HOW IS ORAL HISTORY CREATED?
Materials from the article Digitized memories, or How is oral history created. An Oleksandr Yaroshchuk’s interview with Natalia Otrishchenko, MediaSapiens project.
Oral history as a phenomenon of modern times was initiated 60 years ago: its own history began when thousands of American soldiers were coming back from the battlefields of the Second World War. They witnessed those events, and their memories became valuable to researchers. American society was influenced by this traumatic experience of a large number of people. While it was believed earlier that history was what great people did and only prominent personalities should be interviewed, it was the experience of simple soldiers returning from the war that was of interest this time. Oral history theorists called the 1940s-1950s a renaissance of memories: memories became an object of research.
Usually, oral history is considered to be a method of recording testimony and a result of recording: it is an eyewitness account, a story of a person who has memories of the past. Compared to classical journalistic interviews, oral history is interested in personalized views, memories, and emotions. The contents of such interviews are memories of the past, not comments on the present. Secondly, interviews with witnesses last a long time — sometimes two, three, four hours, so that the narrator may tell as many facts of his life as possible.
Interview rules: how to prepare?
Before starting an interview, one should understand what this oral history fragment will be about, because depending on the purpose, two main types of interview are singled out. Firstly, Helinada Hrinchenko, a Ukrainian researcher of oral history, in the manual Oral History: Methodological Recommendations for Research Organization mentions the biographical interview, which is also called the narrative one. In this case, we mean a story about the history of life, designed to study subjective perception of the past. The second type of interview is problematic (thematic, focused). Its main goal is to study the experience by a person of a particular historical event, situation, or phenomenon.
Despite this difference, the rules of interviewing are common to both types. Basic rules, oral history principles, were developed by the International Association of Oral History in 2009. They relate to the rules of interviewing and determine how to prepare, how to interview and what duties the interviewer has.
Oral history requires thorough preparation, regarding both the content (the need to be well informed about the topic, to know history), and the process (the need to be sociable, to understand when it is worth raising questions, etc.).
● Before starting work, the interviewer should learn how to interview using the oral history method.
● The interviewer should arrange an oral history storage location in advance; it's best to keep it in archives and other open data repositories.
● The interviewer should have a substantial preparation for the interview: learn more about the narrator, topic, broader historical context.
● The interviewer should then inform the narrator about the interview topic and get his/her consent.
● One of the important stages in the preparation for oral history is a preliminary meeting of the interviewer and the narrator. During this meeting, likely questions are specified, the interviewer learns more about the narrator, while the latter learns more about the interview purpose.
● The interviewer should prepare a list of questions and topics, but during the interview he/she may go beyond them to get deeper answers.
Interviewing should be conducted in a quiet room, avoiding extraneous sounds and other irritants. However, when it comes to important sounds for history, such as rustling of photo album pages, playing a musical instrument, etc., they should be recorded. Ideally, the oral history should be recorded at the narrator's home, because the latter feels more comfortable there and can just take an album and show it. This is the perfect place for oral history. You can also negotiate a neutral territory.
The interviewer starts an interview (record) with an introduction, where the names of the interviewer and the narrator, the date and place of the event, and the topic are indicated. The introduction purpose is focusing the interview on a clearly defined topic.
Before the interview, it is necessary to clear its duration. The interviewer should watch over time and remember that the narrator can get tired and stop talking anytime. If the narrator can and wants to talk further, the conversation should go on.
Interviews should be conducted according to the previous agreement with the narrator; the interviewer should respect the narrator’s right to refuse to speak on certain topics, limit access to the interview and remain anonymous; the interviewer may also ask additional questions outside the interview topic in order to have the most comprehensive record possible; one should strive for the record to contain frank information of considerable value.
The interviewer must obtain from the narrator a signed agreement to preserve and / or distribute the interview records and other materials received during the interview.
Avoid turning the interview into an interrogation. When you notice that the narrator is tired, it is better to complete the conversation or to fix a different time for it. The narrator should feel psychologically comfortable. The person who agreed to spare his/her time for you should be respected.
Do not evaluate the narrator's words. Do not say: "Why did you not do that?", "I would do this if I were you." You have to listen actively and react because interviewing is an interaction. However, the interviewer should not express his/her attitude to the narrator's words. The first and main rule is not to do harm. The narrator should not feel used.
Do not interrupt. It is desirable not to interrupt the narrator, especially after the first question, when the latter tells about himself/herself and his/her life. Sometimes people use a pause before saying something very important. If you ask a question at this point, you can lose valuable information. However, if you understand that the narrator gets off the point, during a pause, you can say: "Yes, it's important, but let's talk about it after the conversation. And now let's return to what we talked about before." So we intervene only in those cases when the narrator speaks of something that does not relate to the topic at all.
Do not be distracted. An interview is an interaction. You cannot be distracted, the narrator will notice it and it will affect the course of the conversation. In addition, it's also about the body language, which is to be observed too: how the narrator is sitting, how he/she is watching, whether he/she and the interviewer feel comfortable; all this directly affects the course and outcome of the narration.
Finish the interview in a positive way. At the end of the conversation you should try to bring the narrator to some universal and pleasant topics. It is possible, for example, to return to the memories of childhood, if it was happy, or to ask about children, grandchildren.
What questions to ask
There are no standard questions for oral history. It all depends on what topics you choose and whom you will talk with. However, researchers point out that every interview can begin with a question about the narrator’s life, for example: "Please tell us about your life and your family history, we are interested in your life in general, in everything that happened to you." The answer to this question is called by researchers "the main narration". At this moment, the interviewer does not ask questions, but he/she can ask motivational questions like "And what happened then?", if there is a pause in the story.
This part of the interview, H. Hrinchenko writes, has no dialogue, that is, it is exclusively the story of the narrator. The interviewer supports the narrator with gestures and facial expressions. He/she can also use neutral encouraging words, for example: "I see", "yes, of course", "really" (but not "How terrible!", "You don’t say so!", etc.).
After the "main narration" the second phase of the interview begins, when the interviewer asks about the individual stages of the narrator’s life or some of the situations recalled by the narrator in his/her story. For example, Gabriele Rosenthal, in her article entitled The healing effect of storytelling: on the conditions of curative storytelling in the context of research and counseling, recommends the following questions: "Can you tell me more about when you were ... (a child, in school, etc.)?", "Can you tell me more about your parents?", "Can you remember a situation when someone spoke about this event?" The author of the article also recommends that, when asking about the difficult moments of the narrator’s life, the conditional mood should be used: "Perhaps you could tell more about..?" or "Might I ask you about the time when you..?"
Judith Moyer, in her Step-by-Step Guide to Doing Oral History, provides the following guidelines for interviewing according to the oral history method: "First, ask simple biographical questions. Ask personal, emotional questions. It is desirable to end the interview with simple, easy questions as well. Ask one question at a time. Be a good listener, show that you are interested in the story, ask about specific cases, examples, if the narrator speaks of common things. Specify the meaning of the words you do not understand.”
After recording the interview the last phase of oral history begins, i.e. preservation. At that moment, oral history becomes a historical document, a living testimony of the past that is to be preserved and, if there is such an opportunity, accessible.
"My Stories: Oral History and Urban Experiences" is an archive of interviews collected within the projects of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, dedicated to the past of Lviv. The purpose of the archive is to preserve memories and thoughts of Lviv’s inhabitants.
Natalia Otrishchenko is a Ph.D. in methodology and methods of sociological research, a researcher and coordinator of the Urban Stories project at the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe (Lviv). As an interviewer, she joined a number of international projects, including "Region, Nation and beyond" (2012-2014, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland), "The memory of vanished population groups" (2012, Lund University, Sweden).