Introduction to Oral History course 

Angela Towers, Sociology, Lancaster University (2019 Cohort)

My PhD is concerned with what might be understood as the 4th wave of feminism defined by the digital spaces, and my work is focused on highly visible, or viral, campaigns and events of the last decade, and their legacies. My research questions warranted a qualitative approach, since part of what I am trying to understand are the experiences of people at the centre of these events, during and once the news cycle has moved on, and to take a snapshot of these particular moments in time and the conditions that gave rise to them. With these considerations in mind, it became apparent that an oral history approach could fit well with this project. Traditionally, and among other things, oral histories can provide different insights and evidence from a new direction, they can also give a sense of belonging to a place or time, as well as challenging myths about groups of people or social phenomena. My first stop when writing my ethics application was the Oral History Society. The website has a wealth of advice and content available, from best practice to project design, and much more. I drew heavily on their documentation and standards to put together my proposal, which was eventually signed off by my University in March.

Since I was embarking on a method that is new to me, alongside getting to grips with industry standards for best practice and my own methodological research and process, I decided to see if there was any training available for someone like me, relatively new to the discipline. Surprisingly, not many organisations have adapted their content to be delivered online, as some of the training is designed to happen onsite at libraries and archives, presumably so that participants can get a robust feel for the process of an oral history project; from design to archive. However, the Oral History Society is one of the places which has successfully adapted it’s content to be delivered via online forums, and with the RTSG covering some of my costs this was an obvious chance for me to get the training necessary. The Introduction to Oral History course seems to run twice every month and I was added to the waiting list to try and get on as early a session as possible. Within a few days of booking, they contacted me to say an earlier place had come up – which was great as it allowed me to bring forward my first interviews and start gathering data a bit sooner, in line with my schedule which had already been thrown off quite substantially by the pandemic!

The trainer was an experienced oral historian, who was able to share a lot of their own experiences and personal insights, from the various projects they have worked on. The course was structured effectively, it ran over two days and had good breaks, which is important when you are digesting a lot of content! It included a brief history of oral history as a method and discipline, some small group work, large group discussions, and lectures. There was an interesting mix of people engaging in community and academic projects, which allowed us to cover a range of topics and ideas, as people talked through the ‘knotty’ elements of their work. This made the group discussions particularly informative and helped me to think through some of my own challenges. I felt like the convener utilised the various elements of the session effectively to give people time to discuss their work and ask questions and think things through. A particular highlight for me was a group session where we interviewed each other for 15 minutes each, here we got to experience being an interviewer and an interviewee, which I personally found very useful.

Due to my prior research in preparation for the course and for my own writing I found I was familiar with a lot of the literature that was discussed and recommended as relevant to my project and methodology, and this helped me to see I was on the right track with my thinking. I’m sure many of us are used to doing sessions like this via zoom etc which would usually have been done in person, and my approach is to find my most comfortable way of communicating in the group to allow me to speak up and share ideas and insights. It’s useful to remind yourself that all the participants are there for the same reasons you are, and you can learn a great deal from talking through your methods and approach and hearing others do the same. Problem solving other people’s methodological concerns can really help you to work through your own! This informal process is something we have all sadly missed out on doing, casually and in-person, over the past year while our institutions have been closed.

As part of my project I am hoping to produce an archive as well as my own thesis, and so it was important to get the right information and training prior to beginning my interviews, particularly on the technical side of things, since different institutions have different standards and requirements for archival interviews and given this novel approach to the interviews I have planned; oral history has traditionally been done in person, due to the pandemic I have to conduct my interviews online. This comes with a whole host of new challenges, which were covered quite comprehensively in the course. We were also encouraged to keep in touch with the trainers for any follow up questions we may have, which is invaluable. Overall, the experience for me was very enjoyable and positive, and has given me some of the tools I need to deliver my thesis and archive.

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