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  • Ella Marshall

Oral Histories Training

For Children in Movement we will be collecting and presenting the hidden stories of child migration to Birmingham through the medium of oral histories - ‘the collection and study of historical information using audio recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge of past events’.

As none us of Project Workers had experience of this before, we were lucky enough to be trained by local expert oral historian, Helen Lloyd. From this training we then led a two day intensive training workshop ourselves to share our new knowledge with our first cohort of young participants so that they can then go on to conduct the interviews for the project.

We began by introducing participants to the sound recording equipment that we will be using to get used to the practical and technical bits and bobs. Being a musician, Joe gave everyone some useful tips on acoustics, for example 'dampening' the space in order to get the best quality sound.

We then listened to some examples of oral history recordings, and had an in-depth discussion about 'What are oral histories?' and issues that can come up when using this methodology. Some of the definitions and discussions we came up with were...

  • recording people's life stories by collecting their memories, experiences and opinions

  • historically significant things can be revealed, whether they are experiences of large historical events such as war to the seemingly trivial and everyday memories such as housing, food or family politics

  • can be an opportunity for those who don't ordinarily have their stories heard to be listened to and archived as records of historical importance. Could be seen as a people's or community history as opposed to 'History' where a trained historian constructs a single narrative. Oral history projects allow a picture of a particular place and time to be constructed through collating many different voices and experiences of people who have first-hand experience.

  • even if people don’t remember things accurately, the fact that certain memories exists and have stayed with them to this day is of just as much importance as grounded historical facts - oral histories provide subjective as well as objective interpretations of the past

  • everyone is the expert of their own life. The role of the oral historian interviewer is to facilitate the interviewee to talk about their memories and experiences - trust that what the interviewee chooses to speak about is what is most important or significant to them personally, and therefore also historically. In this sense oral history interviews are different to journalism (the role of the interviewer is NOT to probe them into saying what you want to hear)

  • as an interviewer you have to consider a range of different factors that make both you and the interviewee as comfortable as possible whilst also being able to record the most interesting stories. E.g. ethical issues and language barriers

After this theoretical exploration we delved into teaching participants the oral history interviewing processes and techniques that we had been taught by Helen. Through several different exercises participants practised these techniques by interviewing and recording us Project Workers and each other. This was a good way to get to know a bit more about each other as well as get lots of practice!

Though sitting and listening to someone talk about their life story might seem like quite an easy task, we discovered that there is in fact a lot of skill involved. It takes a lot of concentration to really listen to somebody speaking for over an hour, and to know what to ask next when they come to a pause (also pauses are okay and can say a lot in themselves!). You have to keep track of the chronology to make sure that a part of their story isn't missed out if they skip over a period or go on a tangent, and that dates are made clear. It is also incredibly important to be sure to ask questions which are open-ended and non-leading in order to get as much out of the interviewee as possible and for them to direct the interview in whatever way is most relevant to them.

It was an intense two days but I really enjoyed working with the group to learn and practice these skills, and hope that participants left with some ideas about who they might want to conduct their interviews with.

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