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Oral history of the townland.

Interviews should be carried out with as many as possible of the older inhabitants of the townland. Once the interviews have taken place they should be transcribed and interviewees asked if they agree with the content. The original recording should be retained.

The following was obtained from

  • Oral history is the recording of people's memories. It is the living history of everyone's unique life experiences.
  • Oral history records people's experiences on sound and video tape. It is a vital tool for our understanding of the recent past. No longer are we dependent only on the written word.
  • Oral history enables people who have been hidden from history to be heard, and for those interested in their past to record personal experiences and those of their families and communities.
  • Oral history is new and exciting because it is interactive: it is shared history and a rare chance to actually talk to history face to face.
  • Oral history preserves everyone's past for the future.

How Can Oral History Be Used?

  • Oral history brings a new dimension to local and family history.
  • Oral history is used in schools by young people to explore their own community: talking about the past brings young and old together.
  • Oral history is used in community and residential work with older people to encourage a sense of worth and continued contribution to society.
  • Oral history in museums, galleries and heritage displays is used to inform and brings displays to life.
  • Oral history collections at local archives and libraries have emerged as important new sources for all those interested in history.
  • Oral history is an important source for many radio and television programmes.


What is Oral History?

When many people think about history, they think about dusty books and documents, archives and libraries, or remote castles and stately homes. In fact history is all around us, in our own families and communities, in the living memories and the experiences of older people. We have only to ask them and they can tell us enough stories to fill a library of books. This kind of history - that we all gather as we go through life - is called ORAL HISTORY.

Everyone has a story to tell about their life which is unique to them. Some people have been involved in momentous historical events like the Second World War, but many others haven't. Regardless of age or importance we all have interesting experiences to share.

Most importantly, historical documents and books can't tell us everything about our past. Often they concentrate on famous people and big events, and tend to miss out ordinary people talking about everyday events. They also neglect people on the margins of society - ethnic communities, disabled and unemployed people for example - whose voices have been hidden from history. Oral history fills in the gaps and gives us history which includes everyone.

Unfortunately, because memories die when people do, if we don't record what people tell us it is history that is lost for ever.

What Can People Remember?

Everyone forgets things as time goes by and we all remember things in different ways. Some people's memories are better than others and for reasons we don't really understand, many people actually remember their early years more as they get older. This is helpful when we want to tape-record peoples memories. All memories are a mixture of facts and opinions, and both are important. The way in which people make sense of their lives is valuable historical evidence in itself. Few of us are good at remembering dates, and we tend to telescope two similar events into a single memory. So when we interview people it is important to get them to tell us about direct personal experiences - eye-witness testimony - rather than things that might have been heard second hand.

Where you Start

If you haven't done any oral history interviewing before, think first about a focus or theme for your project. This could be your own family or street or block of flats, or it could be where you work, or your school. You might want to pick a topic to ask people about, for example memories of childhood, leisure, politics, religion or women's experience in wartime or memories of coming to Britain as a migrant. Whether you decide to work alone or as part of a group, having a theme will help you to decide who to interview.

Finding someone to interview

  • Ask friends, relatives, neighbours, work colleagues
  • Contact local history groups, Women's Institutes, Rotary Clubs, trade unions, schools, professional or voluntary organisations
  • Visit older people's centres and clubs
  • Ask you local newspaper or radio station to run an appeal
  • Put a notice up in your local library or museum


Before interviewing someone it's useful to have done some background research. Have a look at any books, maps or old newspapers  that might be relevant in your local library or record office. Prepare a list of questions but be careful that this does not make you too rigid in your questioning approach. Use it as a memory jogger.

Some of the best things you find out will be unexpected, and once you get started you are likely to be told some things you had not previously thought about. So it is essential to give  the person you are recording  plenty of space to tell you what they think matters. But you should not let the interview drift: it is your job to guide it. For this you need an overall plan. Group the topics you want to cover in a logical way. Often a chronological structure is best.

Preparing questions

Work out how to ask the essential questions.

Use plain words and avoid suggesting the answers. Rather than,
"I suppose you must have had a poor and unhappy childhood?", ask
"Can you describe your childhood?"

You will need some questions that encourage precise answers:
"Where did you move to next?"

But you also need others which are open, inviting descriptions, comments, opinions:
"How did you feel about that?"
"What sort of person was she?"
"Can you describe the house you lived in?"
"Why did you decide to change jobs?"

There are some points to cover in every interview: date and place of birth, what their parents' and their own main jobs were. And whatever the topic, it usually helps to get the interviewee talking if you begin with their earlier life: family background, grandparents, parents and brothers and sisters (including topics such as discipline), then onto childhood home (housework, chores, mealtimes), leisure (street games, gangs, sport, clubs, books, weekends, holidays, festivals), politics and religion, schooling (key teachers, friends, favorite subjects), early relationships, working life (first job, a typical working day, promotion, pranks and initiation, trade unions and professional organisations), and finally later family life (marriage, divorce, children, homes, money, neighbours, social life, hopes) Most people find it easier to remember their life in chronological order, and it can sometimes take you two or three sessions to record a full life story.

The best interviews flow naturally and are not rehearsed. Don't over-prepare. don't use a script. Tape recorded life stories should be lively, spontaneous and vivid. Allow people to be themselves.

Recording Equipment

Because you can't write down everything that someone tells you it is a good idea to use a tape-recorder. Your recordings will be unique historical "documents" which other people need to be able to hear and understand easily, so it's worth getting a good quality recording. If you can't afford to buy any equipment you might be able to borrow some from a local oral history, group, library, museum or talking newspaper.

Audio recorders

There are many different makes of portable audio recorders: some, like audio cassette recorders, are analogue; some, like minidisc recorders, are digital. Choosing the right recorder depends very much on your budget and what you plan to do with the recordings subsequently, bearing in mind that audio formats and professional advice are in constant flux, so it is vital to seek up-to-the-minute advice. Amongst analogue cassette recorders the Marantz CP430 and the Sony Professional Walkman are the best available, but there are lots of cheaper Walkman-style cassette recorders around. Many of this second type will have built-in microphones which can give poor results, so if possible find one with a socket which takes an external microphone. It's also worth looking out for one with a "noise reduction" (NR) system, like Dolby. Always use new, unused tape: C60 length ordinary ferric (FE) cassettes are best. Remember to set the controls on your recorder to match the type of tape you are using. For digital recording DAT (Digital Audio Tape) is now regarded as an obsolete format and is not to be advised. Many oral historians are now using minidisc recorders (MD) with great success. MD has the benefits of portability, hiss-free recording quality, index trackmarks, and the recorders can be relatively low cost. Their main disadvantage is that MD is a format that is unlikely to last more than 5-10 years so if the recordings are to be archived it is recommended that they are copied (cloned) onto CDR (preferably gold rather than silver CDR) which is regarded as a more viable long-term archival medium.


Interviewing out of doors

For one-to-one interviews indoors, the best microphone is a small tie clip or lapel microphone. If your recorder is stereo and has two microphone sockets you can get two microphones - one of your interviewee and one for yourself. They can be attached discreetly to your clothing and give excellent results. For interviews outdoors a uni-directional (or cardioid) hand-held microphone is best as it will pick up less unwanted noise.

The best way to approach someone you want to interview is by personal contact, rather than by letter, and often the initial contact will be by telephone. This gives you an opportunity to introduce yourself, explain your project and outline the sort of topics you might cover in your conversation. The person you have approached may be uncertain: they might say they have nothing interesting to say. So you sometimes have to do a bit of persuading. The key is to talk in terms of "a chat about the past" or a "story of your life" rather than an "interview" which can sound forbidding!

When you speak to them get some background information and decide where the interview should take the place. The person's own home is by far the best as they will be much more relaxed. A one-to-one interview is best. Privacy encourages an atmosphere of trust and honesty. A third person present, even a close partner, can inhibit and influence free discussion.

Doing the interview

Be reassuring:

Remember that you are their guest, and if they are elderly, that you may be the first person they have spoken to for several days. They will be as nervous and apprehensive as you are, so it is essential to be cordial and patient.

Choose a quiet place:

Try to pick a room which is not on a busy road. If you can, switch off radios and televisions, which can sometimes make it difficult to hear what someone is saying.

Get close:

Sit side-by-side and if you are using a clip-on microphone, put it about nine inches from the person's mouth. With a hand-held microphone place it as near as possible but not on the same surface as the recorder, nor on a hard surface which gives poor sound quality. Generally, the closer the microphone the better the results.

Keep your questions short and clear:

  • Don't interrupt: Don't ask too many questions. Your aim is to get them to talk, not to talk to yourself. Always wait for a pause before you ask the next question. Listen carefully and maintain good eye contact.
  • Respond positively: body language like nodding and smiling is much better than "ers" and "ums" and "reallys".
  • Be relaxed, unhurried and sympathetic.
  • Don't contradict and don't get into heated debate.
  • Don't be afraid to aak more questions, but don't jump from one subject to another too abruptly. As well as a mere descriptive retelling of events, try to explore motives and feelings with questions like "Why?" and "How did you feel?".

Getting behind stereotype and generalisation is one of the most challenging aspects of interviewing people. But remember to be sensitive and always respect confidences.

After the interview

After the interview is finished don't rush away. Take time to thank them and talk about yourself. You will often be shown some interesting old photographs or documents. Before you leave provide an address or phone number where you can be contacted and make clear whether you will be returning for a follow up interview or not. This can avert any unnecessary worry. Remember that your visit will often have a major impact on someone who has perhaps never told anyone their memories before.

Back at base it is useful to make a safety copy of each tape. Write as much information as you can on the tape box, in particular the interviewee's name and date of birth, the place and date of the interview, your own name and the number of tapes you used. Think about giving a copy to your local library or archive. Write a synopsis of the interview which briefly lists in order all the main themes, topics and stories discussed. This will come in useful of you want to use the interview in an exhibition, or book, or radio programme.



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