Friday 24th October, Newcastle University

This half-day symposium was organised by the Research Centre for Film and Digital Media and the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, as an interdisciplinary event, bringing together scholars from across the arts and humanities. This was fitting, as Portelli describes oral history as a composite genre, and Lynn Abrams, one of the symposium speakers, likens it to an octopus with tentacles – a practice which drags everyone in!

The conference was introduced by Melanie Bell, who outlined her AHRC research into the history of women in the British film and television industries from 1933 to 1989. The starting point for the project is the Union membership records of thousands of workers in the industry, as well as BBC staff lists. New oral histories will be recorded as part of the project, and archived at the British Library. It sounds like a fascinating project, which has some synergies with my own television history work on BBC Birmingham, as both explore production cultures and practices, through the eyes of workers in the industry.

One of the key papers on the day was from Penny Tinkler from the University of Manchester. Penny uses photos as a way of eliciting oral histories, with personal photo albums being particularly rich sources. In terms of analysing the photo based interviews, she discussed a range of strategies:

The paper made me reflect on the important use of photographs in my own research, and particularly about why some photographs seem to elicit rich responses in users, and others stimulate very little discussion.

The following session was more interactive. We were each given little blank cards, with a sprig of rosemary tied to them. Sue Bradley, from the University of Newcastle, played clips from different oral history interviews she’d recorded, and we had to write our observations on the cards, and then share our thoughts in a discussion. Carrying out more of a practical task broke the day up well, and provoked some interesting discussion.

One interesting aspect of the discussion was around the use of video in oral history interviewing, something which the majority of oral historians at the event were extremely cautious about. Sue’s interviews are usually extremely lengthy – up to 12 hours, which would make videoing them unfeasible due to file sizes. She did think that video was a suitable medium for interviews, but that the resulting material would need to be more focussed than a full life story interview. I agree that it would be impractical to carry out very lengthy interviews on video, but I do think that more targeted interviews can still be encompassed within a looser definition of oral history.

Lynn Abrams from the University of Glasgow, Centre for Gender History was the final keynote of the day. Her work was around changes in women’s experiences in post-war British society. She was interested in how the women she interviewed reflected on their past selves. Some were aware at the time of the new opportunities that they had had, which their mothers had not. Her stance was particularly concerned with the role that grammar schools and access to university higher education had played in improving social mobility for girls. However, there was an issue for some of us at the conference over the approach that Abrams took. She seemed to undertake her research from a particular feminist agenda, which at times might be at odds with the reactions of the women she interviewed. She mentioned that asking the interviewees questions about the role of feminism in their lives sometimes seemed to close the conversation down, and created discomposure, and that interviewees don’t always give the interviewer what they want, and therefore aren’t included in the analysis of the data. She seemed to be advocating only including a small number of interviews in one’s analysis, as you will always come back to using material from people who support the thesis, which you as the researcher have already determined. This would appear to be an approach which would be difficult to defend from an ethical viewpoint, and certainly isn’t a position that I would feel comfortable with.

Towards the end of the day there was an interesting discussion around the sensitivities of publishing oral history material online. Practitioners, such as Lynn Abrams and Sue Bradley were concerned that online publishing could affect the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee, potentially changing what could be discussed, and leading to difficulties if the interviewee made a disclosure. I can appreciate that in cases covering very sensitive material that this might be true, but generally the nervousness felt does not seem to be justified. There was also an anxiety about whether online dissemination might make interviewees reluctant to participate. Several delegates asked what the difference between listening to an interview in a library collection, and listening to the same interview at home via the Internet might be, and it was acknowledged that in reality there was little difference, and that the reluctance felt towards online publication might not be entirely rational. A worry was articulated about how online interview material might be misused; I would argue that usually the benefits of having participants’ stories more widely aired, should out-weigh the risk of potential misuse.

All in all, it was a stimulating day, which caused me to reflect on my own practice, and consider if in fact I am too relaxed over publishing material online, and also to think in more detail about the way that using video for oral history work impacts on the depth and richness of the stories told. It is perhaps more useful to encounter practitioners from different disciplines, who are undertaking research which is similar to your own, but where their approach, and sensitivities are very different.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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