Friday, 22 May 2015

Preparing for oral history

This week LHSA secondee Iain talks about the preparations he has been making to record oral histories:
The project

I am working with Archivist Louise to record personal stories to add context to existing HIV/AIDS paper and object collections held at LHSA. We hope to interview retired policy makers, retired healthcare personnel, staff working in charities to support those affected by HIV in Edinburgh and the Lothians and possibly service-users of those charities.

If you thought it was just a case of going into a room with a recorder and your interviewee and asking some questions, you’d be wrong! There are many more things to consider and Louise is supporting me in getting everything ready.


Louise kindly spent a couple of hours with me one afternoon to start my training on what is involved in taking oral histories. Louise has recorded some oral histories before and had some handy tips on what went well and what didn’t go so well. The most important things I took away were to choose a quiet room with no possibilities of interruptions, to limit the verbal acknowledgements I normally do during conversations (no ‘uh huhs’ just nods and eye contact) and make sure any documentation is in order.

What kind of documents do we need for these interviews?

The bare minimum is a consent form for the interviewee to sign and an information sheet to inform them why they are being interviewed and what the general process is like. It is my responsibility to create these and other documents in preparation for our interviews.

Louise has shared her previous consent and information sheets with me. Also, Sahir House (a charity based in Merseyside offering HIV support, information and training) were kind enough to share their documentation with LHSA which they use for their Now + Then oral history project. You can find out more on that project here :

These documents from Louise and Sahir House were really helpful in formulating documents in advance of my first recording at the beginning of June. I now have seven different documents. The additional five consist of a checklist to ensure I bring everything and note sheets to ensure I’m asking the right questions at both the preliminary meeting and the recorded interview.

What happens before the interview?

In advance of the first recording I am doing (with an LHSA volunteer whose nursing work had relevance to our HIV/AIDS collections), I met with the interviewee for a preliminary meeting.

This was an unrecorded meeting in which we went over what the interviewee did and did not want to discuss in the recorded interview. As a result of that preliminary meeting, I now have created a sheet that allows me to take fast and easy notes if I need to, with a timescale sheet and predefined areas to put topics to include and exclude. This should really help for my next preliminary meeting with my second interviewee at the end of June.

Dictaphone belonging to Helen Zealley (former NHS Lothian Director of Public Health), now in her personal collection donated to LHSA (GD25). We do have a more modern one for these interviews, though...
And now for the interview …

I am both excited and slightly nervous for my first oral history recording on this project. I’ve still to do some test recording with the recorder which I will do next week. I experimented on my mum using the StoryCorps app on my tablet when I was last visiting my parents. The app was easy to use and allows you to choose questions in advance. I practised non-verbal acknowledgements (which was a bit harder than I thought) and went to the extreme of removing the battery from a rather loud ticking clock to ensure the room was quiet!

Taking my skills back to John Lewis

After speaking with the John Lewis Archivist Judy Faraday and Archiving Assistant Owen Munday I am hoping to maybe start an oral history project in the shop. I am considering focussing on the Partners in the Edinburgh branch who have taken advantage of their 6 months paid leave after 25 years service in the Partnership. It would be great to hear what they did during their leave but also how both they and the shop has changed during their service. There’s still a few things to sort out but it’s looking positive so far.

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