The Federal Writers’ Project was part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal work-relief program. Between 1935 and 1939, the WPA arts programs, intended as a short-term support for the unemployed, turned out to be a large cultural experiment that had long-term effects.
It’s safe to say that in 1939 most U.S. historians considered their discipline to be an academic pursuit in the distillation of primary sources and authoritative interpretation. And folklorists then tended to focus on tall tales and legends – not living history from people’s mouths. It may be bolder to say that interviewers for the Federal Writers’ Project, working under national folklore director Benjamin Botkin, took a more contemporary approach to folklore that influenced not just the popular view of oral history (such as StoryCorps) but also shifting the perspective on who gets to write history.
Economic impact was just one aspect of the Project’s impact. In cultural terms, the Writers’ Project provided an unexpected incubator for talent, and gave some of the most talented writers of the 20th century their first jobs working with words, at a crucial point in their lives: Gwendolyn Brooks, May Swenson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever.
The cultural impact included, as Ellison told an audience at the New York Public Library three decades later, entire communities and groups feeling seen and heard for the first time.
Excerpt from Ralph Ellison remarks
Reading the best of the WPA life histories evokes for me Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, where two angels in overcoats wander through the subway, listening to the unspoken fears and dreams of everyday people. WPA interviewers were often the first people to ask everyday Americans for their stories, in a time when widespread fear and shame had closed off such conversations.
When I started researching the Writers’ Project 20 years ago, I got to speak with several of its surviving members including Studs Terkel, who championed people’s voices in many forms – from his radio interviews to his books, which he called “oral histories.” Even a musical of Working. He was generous with his time, and his suggestions led me to others, and to write a book about their intersecting lives in that time of crisis.
The Writers’ Project had a main goal of producing state guidebooks but to have those guidebooks informed by local perspectives, director Henry Alsberg added interviews with everyday citizens. His first folklore director, John Lomax, was succeeded by Benjamin Botkin, a practicing folklorist who set guidelines for the life history program.
As Barbara Sommer observed in her OHR review of Soul of a People, the WPA interviews, modeled on 1930s folklore guidelines, do not uphold the contextualized and open-ended standards for oral history accepted later. Since the WPA interviews came before formal oral history research methods emerged, oral historians would not technically consider them oral histories. But as Sommer notes, those interviews “helped pave the way for a broader and more nuanced understanding of U.S. history. In this, they represent another long-term legacy.”
Zora Neale Hurston was one of the best known WPA interviewers, having published several novels and books of anthropology. Despite the racism she faced, she managed to infuse her understanding of folklore and African-American culture in WPA products. Near the end of her eighteen months with the agency, she sent a proposal for a recording tour to Botkin, with a plan for traveling Florida’s Gulf coast with state-of-the-art equipment (a massive turntable) borrowed from the Library of Congress. She would record vanishing cultural traditions and songs she’d heard in her research.
The Florida recordings of songs and stories from turpentine workers include a man named James Griffin, who told the backstory of his song “Worked All Summer Long.” He was jailed for 90 days at hard labor in the Dixie County Prison Camp to pay three months’ rent to the lumber company, a total of $50. The song came to him while he was in jail, Griffin said. He and other inmates would take it up in the evening. “We’d be singing,” he said. “It helps.” He sang:
Oh my dear mother,
She prayed this prayer for me
My dear mother,
She prayed this prayer for me.
She said, “Lord, have mercy on my son,
Wheresoever he may be.
Diverging from Botkin’s model, W.T. Couch, the Writers’ Project regional director for the Southeast, assembled an anthology of WPA life histories from three states titled These Are Our Lives. When These Are Our Lives first appeared, the New York Times called it “history of a new and peculiarly honest kind” and “an eloquent and important record.”
A few years ago the Library of Congress marked the 75th anniversary of that book’s publication with presentations and two actors performing select interviews, representing the Theatre Lab, a nonprofit in DC with a Life Stories program that echoes the WPA approach to interviews.
“Botkin, like many intellectuals of his generation, was worried about the rise of fascism in Europe,” Ann Banks noted at that event, “and about possible consequences at home. His vision was how he might use his new job to counter that influence and foster the tolerance necessary for a democratic, pluralistic society.” He wanted the interviewers to reach citizens “who otherwise might not have left a record – more than 10,000 men and women, from an Irish maid in Massachusetts to a North Carolina textile worker, to a Scandinavian ironworker and an African-American union organizer in a Chicago meatpacking house.
“We must give back to the people what we have taken from them and what rightfully belongs to them,” Botkin wrote, “in a form they can understand and use.”
We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Barbara Sommer discusses The Oral History Manual, 3rd edition, which she co-wrote with Mary Kay Quinlan.
Read Sarah M. Schmitt’s review of The Oral History Manual, 3rd edition, online and in issue 47.1 of OHR.
When the first edition of The Oral History Manual came out about 20 years ago, a reviewer wrote that it helped people learn to think like oral historians. For co-authors Barb Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, this was our goal. We wanted to encourage people to think about the interview, the centerpiece of the work of oral historians, in terms of the methodology that gives it its meaning as an oral history. With each succeeding edition of the book, our updates have included new information to help its readers continue to grow in an understanding of the field. The third edition, which came out in June 2018, builds further on that base with detailed new information that covers advances in oral history methodology and practice.
The Oral History Manual, 3rd ed., as were the 1st and 2nd editions, is about oral history. The book defines and discusses methodology—the steps to take in recording and preserving in-depth interviews that meet oral history standards. The book describes the practice of oral history, discussing and analyzing each step and explaining its importance to the overall process. In it, we give readers the tools to become confident and knowledgeable oral historians.
There are many excellent publications in the oral history field. With each publication, the field expands and grows in exciting ways. But it grows from a common base – an understanding of methodology. Methodology provides the structure on which to build the continued growth and expansion of knowledge that marks the oral history field.
As co-authors, we worked hard in each edition to meet and support the standards of the Oral History Association as defined in its Principles and Best Practices. New information in the third edition includes:
information defining and describing how each part of the step-by-step methodology in the book interacts to support and strengthen the interview
information about steps in the planning process that can help lead to a substantive interview
updated information about legal and ethical issues
information to help guide recording equipment choices
a new chapter titled “Making Meanings from Oral History” that provides a thoughtful discussion about ethical, effective uses of oral history interview information
We included each of these additions to help strengthen and support an understanding of oral history methodology and to support oral history standards.
In its detailed step-by-step guide to methodology, The Oral History Manual, 3rd ed., offers a solid base for oral historians. Its chapters take the reader through the process, introducing oral history concepts while describing and explaining each along the way. Beginning with an introduction to what oral history is, it moves through discussions of planning, interview preparation, interviewing, preservation of and ongoing access to interviews, to uses of oral histories. In doing so, it lays a foundation for the sound practice of oral history.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
Oral historians have used previous editions of The Oral History Manual in many ways. It is often used in post-secondary classrooms to introduce students to oral history methodology and best practices. It is used by public historians in archives and museums to provide a comprehensive guide to oral history practice in these settings. It is used by community oral historians recording the voices in their neighborhoods and institutions. We wrote the 3rd edition of The Oral History Manual with these audiences in mind. As co-authors, our goal is to provide solid, thorough information about oral history methodology. In the 3rd edition, we’ve updated and expanded on information that readers have found helpful in past editions while continuing to help people learn to think like oral historians.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
The Oral History Manual in its three editions has been a part of the body of work in the oral history field for several decades. We look forward to its continued use in defining a strong methodological base and standard of practice for oral historians.
We always have had many people to thank for their support of this publication, but there are two we’d like to single out at this time. Thanks to former Executive Director Jane Renner Hood and the Nebraska Humanities Council for the grant that supported the work of Barb and Mary Kay which became the basis for the first edition of The Oral History Manual. And thanks to Mitch Allen, founder/publisher of AltaMira Press, now a division of Rowman & Littlefield, the official press of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), who, when he approached Barb at an AASLH conference with a request for a new oral history publication and the promise of a contract to publish it, provided us the opportunity to write and publish The Oral History Manual, now in its third edition.
In our latest installment of OHR Conversations, our recorded conversations with oral history practitioners and scholars, Na Li and OHR co-editor Janneken Smucker discuss her recent OHR article, “History, Memory, and Identity: Oral History in China,” examining the popular and public role of oral history in shaping Chinese consciousness.
OHR Conversations, between Na Li and OHR co-editor Janneken Smucker, recorded May 25, 2020.
Listen to audio only.
Na Li is a Research Fellow/Professor at Department of History, Zhejiang University. She is Editor for Public History: A National Journal of Public History (《公众史学》), and International Consulting Editor for The Public Historian. She serves on the Board of Directors for the National Council on Public History. Her research focuses on public history and urban preservation. Her first book, Kensington Market: Collective Memory, Public History, and Toronto’s Urban Landscape (University of Toronto Press, 2015) investigates ethnic minority entrepreneurs in one of the most diverse neighborhoods, Kensington Market in Toronto, incorporates collective memory in urban landscape interpretation, and suggests a Culturally Sensitive Narrative Approach (CSNA) to urban preservation. Her second book, Public History: A Critical Introduction (《公众史学研究入门》), surveys key issues in public history (Peking University Press, 2019). Her articles appeared in The Oxford Handbook of Urban Planning, History Workshop Journal, Journal of Family History, The Public Historian, Oral History Review, Public History Review, Public History Weekly, and a number of premier Chinese journals. She is working on a new book, Seeing History: Public History in China.
As we have collectively hit pause on many routines, projects, and plans, oral historians are considering whether it’s time to pick up the recorder again, and if so, how to conduct interviews from a social distance. The field has long prioritized in-person interviews, but the current pandemic has led some to adapt practices to our current environment. Here Kimberly Moore of the University of Winnipeg’s Oral History Centre reviews Zencastr, a tool that makes remote interviewing possible.
By Kimberley Moore
I have been working from home for seven weeks now. The Manitoba Food History Truck is parked in the secured storage facility where, apart for some spring-maintenance it has been all winter. The festivals and conferences we planned to attend have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. The “Manitoba Food History Truck” experiential learning class has been cancelled, too. As part of the Manitoba Food History Project interviews are conducted, for the most part, in a food truck while our interviewees cook a dish that is meaningful to them, or by traveling to more remote areas of Manitoba, like Churchill, to interview people where they live. Since these are logistic impossibilities for the time being, it was easy for us to agree to pause interviewing.
Certainly, none of us planned for year three of our project to proceed amidst a global pandemic. But, as much is on hold for us right now due to COVID-19, much continues: listening to the 53 interviews we’ve already conducted, transcribing (thank you to our research assistants!), producing story maps and podcasts, and research for the book that will come from this. Because doing oral history involves so much non-interviewing work, I lean toward the opinion that if you can wait to do an interview in person, do. There are other things that need doing in the meantime. The Oral History Society has published a comprehensive list of considerations for interviewing at this time, that is well worth visiting before deciding that remote interviewing is the best way to proceed.
But, face to face interviewing isn’t always possible, even in times when we’re not bound by physical distancing for the good of our collective health. For the oral historians attempting to document the experiences of our current moment in time, there is no other way. At the Oral History Centre we’ve used phone hybrids and Skype extensions to do remote interviews in the past, even when we didn’t have to stay six feet apart. For a variety of reasons, you will not always be in the same place as those you want to speak to. Having a reliable tool in place before the occasion arises is good planning.
Although we had agreed that we could pause interviewing, we were contacted by a Winnipeg expat in Halifax who was interested in being interviewed. After a brief email exchange, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to explore the history of food in Manitoba through the memories of an individual who had grown up with Manitoba food, but was now physically distant from it. It was also a great opportunity to test out Zencastr, a browser-based remote recording interface.
The following is part technology review and guide, part interview reflection, written after my first interview using Zencastr.
Zencastr is a podcast production tool. It is an interface that allows you to record VOIP (voice over internet protocol) conversations and, to a degree, enables audio processing within an internet browser. While it is capable of doing more than just recording––you can splice together tracks, apply noise reduction, add music, etc.––I tested only the recording feature in order to gauge the quality of recording and ease of use from both the interviewer’s and interviewee’s perspectives. My goal in testing was to see if this interface was reliable enough to produce archival quality oral history interviews and was simple enough so that interviewees would not be burdened with any technical set-up or problem solving in the process.
Mozilla Firefox pop-up requesting microphone access. In this case, to my external Zoom H2n mic.
As Canadian university researchers, we often find that technologies useful in team work and oral history are inaccessible to us from an ethics and data-security perspective. Many useful tools for collaboration and interview processing are cloud-based, and most of that technological troposphere is physically located on servers in the United States. Our workflows eschew cloud storage and sharing though platforms like Dropbox, and as such, automated transcription tools are, so far, entirely off limits to us. Zencastr has an immediate appeal in that respect, as it does not rely on cloud storage. Although automated uploading to Dropbox or Google Drive is an option, it is not required as the Zencastr recording interface uses the local hard drive space allotted to your browser’s persistent storage to store the recordings.
There are two tiers of Zencastr: a free version, and the subscription “Professional” version. I signed up for the 14-day free trial of the Pro version, which includes production features such as a live editing soundboard, the ability to upload musical accompaniment, and 10 hours of automated post production (for example, noise reduction). I chose the Pro version for the ability to record in 16 bit / 44.1kHz uncompressed WAV format, which is the minimum recommended quality for archival audio recordings. With the Pro version, there is no limit on the number of participants in a call, or the number of recordings you can produce. In contrast, the free version is limited to mp3 recordings and, although restrictions on recording hours and number of participants are lifted for the duration of the pandemic, these are normally limited to two guests per call, and 8 hours of recording per month.
Zencastr settings, showing a “low disk space” warning.
Initial set up is easy. After registering for an account, you may have to grant Zencastr permissions to access your computer’s microphone and browser storage. The system requirements are fairly basic: a recent operating system, either Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox browser, and 20GB of free hard drive space to ensure that you have 2GB of local browser storage available. Zencastr provides an automated check on the left side of the home screen showing the amount of browser storage available. If you see a warning here, the way to fix it is ultimately freeing up some hard drive space.
To start a new recording, you simply click “Create New Episode,” to create an invitation email with link. The email includes a list of top 5 “Do’s and Dont’s” (sic) and a button for the interviewee to join the call. After granting Zencastr browser permissions to access microphone and storage, the interviewee sees the same basic screen as the interviewer, which includes one waveform for each speaker, the recording status, and time-counter.
Zencastr records each speaker in a separate audio file, so before proceeding it is important to know you will need basic audio editing skills, or to use the limited post-production tools in order to combine these into a single audio file. In order to create high quality uncompressed recordings (WAV files), each track is captured and stored locally on each participant’s computer before it’s downloaded.
Screenshot of Zencastr recording settings showing the enable/disable options for WAV format, built-in VOIP, and editing soundboard.
You can choose to interview using audio only, or you can run Zencastr while connecting with a video call, like Google Meet, Skype, or Zoom. If you choose the latter, it is important to uncheck the “Use Built-in VOIP” box so that the VOIP from Zencastr does not conflict with the VOIP from your video chat. If you forget to disable this, we found that you can also mute the mics on the video chat to eliminate the conflict.
How did it go? Interview Reflection.
Before contacting my interviewee, I cajoled my coworkers into several rounds of testing, so I’d be able to walk my interviewee through how to connect and competently deal with any difficulties that might arise. My colleagues and I chatted a few times, recorded a few sessions, and made a few mistakes. I had confidence in the recording interface and my ability to manage it.
Connecting remotely, as it turned out, was a great rapport-builder. Before the interview I outlined our process for my interviewee by email including just the basics: “We will connect via Zoom, then I will send you a hyperlink to join the recording.” I also explained to my interviewee that the interface would work on either Google Chrome or Firefox, but requested we use the latter. Although the interface uses local storage, I don’t know enough about Google’s data collection to have confidence the recording would be secure, so erred on the side of caution with Firefox. I explained this, too.
We established a video connection using Zoom, and I sent the link to join the Zencastr recording via Zoom’s chat-window, which will open in the default browser. Once connected in Zencastr, I muted the audio in Zoom to eliminate the competing VOIP systems. I hit record, and we could both see the waveforms and record timer counting.
Screenshot of Zencastr showing the “Record” button, timer, and participant WAV files. After hitting record, the status indicator changed to “Recording,” turns red, and the counter marks the time.
My interviewee and I agreed to talk for about one hour. This seemed like a reasonable threshold for any video chat, and I was hesitant to push Zencastr too far in this initial experiment. I also had concerns that a long interview would result in a long wait for files to process. The initial connection was easy, and the internet was smooth sailing, but for one brief interruption that most of us have come to associate with working at home in COVID-19 times.
A few minutes into our interview I could hear, on the interviewee’s line, what sounded like a baby crying. This was the interviewee’s cat. I had not sequestered my cat or dog for the interview (they normally ignore me and sleep, respectively). Yet, shortly after the cat began to yowl on her end, the dog woke up on my end and began to whimper in a way that only an insecure, senile, geriatric dog can. I leaned over to pick up the dog, startling him into a blood-curdling yelp. As I was doing so, my cat joined us on my desk to block the camera with her tail as she walked across my keyboard.
Knowing that this scene will exist in the Oral History Centre’s archives for an eternity does not bring me joy. However mortifying, I have come to terms with it as a laughable moment that, in the archive, will be a record of widely shared “work from home” circumstance. I will archive this reflection so that future historians who listen will be able to make sense of this ruckus, and know that my elderly, confused dog’s yelp was absolutely not the result of any punitive measures on my part.
As disruptive as this was, on the recording it does not last nearly as long as it felt, and we quickly turned back to the interview. We talked about memory and food, about the politics of food across cultures and within families, of berry-picking at the lake, among other things. After about an hour, the internet connection began to stutter, and my interviewee let me know that a warning about connectivity trouble had popped up in Zoom (Zencastr was still running smoothly in the background, but this connection issue is audible in the recording). We agreed to end the interview and meet virtually again at the same time next week. We are not nearly finished talking.
Although one of the concerns with remote interviewing is that it might interfere with developing a good rapport with interviewees, that wasn’t my experience here. I think the necessity of having to explain the process, and work together to set up the recording interface on both ends actually helped. It is reasonable to be cautious of this, but like choosing whether or not to remote interview itself, it depends on circumstance. As many oral historians can tell you, being in the same room as someone does not guarantee good rapport. The enthusiasm of both participants counts for a lot.
Ending the Interview
Once we’d concluded the interview, I reminded my interviewee that neither of us should close the browser tab with Zencastr until the files were completely saved, as doing so would result in an incomplete file that cannot be downloaded.
Screen shot of audio files in Zencastr showing saved WAV and mp3 files. The two “unfinalized tracks” showing a caution symbol were the result of closing the browser before the files has completely saved.
After hitting “stop” the recordings began saving in our browsers, and we watched the progress of each WAV and mp3 file. There are four files in total: one mp3 and one WAV for each participant. Once completed, you can direct download the files to your computer. A word of warning: the longer you’ve recorded, the longer it will take for these files to process. You have two options here: you can hang up the call and ask your interviewee to leave the browser open until all files have reached 100%, or you can watch the files progress and make small talk. We waited on the line with one another, and talked about the current state of the world and our experience of working from home.
Conclusions and Cautions
In this trial run, Zencastr worked great as a tool for recording high quality interviews. We’ve subscribed to the Pro version for other occasions where remote interviewing is the only option; the uncompressed audio meets our archival standards, and it is very easy to use. Both ends of the recording sound excellent given the conditions of their creation and the separate recordings were easy to splice together using editing software. Our preference will still be to interview on the food truck and in-person, but in the meantime, we can use this tool to talk to people with whom we might not have otherwise connected. Just as with face-to-face interviews, we will anticipate occasional imperfections and technological hiccups.
I do caution that there is no reason to expect it will go so smoothly every time. An interviewee’s internet speed, the amount of available disk and browser storage, and the integrity of both internet connections are variables. You can always request interviewees do an internet speed test, to double check if they have 20GB free storage on their hard-drive, and to set up in a room where the connection is reliable and there are lots of soft surfaces to help eliminate any echo on the recording. However, these extra steps undermine the ease of use aspect, resulting in a fair amount of interview preparation, which might negatively impact their enthusiasm for the occasion.
Pros and cons weighed, I’m willing to roll the dice with Zencastr on occasions that call for it. Interviews are never predictable. There is no guarantee of rapport with an interviewee, whether you are in the same room or not. There is no guarantee that recording technology won’t fail you. In the case of the Manitoba Food History Project, there is no guarantee that rain won’t start to leak through the roof of the food truck, or that a generator or exhaust fan won’t conk out for mysterious reasons, or that the interview won’t be disrupted by unexpected guests. Like with any other interview, the best strategy is to practice until you are comfortable, and know which problems you can fix in the moment and which you cannot. Then you hope for the best.
Interview Excerpt with unexpected Guests
Kimberley Moore is the Program Coordinator and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre. She develops and teaches oral history workshops, creates educational materials, provides consultation in oral history, and helps to maintain order in the OHC Archive. She is a collaborator in the Manitoba Food History Project.
Featured image of Poirot the cat, courtesy of the author.
OHR has committed to being a forum for discussions among practitioners regarding ways to ethically and logistically conduct interviews in the face of COVID-19. Kicking off this series is Stephanie Snow and Angela Whitecross from the Centre for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine, at the University of Manchester, project leaders of NHS at 70: The Story of Our Lives, an oral history initiative documenting the UK’s legendary health system, which has now intersected and adapted due to the pandemic.
By Stephanie Snow and Angela Whitecross
“The interviews will be my legacy if I don’t survive the pandemic,” replied the junior doctor, when asked why she had agreed to participate in the NHS at 70’s Covid-19 oral history project. For our generations, unused to infectious diseases without cure, COVID-19 has produced seismic shifts across lives and communities. In the midst of this global crisis, oral history has a contribution to make, not just by capturing history as it unfolds, but as a social and therapeutic intervention.
NHS at 70: The Story of Our Lives is a national oral history project that is collecting testimony from patients, staff, and the public around the history of the UK’s public National Health Service (NHS) which was created in 1948. To date we have trained around 150 volunteer interviewers with ages ranging from 20 years to 70 plus years in oral history methodologies and recorded upwards of 800 interviews. Evaluation of the impact of participation on volunteers and interviewees was built into the project from the outset. Most volunteers were new to historical research and came from diverse educational and social backgrounds. They expressed the benefits of their involvement as increased self-esteem, feeling valued, and taking pride in the new skills they had acquired. Interviewees reported positive benefits for their wellbeing and social connectivity that arose from contributing their story to a national archive, alongside mental health benefits from reliving and processing previously undisclosed trauma through the interview process. Marginalized communities, not previously represented in NHS history, including people with disabilities and prisoners, testified that involvement created a sense of empowerment and stronger connections to a shared social history.
As much of the world moved into lockdown during March 2020, NHS at 70 suspended face to face interviews. Yet we recognized both the imperative to capture as much as possible of this extraordinary moment and that the project’s focus on the NHS gave us a unique opportunity to do so within the UK. The NHS provides healthcare for over 95% of the UK’s population and as COVID-19 spread, the UK’s private hospitals rapidly entered into agreements to support NHS services. Thus, the NHS determines and encompasses political strategy alongside patient, worker, and public experiences of the pandemic, and COVID-19 will be a watershed in its longer history. The NHS is also distinct from other nation’s health services in the place it holds in public imagination and beliefs. The 800 interviews to date speak to experiences of poor quality care, disillusionment with successive political reforms, and the stresses of working and being cared for in an overloaded system. Nevertheless, for most people in the UK the NHS is synonymous with freedom from the fear of consequences of illness. It has enduring value, whatever the everyday deficiencies in services may be. When asked what value the NHS holds for them, most interviewees reply, “I owe it mine and my family’s lives.” The NHS is a symbol of compassion, fairness, and equality and stands as the strongest example of humanitarianism and civilization in UK life.
Our aim for our COVID-19 focused work was two-fold: to capture experiences and reflections of patients, staff and the public as the pandemic unfolded, and to stimulate social connectivity during this period of physical distancing. Voice-to-voice interviews were a natural substitute for face-to-face interviews but this threw up a myriad of questions spanning technical, ethical, and logistical challenges. NHS at 70 interviews will be preserved longterm in a national repository and our WAV recordings are of broadcast and archive sound quality. One easy option would have been to record directly on mobile phones or on computers using online platforms such as Skype or Zoom, but that would have resulted in a set of recordings of inferior quality that would not mesh easily with the existing archive. We also know that some of our older interviewees who are in social isolation only have access to a telephone. We have therefore opted to continue to record on the Zoom H4N digital recorders which we use routinely but with the addition of a telephone earpiece with a built-in microphone. We also considered the preferences of our volunteers, many of whom are in their 70s. They were already skilled in using the Zoom digital recorders. Training them to use the earpiece was a relatively easy ask and we developed online support sessions to facilitate this.
The nature of the NHS at 70 project means that our interviewers are practiced in dealing with highly sensitive interview topics such as end of life care, terminal disease, and traumatic life events more generally. We have rigorous protocols for responding to distress from interviewees and/or interviewers but have reinforced these further to take account of the additional sensitivities around COVID-19. Our interviewers are able to debrief after each interview and also attend remote weekly drop-in sessions. There are new challenges presented by not being able to draw on non-verbal cues during the course of an interview although our older interviewees are from generations which are wholly familiar with using landline telephones. We sounded out our volunteers and stakeholders across health, community, and heritage organizations before beginning work and were reassured by the resounding support our ideas received. Initial mailings to existing interviewees inviting them to further participate in the project with either a single or regular series of interviews also brought highly positive responses. These interactions confirmed our initial gut reaction that the value of this work would lie as much in the process as the outcomes, and that bringing people together with the shared goal of capturing experiences would provide a point of stability in these uncertain times. We signed up over 100 people in the first ten days and in many instances we have been able to match them with the interviewer who did their initial interview for the archive. The first batch of interviews have been recorded and already interviewers and interviewees are reporting their delight in reestablishing contact through tears and laughter as they catch up with each other in this extraordinary moment.
Oral history is well-established as a key methodology for collecting, preserving and presenting the history of catastrophic natural and manmade disasters. The September 11 Digital Archive, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, and the Prisons Memory Project on the Troubles in Northern Ireland are just three examples in which first-hand accounts and other materials are brought together to create permanent records of the event. But the critical difference is that this sort of work has often been undertaken in the aftermath of crises and with survivors, rather than amid crisis. At this moment in time, none of us know whether we will survive COVID-19. Interviewers and interviewees are all actors on the same stage. It is impossible to answer in the present what the impact on the oral history material from all of us being insiders in this global health crisis will be. What is certain is that we have is a unique opportunity to capture history unfolding in slow motion through the voices of people living through COVID-19. Oral history enables an interviewee to narrate their life through chiseling memories into sequential and meaningful order; to demarcate the highs and the lows, the shadows and the sunlight of their life from their unique perspective. Doing oral history during a crisis when the end point and outcome is unknown, is much more about capturing the raw data that will subsequently be processed and absorbed into an individual’s broader life history. Listening to the same voices share their experiences and reflections at regular intervals during the crisis will reveal the workings of the processing of life experiences giving much sharper focus to shifts in feelings and reflections. In retrospect, the NHS at 70 interviews will give texture and depth to the ways in which the consequences of COVID-19 spun out across the UK and beyond, marking an epochal chapter in the longer history of the NHS and all our lives.
Archie, a porter who has worked at a large London hospital for 40 years, interviewed on May 6, 2020, speaks of the impact COVID-19 has had on his life after moving out of his family home and living in a hotel opposite the hospital.
Natalie, interviewed on May 8, 2020, is a full-time electric wheelchair user. She is tube-fed and uses occasional oxygen after suffering a severe form of Guillian-Barre syndrome 18 years ago. She reflects on how being at home during the pandemic was everything she had wished for at the time of her illness when she spent 11 months in hospital.
Lalith, a consultant in pediatric emergency medicine at a children’s hospital in the UK, interviewed on April 22, 2020, reflects on the stresses of working during the pandemic, including how to deal with the daily information overload and also the impact of new procedures on effective team working to deliver patient care.
Dr. Stephanie Snow is a historian of medicine, science and technology and since 2007 has led the development of the contemporary history of health and medicine within the Centre for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine at the University of Manchester, UK. Since 2017 she has directed the NHS at 70 project which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Dr. Angela Whitecross is a historian of political British history within the Centre for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine at the University of Manchester, UK. She has cross-sector experience specialising in co-production methods, research collaboration, digital oral history, and stakeholder engagement. She has been Project Manager on NHS at 70 since 2017.
Yolanda Hester is a public historian, writer, and curator interested in highlighting little known histories, community engagement, and accessibility. Her background is in African American and American history, intersecting cultural studies and economic development. She has a graduate degree in African American Studies from UCLA.
Tell us about the Childhood Narratives of World War II on the Home Front project.
Childhood Narratives is an interdisciplinary, transnational project focused on the stories of individuals who were children (between the ages of 5 and 18) on the home front during World War II. The goal is to collect roughly 200 interviews from around the globe. Currently, we have interviews from approximately 65 people who grew up in the U.S., U.K., and Eastern and Central Europe. Our students form the backbone of this project, as they perform most of the interviews and a good amount of the recruiting. We have archived some of the oral histories with the National Home Front Project. We plan to continue growing this collection as well as co-archive it at Florida Gulf Coast University, our home institution.
Tell us how and why an oral historian and a cognitive psychologist teamed up for this project.
This project was born out of frequent conversations we had about our respective projects, research methods and processes, and our cultural backgrounds. Frances was born and raised in New England, while Joanna grew up in Poland and Hungary before she emigrated to the U.S. as an asylum seeker in the mid-1980s. Both of us are focused on the recollections of others and study memory, but from very different perspectives. Frances’ training and experience is in women’s history, public history/material culture, and oral history. Joanna is a cognitive scientist who studies human memory from its most basic stages that include working (short-term) memory to the life-long duration of autobiographical memories. We found our two approaches to be complementary.
What were the benefits and challenges of this cross-disciplinary collaboration and the methodology you developed together?
Benefits and challenges are different sides of the same coin. The benefit of combining oral history and cognitive processing methodologies is that we have been able to chip away at metanarratives to get closer to the stories beneath. The methodology that we use explains and contributes to many aspects of human autobiographical memories that have not been the focus of prior oral history studies. Additionally, we have crafted protocols that we are happy to share with those interested in designing their own oral history projects, especially those focused on older adults. Small or large, such projects would be a great way to uncover and save stories for researchers as well as future generations.
The challenge is rooted in the inability to fully break through metanarratives to access the everyday realities of childhood on the home front in a a completely unfettered way. This was never our goal. But to access visceral, variegated childhood memories, an interviewer must ask thoughtful, often on-the-spot followup questions, and be attuned to the subtleties of the narrator’s communication style. These are skills that interviewers develop over time which, when working with undergraduates over one semester, we generally do not have. That being said, most of our student interviewers have demonstrated some instinctual understanding of these skills.
What is “metanarrative” and how does that play into the project? How do the interviewers work around the overarching metanarrative to dig deeper into an individual’s memories?
We define metanarrative as an overarching, often morally-weighted narrative framework into which individuals fit their stories. These frameworks all offer narratives an internal logic, directing the listener to consider the facts in a particular light. At the same time, metanarratives operate in different ways. They can be tricky, as Alessandro Portelli points out in The Text and the Voice(1994), as it draws attention to particular language while downplaying its own role in staging the purportedly real narrative.
We navigate the metanarrative by differentiating it from the often-forgotten realities that it glosses over, and then doing a deep dive into those realities. This requires close attention to the narrator’s speech patterns and body language, and drilling down on details that may seem irrelevant to the metanarrative of what Americans might call “the good war.”
Since the project aims to incorporate narratives from various countries affected by World War II, are there any generalized differences in the stories the interviewees have shared based on their location during the war?
There seem to be differences in the types of recollections that narrators share when they have been in the presence of or experienced direct physical combat, such as in Eastern and Central Europe and the U.K. versus those who were in the U.S. What is similar is that these individuals all reported fear and anxiety about their futures. In the U.S., the discomfort was of a more abstract nature with children fearing that the ‘war’ would come to their towns, although the specifics they were afraid of mimicked closely the narratives they experienced via the radio or news reels they watched as part of their movie-going experiences. But possibly because of the passage of time and the flattening of emotion that occurs to everyone over time, even the stories of direct bombings and narrow escapes were often told in a calm manner and with matter-of-fact tone.
Stay tuned for another guest post from Davey and Salapska-Gelleri, connecting their findings to the crises we face today.
Frances Davey is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida. Her teaching and research interests focus on U.S. women’s history of the 19th and 20th century, oral history, material culture, and public history. Her current research includes oral histories of childhood during World War II and stories of abortion and reproductive rights. Her work has appeared in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and Oral History and Education: Theories, Dilemmas, and Practices. She is currently working on a manuscript titled “Strong and Sure as Well as Fair and Soft”: Physical Education, Athletics, and the Roots of Women’s Physical Activism.
Joanna Salapska-Gelleri is Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida. She received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Experimental Psychology from the Cognitive and Brain Sciences program at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is interested in the fallibility of memories and the processes and factors that distort as well as enhance them. She studies how language affects the consolidation and recall of autobiographical information. Her broad research interests include the nature of the multilingual brain and how culture and context influence the memory systems of bilingual speakers. She continues to investigate the role that intuition plays in human decision making and ways to enhance intuitive processes. Her forthcoming book titled Mind, Brain, and Artificial Intelligence (Taylor & Francis) explores the relationship between cognition, neuroscience, and machine intelligence.
Featured image: Fenno Jacobs, “Southington, Connecticut. Southington school children staging a patriotic demonstration,” May 1942. Office of War Information, Library of Congress.
Prince Vlad, a pseudonym the author of this post uses to protect his identity, shares an account of how he interviewed an El Salvadorian gang member after earning his trust, only to learn soon after that his informant had been murdered.
By Prince Vlad
In the first two months of this year, 234 people were murdered in El Salvador. Several dozen young male gang members are among the dead. “Ramón,” whom I interviewed last year, is one of the them.
The unconventional lifestyle of gang members makes them suspicious of strangers, particularly those interested in their lives and their semi-clandestine social groups, which were declared terrorist organizations by the Salvadoran Supreme Court in 2015. I met Ramón through a gang contact who had a strong personal relationship with Ramón, his gang mates, and neighborhood residents. These intimate ties gave Ramón the confidence to meet with me and to record an oral history interview.
Our conversation took place in Ramón’s home, where he would later be killed, and lasted almost an hour. In addition, my gatekeeper and an evangelical pastor were both present throughout the interview. Several gang members stopped by, listened in, and then departed. I interviewed five of these individuals later that day.
I started by asking Ramón about his early childhood. He explained that his mother and father separated when he was young; neither wanted custody. “My dad was with another woman elsewhere, and my mom in Guatemala, who never came back.” “I never had a family,” he said.
Custody of Ramón was awarded to his paternal grandmother, whom he described as “a good Christian” and “advanced in age.” He said, “She gave me a lot of freedom [mucha pita]. I did what I want.” What he wanted was a family. “I never had a family, that is, I never had paternal love.” He described this “as causing you a psychological trauma you feel in loneliness.” Ramón’s grandmother was unable to handle her emotionally troubled grandson.
After learning to read and write, Ramón dropped out of school in fourth grade and began hanging out on the streets. At age thirteen, while hanging out with members of the 18th Street gang, at a neighborhood far from his own, Ramón nearly lost his life when members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang entered the territory of their rivals undetected. A street battle ensued and a grenade was thrown in the direction of Ramón and his friends. “Four friends died. Ten of us were injured. I almost lost my life,” he said.
Ramón’s vagrancy and street lifestyle led his father to place him in the service of the Salvadoran military; he served eighteen months. “And after that I got into drugs, womanizing, gangs and all that,” Ramón explained. He joined the Barrio 18 gang after running into friends of his from this gang while incarcerated for theft. “From there I left for Cojutepeque [prison] and, from there, I started my goings as a gang member.” He was eighteen.
I wanted to explore these lived experiences in-depth but our conversation shifted to more recent events after I asked him about prison life.
When we spoke, tensions between the recently inaugurated administration of Nayib Bukele and the country’s gangs were high. Twenty-three police officers, three soldiers, and a prison worker had been murdered by gang members across parts of the country; a similar number of male gang members, were killed by joint police and military patrol forces.
As he is wont to do, President Bukele responded via Twitter. He declared a state of emergency in the country’s prison and ordered inmates locked in their cells “24/7, nobody leaves for any reason,” reads his tweet. It ended with: “To the gangs: if you want your ‘homies’ to see a ray of light, end the homicides immediately. There is no other negotiation.”
“We didn’t know how [Bukele] was going to react,” said Ramón, “because imagine that fourteen days after becoming president, the deaths of the police began. … The truth, what he brought was a large bar of iron upon us.” Ramón acknowledged he didn’t blame Bukele for his hardline approach; he understood its origins. “[E]verything is part of what we have done,” he said. “We have stolen family of theirs, we have murdered family of theirs, and even them.”
Ramón, however, decried government policies and practices that violated his human rights, such as being arrested for his tattoos. Law enforcement should “not pursue tattoos but pursue the crime,” he bemoamed, “because…if they catch me [doing something], I need to pay for it.” Once incarcerated “I have rights as a human being. But he’s going to put me in jail for a lot of years, and he is going to have me there, that I have no right to anything, like I was not a human being.”
I asked Ramón why his human rights mattered when the gangs had ignored the human rights of the people they had “raped, killed, and extorted.” He deflected my question by mentioning the atrocities committed by the leftist guerrilla forces and the Salvadoran military during the country’s civil war. “Who was the first one to bring extortions here to El Salvador? It was President Sanchez Cerén when he was with the Frente Farabundo Martí.” “Therefore, what we’ve done is learn from what he did, though we haven’t committed such great massacres as they did of one hundred, fifty.”
I asked Ramón what good had come from his being a gang member. “Nothing,” he said. “The only good that it has brought me is to teach my son that he doesn’t need to be like I am. Because remember: to hang around the streets, sleep on the streets, to be in the prisons wanting something is complicated.” He acknowledged gang life had brought him “only problems, social discrimination [se?alización], and all this ink that I don’t want anymore.”
I was given permission to return for follow up interviews. However, two weeks after we spoke, Ramón and his gang mates attacked a nearby rival, wounding, but not killing. several of their intended targets. Due to safety concerns, my return trip was canceled. “Next year,” I thought.
Prince Vlad is a public school teacher who vacations from his little monsters by interviewing active and ex-gang members from El Salvador. He has recorded nearly 150 life histories with men and women from several different Salvadoran and U.S. formed gang identities that are found across El Salvador. Portions of his research have been presented at multiple national and international conferences.
We’ve asked creators of non-print and media projects reviewed in the pages of Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should explore them. In our next installment of this series, Simone Delerme discusses the Latino Memphis and Oxford project, produced for the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The oral history project, Latino Memphis and Oxford, is part of a larger book project. My second book project, International Memphis: Migration and Transformation in the Mid-South, documents the history and transformation of Summer Avenue—a commercial district in Memphis, Tennessee— due to changing residential patterns and the influx of migrants and their families. Through participant observation, oral history interviews, archival research, and analysis of new media, I document the migrant experience and examine how these individuals are incorporated into the social, political, and economic life of communities that were non-traditional destinations of migration. Memphis is a city with a history of segregation and a historical black-white racial binary. This book questions how migrants are navigating that binary and how they articulate their racial, ethnic, and social class identities as they pursue their goals of upward mobility.
How does oral history contribute to your project?
I worked on an oral history project for the Southern Foodways Alliance where I identified Latino restaurant owners and employees in Oxford, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, to document their experiences and in particular the challenges they face in the U.S. South. Through this oral history project, I discovered a geographic concentration of restaurant owners and merchants from other countries that are responsible for changing the place-identity of the community. I used the oral history interviews to learn about their lives prior to migrating to the U.S. and about their path towards entrepreneurship and upward mobility. The Southern Foodways Alliance has archived the interviews and transcripts on its website to share the individual stories and provide exposure for the business owners.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
I use oral history interviews to complement the other methods I use to collect data. With oral history interviews I get a much deeper understanding of the push and pull factors that have brought migrants to the U.S. South. The stories they share convey emotion, struggle, and aspirations that can give outsiders a deeper look into the migrant experience and reveal these individuals’ humanity.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in the project?
Latino Memphis and Oxford documents the experiences of a population that has been largely invisible in academic research and writing about new destinations of migration in the U.S. South. These individuals are not only low-wage, service-sector employees, agricultural workers, or laborers in meat processing plants; Latino migrants in the south are also successful business owners who have achieved upward mobility, and in some cases, obtained significant economic capital.
What is the one thing that you most want the audience to remember about the project?
I hope the diversity of the Latino population comes across. Often these individuals are thought of as a homogeneous ethnic group and the unique history and culture from each Latin American and Caribbean country is glossed over instead of celebrating the diversity within the Latino population.
We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Cynthia Brideson discusses He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly she co-wrote with Sara Brideson.
“He wanted to democratize dance. He wanted to bring it to the whole world.”
The above words were spoken by Betsy Blair about her longtime husband, Gene Kelly. Today, most audiences know Kelly simply as the man swinging on a lamppost while singing in the rain. It’s difficult to fathom how this man, jumping in puddles and using an umbrella as a dance partner, completely upended the Hollywood musical. Kelly was a great admirer of Fred Astaire but argued that Astaire danced for the wealthy. Kelly, on the other hand, said he danced for the proletariat. He turned everyday settings into his playground, designing spectacular numbers around them that transported audiences into a different world even without the aid of top hat, tails, or shimmering ballrooms. In Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly’s onscreen friend, Cosmo, says of obnoxious costar Lina Lamont, “She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. A triple threat.” Fortunately for the film world, Kelly was not like Lina Lamont. A consummate actor, singer, dancer, and an astounding choreographer to boot, his influence can still be seen today in musicals such as La La Land. And, it’s hard to imagine that shows such as Dancing With the Stars would exist if Kelly had not accomplished his goal of democratizing dance.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
My late co-writer and twin, Sara, and I were fortunate to have access to the Oral History Program conducted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The transcripts from the program are housed at the Margaret Herrick Library. We found the interview with Lela Simone, producer Arthur Freed’s steadfast assistant, quite illuminating (virtually all of Kelly’s films were produced by Freed). Simone gave lengthy interviews for this project. As someone behind the scenes and completely out of the spotlight of MGM’s publicity machine, she did not feel the pressure to maintain a fa?ade and whitewash reality. Simone had an intimate knowledge and viewpoint of those with whom she worked. Her stories were both surprising and touching. The most valuable bit of oral history in the book, however, was that of Kerry Novick, Gene Kelly’s eldest daughter. She was kind enough to grant Sara and I a phone interview and related stories about her father that showed him to be the intense, complicated, sweet, and thoughtful man so many filmgoers idolized onscreen. We also got in touch with Sally Sherman, assistant to Kelly’s co-star Kathryn Grayson, and she had quite a few anecdotes to share that brought to life how it was behind the scenes of films such as Anchors Aweigh and Thousands Cheer. Finally, Sara and I utilized interviews Kelly gave via television, radio, and print. We found television interviews most helpful as they were unrehearsed and most candid.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
Oral history invites much more honesty than any other medium. Memoirs and autobiographies are fabulous; indeed, Sara and I found books penned by those who knew Kelly including Debbie Reynolds Leslie Caron, Arthur Laurents, and Betsy Blair, to be treasure troves. However, the written word can be edited, revised, and erased altogether. It is heavily filtered. With oral history, there is more spontaneity and truth. Also, if you have the honor of being an interviewer, it is great fun to chat with your subject and hear his/her unique way of speaking. So much can be said just in the tone of one’s voice—another reason oral histories can speak a thousand words with as little as one or two words!
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
Sara and I endeavored to let the subjects in our book speak for themselves. We avoided making assumptions or offering pretentious analyses of interviewees’ words. In this sense, I hope oral historians will value the book for its straightforward yet reflective use of interviews. A few have criticized this book for not being “juicy” enough, but Sara and I did not want to infer anything the interviewees didn’t suggest themselves. I believe our book is honest and well-balanced and full of entertaining, revealing stories from those with behind the scenes knowledge of Hollywood’s golden age.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
I’d like readers to remember the pure joy Gene Kelly brought to screen. He turned the ordinary into a symphony of color, sound, and movement. If you ever yearn to again have the awe of a child first discovering his/her world, watch one of Gene Kelly’s dream ballets or simply his iconic “Singin’ in the Rain” number, and you’ll likely reactivate that sense memory of thrill and wonder again.