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  • 00:01


  • 00:11

    LAURA MITCHISON: On the Record isa small not-for-profit cooperative.We work to tell untold stories using oral history, archiveresearch, digital storytelling, and participatory researchmethods.On the Record's big project at the momentis a Hackney autobiography.We're recording the history of Centerprise

  • 00:32

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: because it's a unique window into Hackney in the '70s,'80s, and '90s, because so many different sorts of peopleused it.What we're doing is recording 30 interviews or sowith people that worked at or used Centerprise.And we're also creating an archive of photos, poems,

  • 00:53

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: documents, letters, things associated with Centerprise.And we're working with a wonderful team of volunteerswho we're supporting to do the interviews and the research.

  • 01:16

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: Can you put it on my neck?Oh yeah, that's a good idea.Let's move and actually put it there.There you go.If you were doing a project with totally unstructuredinterviews, you might just go in and say, tell meabout yourself.But this project we're using semi-structured interviews,which means we've got a rough list of topicsthat we use as a skeleton to guide the interview.

  • 01:39

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: And you don't use the topic for the questionnaire or anything.You've got to be prepared to chuck them out the windowand just respond to what the person is saying.But before we start interviewing,we get all the volunteers and participantsthat are interested together to brainstorm a list of topicsthat they think the interview should cover.

  • 01:60

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: You've got to let all your interviewees knowwhat they're getting into.So you have a conversation with everyone beforehandand you explain what the purpose is, what you're going to use itfor, and about consent, and all that kind of stuff.Before the interview, it's really goodto find out as much as you can about the person and their view

  • 02:20

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: because it's a real privilege to interview someoneand you want to be prepared on the day.It can be quite nerve wracking for the person beinginterviewed, even if it's at their house.So it's nice to let them know that you're not in any hurry.They might be curious about your background and thingslike that, so it's always nice to tell them

  • 02:42

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: a bit about yourself if they ask.Because once you switch the tape on, it's all about them.So what I was going to ask is if I could justrecord a sound check.With the sound check, it's really goodto make sure there's no dishwashers or washingmachines in the background if you can,and encourage yappy dogs to maybe stepoutside the interview room.

  • 03:03

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: And once the tape's rolling, and you'vecontrolled the sound environment,and you've set the scene for the interview,then it's time to ask your questions.And there's a kind of ritual and a rhythm to it.So at the start of the interview,you'll say your name, and their name,and the date, and the project that you're recording for.Because you're creating a historical document,

  • 03:25

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: so that information is really important.And it also signals a change of registerso people know that conversation time is overand interview time has begun.Today is the 22nd of June and thisis Lauren Richardson with Richard Gray for a Hackneyautobiography project.

  • 03:45

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: Would it be OK to get your place and date of birth,please, Richard?I was born in Birmingham, UK, on the 7th of February, 1950.And can you tell me a bit about your school days, please?Yes.My school days began in India, in Calcutta,

  • 04:05

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: where I went to kindergarten whichwas run by this wonderful woman called Auntie Scrimmie.And that was what expats in Calcuttacall-- we called them aunts or uncles whether or not theywere our real auntie or uncle.You should always try and ask open questionsthat allow people to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings,

  • 04:26

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: and follow up on things that they've said.It's always nice to try and get a mixture between questionsthat encourage people to tell stories and questions thatencourage people to reflect on and evaluate their experience.And can you tell me a little bit about the different sortsof work you were doing in the '70s and '80s, please?

  • 04:47

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: Right.The '70s began for me qualifying as a teacher, whichwas what I'd wanted to do since I was a little boy.So it was a big moment for me.1972 I came out of the King's Collegeand I went to Hackney to teach.That was a decision which was actually made for me.

  • 05:10

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: I'd deliberately not applied for a jobwhile I was doing my PGCE because I wanted to get sentto where I was most needed.Once the interview is finished, youdon't run away to your next appointment.Stay and chat for a bit.We ask them to sign a consent form, whichmeans that we can store the interview

  • 05:31

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: and enable other people to use in future.And we also explain that we'll send people a transcriptand an audio copy of the interviewas soon as it's processed.And if there's anything that they're not happy with,they can tell us and we'll edit it out.So they've got real control over how they're represented,

  • 05:54

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: and that's really important for us.The writer Joan Burgess says that autobiography beginswith a sense of being alone.It's an orphan form.The oral history begins with a dialogue.It's always a negotiation between the interviewerand the person being interviewed.So the interviewer sets the agenda by asking questions,

  • 06:15

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: but the interviewee can answer in whatever way they like.[MUSIC PLAYING]I don't think that the interviewer can everbe totally detached and objective as a presence.And the people that you're interviewingare always sensing things about you from the way you dress,the sound of your voice, your age, your gender.

  • 06:38

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: So you're always going to influence the interviewand you're always going to be affected by it in turn.Like if I was interviewing someone my parents' age,I might be unconsciously relatingto them as a parent figure.And depending on my relationship with my parents,I might be challenging them too much,or not questioning them about certain things enough.But then if the same person was being interviewed

  • 07:01

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: by someone they're own age, they mightstart feeling a bit competitive towards them.And perhaps if they'd done very similar thingswith their lives, they might be tailoring their storyto the ideals that both they and the interviewer follow.So you're always going to influence things.But there's a big difference between being

  • 07:21

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: a presence in the room and imposing your own views.And the way you can avoid imposing your own viewsis by asking open questions and lettingthe person know that it's their story that matters.And, crucially, I think, by allowing silencesso that people can think about what

  • 07:42

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: they want to say, and expand it, and follow up,and things like that.I've actually found some photographs.You said could we dig out any photographswe had of those days.Oh, that's lovely.Thank you so much.Would we be able to scan them into the computer at Bishopgateand then make them available for the public?

  • 08:02

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: Yes, please.Please do.If someone's really confident and they'reused to being interviewed, sometimes youcan afford to ask them more challenging, probing questions.Whereas if someone's really not at ease, or they're shy,or they don't feel like they've got an interesting storyto tell, just helping them to tell a story that they feelhappy with is the main thing.

  • 08:26

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: Tell me a little bit about Harry.He was one of the people who foundlearning to read and write easier than the others.He always had a smile on his face.I really enjoyed teaching him.He was very easy person to have as a learner.Oh, and this one is [LAUGHING] this

  • 08:46

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: is the only picture I've been able to find of me.You said could we bring along--and so this is the one and only pictureI've been able to find of myself from those days.I never go into an interview with a list of questionsbecause that can be off-putting for peopleand they feel like there's a questionnaire that theyhave to fill out.

  • 09:08

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: That means that sometimes it takes you awhileto think about what your next question is going to beand how you're going to follow up or respondto what the person said.But that's a good thing because that allows some silence.And when there's silence, the personcan think and can expand.And when you have silences in an interview,

  • 09:30

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: it's often because someone's thought of somethingthat isn't just a pat response, isn't just a standard wayof thinking about the past.It's really them trying to articulate something thatmight be buried quite deep.So were there any themes that kind of cutacross your whole working life, do you think?

  • 09:54

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: That's a very good question.And I've been thinking more about whatwe talked about the other day.And that's one of the beauties of what you're doing with me.It has enabled me to self-reflect.When someone goes on a tangent, thatcan be a good thing because memory is kind of mercurial.You associate from one thing to another.

  • 10:17

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: So going off on a tangent can show youthat someone has thought of something really importantto them, or it's unearthed a memory that was a bit buried.But if someone is talking about stuff that'stotally irrelevant, or they're sayingstuff that might be offensive to someone, you can kind of gentlysteer them back to the topic at hand.

  • 10:38

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: I was intrigued by what you said about wanting to be invisiblewhen you were doing this work.Could you say a little bit more about that.It was about the people whose lives we were recordingand whose books we were going to publish.So it was absolutely not about us

  • 10:58

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: becoming authors, or acknowledged,or getting credit.So the last thing we were thinking ofwas our own profile.I actually didn't believe in cameras and lenses.I thought that they got in the way of real life.And real life happened when you didn't have a camera present.

  • 11:22

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: That's really interesting.And what changed?What made you change your mind?Or have you changed your mind?I guess I got older and it began to seem important to havea record of these things.When you grow up and you have children and stuff,you start wanting to have ways to remember how things were.

  • 11:44

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: So I suppose I just got old and sentimental.There's a tendency to think that oral history is justfilling in the blanks of official accounts,or providing kind of better, moreauthentic facts than the facts provided by the elites.But in the '80s, you've got these two oral historians

  • 12:09

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: called Luisa Passerini and Alessandro Portelli.And they really work us up to embracing narrativeand embracing subjectivity, and they'vebeen a big influence on the record.And what they say is basically youdon't really go to oral history for facts and dates.You go to get the meaning of events.

  • 12:30

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: And sometimes things get interestingwhen you depart from the facts because you get imagination,and you get symbolism.And you don't just find out what happened.You find out what people thought they were doing,and even what they wished they were doing.So, yes, subjectivity is wonderful.But it can be a challenge because you end up

  • 12:52

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: with all these vociferous and equally valid narratives.And how are you going to make something or producea bit of writing that does justice to all of that?Because even if you can get basic agreement from peopleon a chain of events, the moral and political significanceof those events will be different for everyone.

  • 13:17

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: You start off with a raw audio fileand then we transcribe exactly what someone saidto make a verbatim transcript.And that makes it much easier to work with because you can turnit into a written document.We also make summaries, which are a bit briefer, so you getcan get a quick overview of what's in the interview--key words and things that.

  • 13:38

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: I'm not very good at this.Usually we send them off to a professional transcriptionfirm.But I wanted to get this ready in timeto catalog some of Richard's photos for you today.And the idea is to produce somethingwith all the ums and ahs and hesitations,and as true a record of spoken speech as you possibly can get.

  • 14:01

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: And today what I'm doing is using the oral historiesto create an archive catalogue.And I'm going to be archiving photosthat Richard donated of his work with the Peter Bedford project,and also some of the books that Centerprise published.Because the project is trying to collect

  • 14:22

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: an archive of all the publications, loads of photos,bits of footage associated with the Centerprise publishingproject reading center, theater group, all the different partsof the project.And we're collecting that together in one place,at Bishopgate Institute.So what's really important when you're archivingis to get not only the consent from the person that

  • 14:45

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: donated the pictures, but also consent, as far as possible,from the people pictured in the photos,particularly if you're dealing with quitea sensitive, difficult history.And that's really important for ethics in social sciences.This is a photo Richard Gray.And it isn't particularly exciting,

  • 15:07

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: but it's actually very interestingbecause Richard said it was very difficult to find picturesof himself from that time.Because he really believed in being invisible, and not beingon this side of the camera, and effacing his own presence.Because he wanted to make his work allabout letting people that hadn't had a voice, have a voice.The thing about oral history is that you don't just

  • 15:30

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: find out what people thought they were doing.You find out how they evaluate whatthey were doing from the standpoint of the present.And looking back on that ideal of being invisible,Richard said, well, actually, maybe that was a bit--that ideal couldn't be achieved.It was a bit disingenuous because there's alwaysa dialogue between the student and the teacher,

  • 15:50

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: or between the editor and the writer.You can't ever efface yourself totally.The archive catalogue will recordboth the perspective of the past and the perspectiveof the present on the past.And the other thing to say is that, obviously,Richard's voice about his image is very important.But we might also include the voices

  • 16:13

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: of other people reflecting on that timeto add more layers of context to the image.I think compared to quite a lot of community oral historians,we do quite a lot of data crunching and data analysis.So we use a special software thatenables you to code the interviews accordingto keywords.

  • 16:34

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: Now the keywords start off quite descriptiveand then they become more analytic as you developinterpretations about the structures underlyingtheir particular stories.And those keywords, or codes, enableyou to compare what different people havesaid about the same subject, for instance.

  • 16:57

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: You can't really get a sense of a lived time or a lived placewithout qualitative data.Oral history is a really good research method for finding outabout place or time.Because you really get the textureof everyday life, the detail.Like the roll cheese that they usedto serve in the Centerprise cafe, and how they smelled,

  • 17:18

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: and how they were wrapped tightly like a swaddled baby--all those little details.And when you talk to people, you hear about ambivalence,and unresolved feelings, and contradiction,and that can be really interesting.You also get a lot of emotion from the cadencesof someone's voices, and their intonation, and the pauses,

  • 17:39

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: and things like that.And the words that people use in their dialectsare often very different from printed language.And there's a kind of wisdom in the words that people use.It doesn't necessarily give you a pure unfiltered viewof the 1970s, or '80s, or whatever period

  • 17:59

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: you're looking at.Oral history tells you about the past,but it's always filtered through the needs of the presentand the aspirations of the present.And that's really important, too, I think.[CELLO MUSIC PLAYING]I think some people use oral history to explicatea general theory about society, or criminal justice,

  • 18:22

    LAURA MITCHISON [continued]: or whatever.And they kind of staple it altogetherwith an accepted it's sociological receipt.But I prefer to think of oral historiesas illuminating striking things about a unique cultural world.And you can speculate more broadly from thereand draw connections with other ideasand other cultural worlds.


Archivist Laura Mitchison describes oral history interviewing and conducts an interview for the Centerprise history project. She discusses using open-ended questions and semi-structured interviews, as well as issues of subjectivity, influence, and memory.

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Conducting Oral History Interviews: On the Record

Archivist Laura Mitchison describes oral history interviewing and conducts an interview for the Centerprise history project. She discusses using open-ended questions and semi-structured interviews, as well as issues of subjectivity, influence, and memory.

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