Aim of this guide
This guide will help you learn how to collect and share memories of the soldiers who served in the First World War and the families they left behind.
What is oral history?
We all have stories to tell. Oral history listens to these stories. Oral history is the systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own memories, stories and experiences. Oral history is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumour.
Oral history, well done, gives one a sense of accomplishment. Collecting oral history, we have a sense of catching and holding something valuable from the receding tide of the past.
Capture unique histories
Everyday memories of everyday people, not just the rich and famous, have historical importance. If we do not collect and preserve those memories and stories, one day they will disappear forever. The stories you collect will become unique, valuable treasures for your family, your community and the wider world.
Oral history depends upon human memory and the spoken word, which requires people to be interviewed and recorded. This can be both an exciting and daunting experience, which is why the advice offered here will help you get off to a great start.
1. Things to do before an interview
Know what you want to find out.
Have a clear idea about what you want to find out. Group the topics you want to cover in a logical way before writing out specific questions. Often a chronological (life story) structure works best. However, be prepared to be flexible in the interview and do not stick rigidly to the order of questions.
Conduct preliminary research.
Before interviewing it is useful to do some background research eg on the experiences of Sikh (and other Indian) soldiers in the First World War or life in Punjab. A great place to start is the EFW resources page. However, make sure you do not lead the interview with your knowledge.
It is important to get people to talk about their direct personal experiences though sometimes this might include their retelling of other people’s memories that have been told to them. In fact most of the interviews will be with individuals who do not have a personal memory of the war. They will more often than not be a descendent of a veteran or of a family who were left behind in Punjab.
Contact potential interviewees.
You will have to explain your project, and ask for help. If possible, chat to your interviewee in person or by phone beforehand. This will also allow you to identify any special requirements eg for people with disabilities, interpretation or translation.
Make up your list of questions.
Use open-ended questions. These are phrased so that they can't be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. These ‘open’ questions allow people to tell the story in their own way and select what they want to share. These can be followed by ‘closed’ questions (‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses), if needed, or if you are looking for specific short-answer ‘facts’ to fill in the details.
For example, rather than asking ‘Was life difficult for your mother when her husband went to fight in the First World War?’ (This is a closed and leading question, which takes the interviewee in a certain direction. This is regarded as bad practice - see point 6 below.) Ask instead ‘How did your mother cope when her husband went to fight in the First World War?’
Include questions that encourage description and reflection.
Try to find out not only what the person did, but also what they thought and felt about what they did. Questions like ‘Why?’, ‘How did you feel?’ ‘What sort of person was she?’ will help people explore motives and feelings.
Avoid including insensitive terminology and leading questions.
These types of questions are less useful as they may suggest answers (for example ‘I suppose you must have had a poor and unhappy childhood?’).
Assemble your equipment.
First decide whether to record in audio or video format. Each has its merits, but videoing tends to be more complicated, and the resulting digital files are much larger. See below for some tips for audio and video recording. For both audio and video formats you will require computer equipment and software to access, rename, backup and document the recordings, and upload to the EFW database.
Test your equipment beforehand.
Get to know how it all works under various conditions. Practice using your equipment before you go to the real interview.
Make sure you have plenty of memory available.
You should have at least enough to record 120 minutes (2 hours) of interview in your chosen format (video files require far more memory than audio files).
The more comfortable you are with the whole process, the better your end results will be.
Verify your appointment.
This should be done a day or two before the interview. Interview people one-to-one in their own homes or somewhere else they feel comfortable.
Take issues of personal safety seriously.
Inform someone you trust (eg friend or colleague) of the details of your appointment (ie date, place, timings and contact number).
On the day of the interview, give yourself extra time to get there so you don’t keep your interviewee waiting.
2. Things to do during an interview
Put your interviewee at ease.
Ensure people are comfortable, sit at the same level, and maintain good eye contact. Introduce yourself and the project and explain what will happen to the recordings. This is not a private conversation. Make it clear that they have the right to not respond to any questions or withdraw from the interview at any point.
Offer them a copy of their recording and written summary (see below), and explain that at the end of their interview they will be asked to sign a recording agreement.
Interview and record in a quiet place.
Choose a quiet place to make the recording and get the microphone close to the speaker. Use lapel microphones if your interviewees are happy to use them.
When setting up, listen for a moment. Make adjustments, such as stopping the pendulum on the tick-tock clock and closing the door on the noisy traffic. Test the sound levels by asking the interviewee to speak in their normal voice and check that the levels do not regularly go above 7 or 8 on the scale (into the red). Equally, make sure the levels aren't too low - adjust the levels as required.
There may be psychological forces at work during the interview. Be aware that interviewing can be an emotional and tiring process. If the interviewee becomes distressed turn off the recording equipment and see if they wish to continue or not and/or resume at another time.
In some cases the interviewer might also need support. If you want, and in agreement with the interviewee in advance, work in a team of two especially when making video recordings. One person should be responsible for all technical matters (cameras, lights, sound, background, etc) and the other for conducting the interview.
Start each recording with a statement:
Of who, what, when, and where you are interviewing.
You only get what you ask for. Ask easy questions first, such as brief biographical queries. Ask more probing questions (those that are very personal or emotionally demanding) after a rapport has developed.
Ask one question at a time.
Follow up your current question thoroughly before moving to the next. Don’t rush it.
Speak one at a time.
Be careful not to pepper the interview with verbal encouragement (such as ‘uh-huh’) said at the same time that the interviewee is speaking as it can be off-putting for the listener of the recording, and you may accidentally speak over the interviewee.
Be a good listener.
Listen actively and intently, using positive body language such as maintaining eye contact with the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage and give the message, ‘I am interested and following what you’re saying’. If necessary, use verbal encouragement such as ‘This is wonderful information!’ or ‘How interesting, can you tell me more about xyz?’
Give the interviewee time to think. Allowing them the space will often produce additional information and reflections which might not otherwise have been forthcoming.
Watch for and pick up on promising topics introduced by the interviewee, even if the topics were ones you didn’t think of before. Give people space and time to say what matters to them. If the interview drifts too far from your chosen topics, use your questions to get back on track. Allow unprompted responses, particularly if something difficult comes up. The best advice is to allow people to be themselves.
Rephrase and re-ask an important question.
Do this several times, if you must, to get the full amount of information the interviewee knows, but do not press for this information if the interviewee struggles to recall it.
Ask for specific examples.
This is if the interviewee makes a general statement and you need to know more. Or you might say, ‘Could you explain that in more detail?’ Make sure you ask for definitions and explanations of words that the interviewee uses and that have critical meaning for the interview.
Wrap up the interview with lighter talk.
End as you began, not with bombshells, but gently with lighter questions. Be careful not to drop the interviewee abruptly after an intense interview.
Limit interviews to about one to two hours in length.
This depends on the fatigue levels of you and your interviewee.
Use photos and objects with care.
In general, don't count on photos or personal objects to structure your interview, but you can use them as initial prompts. A written record or a photographic copy of its existence can be filed alongside the interview. For more on how to digitise photographs look here.
Be prepared to borrow photographs for digitising.
If the interviewee is willing to lend you their photograph(s) (eg a portrait of them or their WW1 relative) so that they can be shared with the project, make sure you handle them by the edges and transport them protected by stiff cardboard in envelopes. Ensure each envelope is labelled (do this before placing photos in them to avoid damage). Take a look at our digitisation guide to learn how to scan images.
Have the interviewee sign a release form.
Make sure this is done before you leave. You can download one here. This is a good time to leave a contact number and thank people for their time.
Be aware of potential problems.
See below for a list of issues to look out for that could affect the quality of your recording. Think about how you can minimise the impact of each one before you begin the interviewing process.
3. Things to do after an interview
Process the interview.
Label all files immediately using the following file-naming format:
[Name of Interviewee: Surname-First Name and Middle Name]--[Date of Interview: YYYY-MM-DD]--[File Number: XX]
Make a backup copy immediately.
You should ensure that you have the time and the right computer equipment to backup all your audio, video, image and text files to more than one external hard drive and/or a secure server system (note: some cloud backup systems terms and conditions state that the service provider own any material uploaded). Only use the copy files, eg for creating a written summary (see below) or when transcribing the interview.
Digitise borrowed material immediately and return the originals.
You may also wish to give the interviewee a copy of the recording. This is also a good time to write a thank-you note.
Create a written summary (and a transcription if you have the time).
As soon as possible you should summarise the content of the interview (in English). List each significant theme as it occurs, cross-referenced to the time-coded track-mark on the digital recording. Please note that on average it takes two hours to summarise a one-hour interview (2:1 ratio) but six hours (6:1 ratio) for a full word-for-word transcription. Personal details of interviewee such as address, telephone, email and name should be kept separate from the recordings and summaries but should be clearly cross-referenced.
Create a record of the soldier on our Soldier Map.
It’s vital that we build up our database of Sikh soldiers so please make sure that there is a record created for them.
Share your interview with the ‘Empire, Faith & War’ project.
Email us to arrange this via file transfer. Don’t forget to send us a copy of the completed release form.
Tips on audio & video recording
1. Audio interviewing
Many oral historians favour audio for its ease-of-use, portability, and intimacy:
- Generally speaking, there’s no need to buy specialist equipment to record your interview as most smartphones and digital cameras have sufficiently good recording capabilities. However, your recordings will be much better if you use an external microphone.
- The best external microphone is a small tie clip or lapel microphone. They can be attached discreetly to clothing and give excellent results. These can be had for relatively low prices and are a worthwhile investment for oral history recording. Some reasonably-priced recommendations are here and here.
- Recordings should be made using the .wav (WAV or wave) format. An additional copy as an MP3 should be made for playback and security purposes. Two programmes you can download for free from the internet which can convert .wavs to MP3 are here and here.
2. Video interviewing
Recording a video interview has its benefits (for example apart from the interview itself, photographs can also be filmed for later use), but it demands particular skills. Here are some tips specific to video recording:
- Always film interviews on a tripod to avoid a jerky recording.
- Find a good, light location for the interview. Usually the living room will work best. Get the interviewee to sit somewhere they feel comfortable and put them in the best setting. Ask permission to move things around but put everything back in the same place.
- Backdrops of fireplaces, paintings and cabinets with photographs often look good if carefully framed - always check that they are! So too does a framing with depth, so try not to sit interviewees against a wall.
- Don’t use professional lights unless you’ve been trained to – they can be difficult and sometimes dangerous.
- Sit just to the right or left of the camera. Make sure the interviewee is looking at you and not at the camera.
- Get the shot size you want – head and shoulders is usually the best. Aim to frame the interviewee so that the frame cuts off midway down their arm between the shoulder and the elbow to ensure a more natural picture. Ask your interviewee not to move around too much or they might move out of the frame. While setting up try to see if they are a fidgeter. If so, widen your frame to account for this.
- There are training courses which teach all aspects of film-making using digital cameras, several of which are aimed at non-professionals. Two websites that offer online training packages about video interviewing are here and here.
Issues affecting recording quality
1. The interviewee...
- is afraid of the recording equipment.
- doesn't believe they have anything of value to tell you, and doesn't understand why you would want to interview them.
- doesn't remember.
- has a series of stock stories that they have developed and is used to telling. This interviewee is not about to let you deviate from their ‘script’.
- is not used to telling their story publicly and needs much coaxing and reinforcement. This person needs questions to get warmed up and more questions to keep going.
- does not feel comfortable talking to you about the topics you have in mind. An elderly Punjabi woman might not feel comfortable talking to a male about certain experiences.
- meanders through the story, and not according to the beginning-middle-end model that you have in your mind. The memories have a form other than linear time and you have to figure out how to allow the narrator to tell these memories in a way that makes sense to both teller and listener.
- prefers or is used to building and sharing a story with others in a group rather than telling a story solo.
2. The interviewer...
- is too nervous to think calmly and clearly about what to say next.
- Is disrespectful.
- is disorganised.
- is not really listening to what the interviewee is trying to say.
- has expectations about what they want to hear and is closed to other avenues of inquiry.
- appears critical to the interviewee.
3. The recorded sound...
- is too faint.
- contains noise that overrides or confuses the voices.
- has more than one person speaking at once.
- is distorted.
4. The recorded image…
- is too dark.
- is skewed.
- is too shaky.