Oral-history recording: collecting and sharing memories
Reminiscence and oral histories
The social history of buildings, streets, open spaces or urban areas is fascinating and significant. It is very likely that factual histories and personal stories will become part of your Scotland’s Urban Past (SUP) project and will undoubtedly inform, enrich and enliven it.
The opportunity of talking to people who wish to share their memories will bring together unique stories and first-hand experiences, feelings and attitudes from and of the past.
These can be contradictory, selective and influenced by numerous factors including age, gender, family background, location, and so can be open to debate, interpretation and analysis. Memories and opinions can be challenging but are as valuable as factual information.
Sharing memories usually takes place in one of two ways: reminiscence sessions, which usually involve (small) groups and are not recorded; or conversations often described as oral-history interviews, which can involve groups or individuals, and are recorded.
Reminiscing is often considered therapeutic for participants and can benefit people who have short-term memory loss by making use of long-term memory.
Oral histories are collected via audio or video recordings, photographs or in written form. Audio or video is most usual, and a written transcript of the conversation is usually made and sent to participants. Permission must be asked to make a recording of any kind.
Oral history recordings can reveal unknown or forgotten stories and new perspectives, can help many people learn about places, customs, attitudes, and ways of life in the past, and can contribute to a permanent archive of information which might otherwise be lost.
Why and what?
To start, make a few notes below about the purpose of collecting and recording memories for your Scotland’s Urban Past (SUP) project.
- What are your goals?
- What do you want to find out?
- Who could you talk to?
- How will you use the recordings?
Once you have one or more specific themes, ensure you have carried out sufficient research, on the geographical area(s) and the time period(s) in question, on local, national and international events and history which might be relevant.
The building(s), street, open spaces or urban area etc at the heart of your project might easily suggest people to approach as candidates for oral-history recording. They might be members of your group, your own family, circle of friends or your neighbours.
If you are less sure, contact groups and organisations such as:
- your local library, museum or history group
- voluntary organisations
- trade unions or work-related social clubs
- former-pupils groups
- community councils
- places of worship
- sports clubs
- professional associations
- Scottish Women’s Institutes
- Rotary Clubs
Consider placing adverts in local post offices, newsagents or supermarkets, in local newspapers or on websites catering to your local area.
When making contact with groups or individuals it is best to do so in person or by telephone, in the first instance, rather than by email or letter. Further contact may take place by phone or by email or letter.
During initial contact with groups or individuals, give clear information about your project and why you want to talk to them. You may have to convince potential participants, so invite them to chat about the past or to tell you the stories about their life, rather describing the activity as an interview.
Discuss the type of recording you will make, such as audio only or video and sound, and ensure you make potential participants aware of the consent process and how their words will be used shared and stored. See below for more information on permissions.
Where and when?
Sharing memories is intended to be an enjoyable and informal but structured chat in a relaxed setting.
A semi-private, comfortable space with little background noise and a low risk of interruption is important. However, always remember your own and participants’ personal safety when arranging the location.
Any adult considered vulnerable who you would visit in their own home should always be accompanied by a carer.
Once you know where your conversations will take place, think about how you would create a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Privacy can encourage an atmosphere of trust which in turn can lead to more open and honest conversation.
Discuss potential dates and times that would suit the participant. Avoid times that could cause either of you stress or discomfort, such as rushing through school traffic or at dinner time. A supply of tea, coffee and biscuits is always a good idea, but ensure these are out of the way of the recording equipment and that kettles, urns, crockery and cutlery, and biscuit wrappers will not create disturbing background noise.
When you have your participants, locations and times confirmed, prepare an information sheet for those involved. The content should include:
- details of your project and information about SUP
- what memories you hope to record
- why you are asking this individual or group of people to take part
- what will happen on the day of the conversation
- how the conversation will be structured
- how recording will be organised (see below for more information)
- how the recording will be used
- how the recording will be preserved (see below for more information)
Your research on the subject and talking with potential participants will help you to prepare questions which will guide the conversation during your interviews.
- aim for open questions by asking what, where, when, why, how and who?
- ask questions which will encourage precise answers, such as ‘where did you move to next?’
- ask questions which invite description, opinions and feelings: ‘How did you feel about that?’; ‘What sort of person was she?’; ‘What can you tell me about the house you lived in?’; ‘Why did you decide to change jobs?
- ’follow chronological order. Most people remember events and associated feelings or opinions in the order they happened. The conversation may prompt participants to recall an event or person or to explore a theme outside of the chronology. Gently bring the conversation back to your set themes when the participant has finished talking
- ask participants about aspects of their life to help them relax, even if it is not entirely relevant to the purpose of your conversation. Useful topics could include: where they lived and life in the home; school; chores and leisure activities; holidays; early work; or any other topics or events of importance to the individual or group of participants
- ask questions which will produce only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, such as ‘do you remember...?’
- suggest answers in your questions. For example, ask ‘Can you tell me about your work at the factory?’ rather than ‘I imagine you worked in tough conditions at the factory?’
- ask leading questions, ambiguous questions or making statements which do not encourage answers. ‘How were women treated differently to men at the factory?’ is a leading question – instead, ask about specific aspects of factory life, such as women’s and men’s roles in the workplace or wages
Alongside and in association with your questions, prepare visual prompts to help guide the conversations, especially for groups. These could include:
- relevant historical or current images
- film clips on a laptop
- copies of postcards and/or photographs
- historical or current pamphlets or other documents
- small objects
Visual prompts work well as ice breakers for the beginning of a session to get a group chatting informally before recording begins.
Practise your questions, using the visual prompts and the recording equipment in advance with family, friends or colleagues to build your confidence.
Conversations organised as oral-history recordings are usually one of three types.
Structured: all questions are agreed by all participants in advance
Focused: themes and some general questions are agreed by all participants in advance
Unstructured: nothing is decided in advance (least likely for your SUP project, because you will have a focus for your project)
At the start of any of these sessions, start by explaining clearly what is going to happen and why. Begin the recording by stating the names of the participants, your name, the date, the location and the number of the session (you might visit a group/individual more than once).
Making a recorded conversation can be daunting. Practising your conversations with family, friends or colleagues and following the tips below will help you prepare and feel confident.
Tips for oral-history interviews
- check mobile phones are switched off, laptop sound is off, and any radios or TVs are switched off
- clear away newspapers, papers or pens which may create background noise
- follow theme(s) in chronological order
- take brief notes as the conversation proceeds. These will help if you later produce a written transcription
- be attentive and listen carefully – you may think of new questions to ask during the conversation
- allow conversation to flow naturally and let people be themselves
- be supportive: laugh (quietly!) at jokes and offer empathy or sympathy as appropriate
- remain as quiet as possible beyond asking questions. If you are asked a question, keep your answers brief; you are not the subject of the conversation
- stay to talk about the present after the recording has been completed.
- make sure all consent forms are signed before you leave (see below)
- follow up with a written thank you to the person/group, enclosing a copy of or link to the recording
- prepare a script – your questions are only guidelines and should not restrict the conversation
- interrupt when participants are talking
- add your own comments or opinions; try to use body language to show that you are listening
- argue with participants; history is subjective
- rush participants to get to the conclusion of a story, even if conversation has veered away from the the question
- take too many notes, doodle on your notepad or appear otherwise distracted
- rush away at the end of the recording
When a conversation is recorded, a participant’s words are owned by that participant. The recording itself is owned by the person or group making it, such as you or your SUP group.
In order to use a participant’s words you must gain written permission using a consent form. The consent form will tell the participant how their words will be used, shared in public and stored.
The form also gives the participant the opportunity of restricting the use of their words. They might, for instance, have revealed sensitive private information in the conversation that they would prefer not to be made public.
Permission must be gained on the day of the recording not retrospectively. Separate permission must be granted from each person participating in a recorded conversation. Ensure that all paperwork is signed before you leave and that you and that each participant has a copy of their form.
For Scotland’s Urban Past projects, all recordings will be made under the conditions of a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International Public License.
You can find a copy of the SUP oral-history recording agreement, allowing particpant(s) to give their consent, below.
Familiarising yourself with your chosen equipment will make the process of recording a conversation less daunting. Take the opportunity to make a recording with it in advance of the actual recording(s).
Audio recordings can be made using digital voice recorders, such as Edirol or Marantz models, some smartphones or using audio software on a laptop with microphone attached. Audio recordings should be created in MP3 format.
Video recordings can be made using digital cameras and camcorders, some smartphones (in landscape format) or using the camera on a laptop. Microphones will also be required. Video recordings should be created in MP4 format.
Editing and transcribing
It is not considered good practice to edit an oral-history recording. However, there are occasions where you may wish to make a copy of the original recording and from it make clips to include in an exhibition or as part of a film or use audio clips as soundtrack for a film, animation or presentation slides.
Popular editing software for manipulating oral-history recordings include:
A free, open-source digital audio editor. Available for Windows, OS X and Linux operating systems.
Microsoft Movie Maker
A free video editing software by Microsoft, which is an automatically installed part of the Windows Essentials software suite. Through this software, you can create and edit audio and video, as well as publish them on social media such as Facebook, Vimeo and YouTube.
iMovie for MAC
An affordable video editing application designed for Apple operating systems, such as an iPhone, iPad and Mac.
Adobe Premiere Pro
A timeline-based video editing software application that can be downloaded for a free trial. It is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud, which includes video editing, graphic design, and web development programs.
The words spoken in any oral-history interview belong to the interviewee. The recording created belongs to the interviewer. Legally, informed consent of interviewee is required at the time of the interview to create and keep the recordings.If you make any edits to the recordings or transcriptions of them, you must acquire separate permission from the interviewee to use them. The interviewee must be able to read the transcriptions or listen to the edited versions before agreeing to the new versions being used, as they may feel their words are being taken out of context. For more information on editing oral history interviews, see the free SUP guide: Oral-History Recordings: editing your interviews.
You may wish to create a transcription (written record) of recorded conversations. This will make the conversations more accessible when used as subtitles or a full transcript or for use alongside edited clips for creative projects. Transcribing a conversation can be time consuming. Unless you are an experienced audio typist, you will probably need to listen to the conversation several times to ensure your transcription is accurate.
- aim to record what participants said faithfully. Do not correct grammar, insert explanations of dialect words or delete swear words
- save and back up written transcriptions, and label them with appropriate file names which correspond to the recording files
- free software Express Scribe can be used on PC or Mac to transcribe audio recording. However, be aware that this software may not recognise strong accents, requires very clear diction and will most likely not understand local dialect words
- you can add captions or subtitles manually to your videos using Microsoft Moviemaker for PC, iMovie for Mac or to video or audio files using YouTube online. YouTube can transcribe the spoken word automatically, but again, the software may not recognise strong accents or understand local dialect words
Making recordings accessible
Oral-history recordings created for your SUP project will be submitted to the SUP website as part of your complete project.
The recordings will then be made available on the partner websites such as Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network (SCRAN) and the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive.
Hosting by these partner organisations means that the long-term accessibility and preservation of your recordings will be secured. Your recordings will be deposited in these archives under the conditions of a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International Public License.