Gathering Oral Histories: Introduction

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It was clear from the outset of my current research that oral history would be a prominent component of my PhD (the clue was in Swansea University’s proposed research title – ‘Port Talbot and its Steelworkers: An Oral History’.) Indeed, the strong emphasis placed on the use of oral history as a methodological approach was one of the reasons I was so attracted to the project in the first place. After two terms of poring over the existing secondary literature and documentary sources I was, therefore, excited to commence with this phase of my research – not least, as a welcome change from the inherently solitary process of archival research! I conducted my first interview in September of last year and over the next four months up to Christmas conducted around thirty interviews with former (and some current) employees of the Port Talbot steelworks, which will comprise the majority of my oral testimonies. In total I now have over forty hours of recorded interviews on my hard drive; the dauntingly nerve-shattering process of transcribing which I have only just begun…

The interviews themselves were designed to explore a number of aspects dealing with the social history of the town’s steel industry. As well as focusing on the interviewees’ experiences in work, including the culture and organisation of the workplace, the interviews also sought to explore the effect that industry had on their communities, families and personal lives. In these respects, and many more, the interviews were uniquely illuminating. Throughout all of the interviews I conducted people’s memories of work, community and kinship created a vivid and vibrant account of life in the steel industry, both at work and at home. This was, in no small part due to the extraordinary personalities and memories of the interviewees, rather than any great skill as an interviewer on my part. The interview process itself was certainly one of the most enjoyable and rewarding pieces of historical research I have had the opportunity to undertake and the temptation to carry on amassing oral testimonies is incredibly tempting as a result.

As a complete oral history novice at the outset of this experience, however, the prospect of collecting and recording interviews could also be a daunting one. The majority of sources we encounter as historians are inanimate and passive. Whilst we may critically engage with them, we interpret rather than produce them. The uniqueness of oral history is that the researcher has the opportunity to be an active agent in the creation of his source material. By determining the questions and even moderating the tone and emphasis of the dialogue, the historian is consciously shaping the ‘evidence’ produced. The potential in adopting such an approach is, of course, vast – it is rare when historians put a question to the past that the past has an opportunity to answer back – but it also carries additional responsibility. How does the historian guide the interview in such a way as to produce information relevant to his/her study without suggestively influencing the character of the response? There are also ethical concerns to be considered: issues of privacy, sensitivity and human empathy all have to be observed. Moreover, there is the burden of accountability; historians are used to being judged on the strength of an argument or an interpretation but are typically removed from any responsibility for the inherent limitations of their sources. Conducting oral history then requires a distinct set of skills, some of which are more broadly applicable to the practice of history as a whole and others that are, perhaps, more specific.

Over my next few blog posts I intend to share some observations from the interviews I have conducted thus far, along with some description of the methods I used and the successes and limitations thereof. The first post in this series (to follow soon) will begin with a brief look at how I went about finding interviewees.

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