Dear prospective History student,

Discovering the past - oral history
History is not just in books - it is all around us. And not just physical artefacts like buildings, landmarks and landscapes, important as they are - but in the memories and experiences of everyone. Oral history is a way to try to tap into this well of evidence. You may have tried it at school already - either through using testimonies already gathered or through recording them yourselves.
Oral history can take different forms - informants (interviewees) might be asked to record their own thoughts or be interviewed in a more or less structured way. Some historians write transcripts of their conversations with informants, often using shorthand notes (like journalists). But nowadays many find it easier to make an audio or video recording and then to type up the transcript later. The advantage of this is that you can always double-check that you haven’t misquoted someone.
Since September SFX has been piloting a new option to go alongside our ‘Revolutions in Early Modern and Modern Europe’ course, called ‘Democracies in Change’. We our studying the transformation of Britain between 1918 and 1997 and the USA between 1955 and 1992. These are not just histories of politicians and elites, but of the lives of ordinary people. Interviewing an older relative or neighbour would be a great way of starting to tap into some of the features of these changing times.
How to conduct an oral history interview:
  1. Identify a subject. They will need to be over 30, and preferably quite a bit older, to have significant memories of the period. They will need to be willing to give you some uninterrupted time - so you might need to make an appointment.
  2. Explain to them why you are doing the interview and get their permission to share their answers in class. Check that they are happy for their name to be used, or if they prefer to be anonymous. Ideally record this, either in writing or on the recording.
  3. Have a set of questions that you would like to ask. These might change as the interview goes on - they might cover some of them in other answers, or their responses might provoke other questions that you’d like to ask. Try not to be too leading in your questions - for example, ‘How do you think healthcare has changed during your lifetime?’ Is a better question than “What’s so good about the NHS?”
  4. Below are some ideas for some questions that might be relevant for the course - but by all means add your own depending on your own interests and the background of your informant:
  • When and where were you born? What are your earliest memories of your family? What was their background?
  • Can you remember where you were when… ? (add landmark events they were alive for, such as ‘When WW2 broke out / during Elizabeth II’s coronation / when JFK was shot / when England won the football World Cup / when Nixon resigned / during the inner city riots of 1981/5 / when the Berlin Wall came down.) Check your maths about their age to avoid offence!
  • What was school like for you?
  • How did you spend childhood holidays?
  • What was your first job? How much were you paid?
  • What music were you into as a teenager? What pastimes and hobbies did you have?
  • What political event in your life has filled you with most hope? What political event has filled you with most fear?
  • How do you think healthcare has changed during your lifetime?
  • How do you think popular culture has changed during your lifetime?
  • How far do you think the experience of racism, sexism and homophobia has changed during your lifetime?
  • Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to add?
5   Thank them for their time and ask if they’d like you to send them a copy of the recording and/or transcript. If the latter bear in mind that it can take quite a while to type up!
6   You are now an oral historian. You have added to the evidence base which you, and other future historians, can use to help to form interpretations of the past. If you’ve enjoyed the process you can repeat it with other informants, and begin to spot patterns of similarity and difference, consider issues about how representative the evidence is, and much more. Let me know how it goes by emailing a.stone@sfx.ac.uk 

Mr Stone, Head of History