doing Oral History


ZOOM H1 – the recorder I use for oral interview

As part of my research, I am conducting oral interviews with various people who were involved in the green movement in some way. I thought I’d explain a little bit about my experience of oral history.

First, the equipment. I use a ZOOM H1 recorder (above) which costs about £80 from Amazon.  I bought this model, mainly for price (£80 is at the top of my price range but was one of the cheaper models that records in WAV format). I went on an introduction to oral history course run by the Oral History Society, who suggested we get recorders that record in WAV format for longevity. I am sure there are far better recorders out there, but within my limited budget, this seems to be excellent. I use the two microphones on the machine, rather than using an external. I am impressed with the quality of the recording. It is pretty simple to use too, so I can just set it down and hit record.

Before I could undertake any interviews I had to fill out an ethics form, and went on university wide ethics training. The ethics committee approved my project in January. I am focused on gathering information about environmentalism and the interviewee’s place within it, but also I sometimes ask about wider issues and how they relate.

When I go to the interviews, after it has finished I give the interviewee an information sheet about what I will do with the data. This states that the information might be used in my thesis but also in journal articles, book chapters, monographs and other academic-related things. I also make the point PhD theses are easily accessible now to the general public through EThOS, the British Library service.

I also stress that I am the only person who will have access to them and that they have the right to deny my use of any information for any future publications. I am always careful to maintain confidentiality and there is a section on the information sheet which discusses the use of names. If they do not want their name to be used we can come up with an alias or alternatively a numerical system (e.g. Interviewee 1). I would then be the only person who had access to who they really were. I get them to sign a sheet which states they’ve read and understood the other forms, and I sign one myself and give to them.

At each stage of internal assessment during the PhD (we have one at the end of every year – Annual Progression, as well as one 18-months in, Mid-Point Progression) the ethics stuff gets reviewed. I’ve not spoken to many people yet, and confidentiality and data protection is hugely important. All recordings are kept on an external hard drive stored in a locked drawer I only have access to.

A lot of people know each other and have also pointed me in the direction of others who may be of use. I’m just getting into this but I’m hoping new people will appear, and I’ve already had some recommendations.

The Historian Detective (or unexpected discoveries)

Doing historical research can be a little like solving a crime, I imagine. Having never solved a crime, I cannot be sure. In oral history mode, tracking people down to interview and then speaking to them can be akin to finding witnesses and interviewing them after a crime. And like a police investigation sometimes they give you the suspect, virtually all packed and ready to go; sometimes they cannot offer you much. The same goes for oral history. Interviewing people can be a challenge. But you also learn an incredible amount, not just about the topic you have spoken to them about, but wider issues of history. And not just history; you can learn all about family structures, environments. You might get to see old photos or ephemera you would otherwise not get to see.

For my research, I will conduct interviews with various members of the environmental community who were active in the post-war period. Their experiences and personal histories vary enormously, but you also get a wide range of different voices, which can offer a rich world through which you can select different aspects to put into research. Late last year I discovered the history of a local organisation on Tyneside, from the early 1970s, in an alternative North-East periodical, Muther Grumble which appeared between 1971 and 1973.

One local group, SOC’EM (Save Our City from Environmental Mess) is particularly relevant as although it began in 1972, at the very end of the period I’m looking at, it is an example of the kind of organisation – local, community-led – that I am interested in. I was particularly pleased when I discovered that Tyne and Wear Archives, in Newcastle, have the papers of that organisation. One article in Muther Grumble mentioned another organisation, Commitment, which was London/South-East based. This is harder to trace; typing Commitment into a search engine or electronic archive catalogue, even with words like ‘environment’ with it, come up either with no entries or thousands, none of which, at first glance, seem relevant.

Just when all seems lost, however, through the detective work you’ve done, someone surfaces who has connections to that organisation and you can begin to slowly build up a picture of it.