Remoting Working and Oral History Interviews: How to make it work – Charlotte Im

In December 2020, I started my job as assistant archivist at the Guardian News & Media Archive. To coincide with the Guardian’s bicentenary celebrations, the archive helped with a series of projects that displayed the Guardian’s history. One of such projects was the oral history project. There were two strands to this project – the first was a series of short interviews with current staff to record their experiences of working at the Guardian at its 200th birthday. We carried out over 35 interviews over three weeks, and I had the chance to speak with many senior staff that I would not normally be able to talk to, even putting aside the fact that my entire employment was done remotely. It’s truly fascinating to listen to how each person remembers 2020 and 2021 differently, from their differing perspectives as journalists, senior editors, and non-editorial staff.

For the other strand of the oral history project, we trained external volunteers – university students who were interested in journalism – to conduct hour-long interviews with journalists of colour who worked or have worked at the Guardian for 10 years or more. We wanted to capture their story of how they became a journalist, and how their career developed.

White history dominates many of the narratives found in archives. Oftentimes, it’s due to the simple fact that white people have historically occupied positions of power which allow their narratives to be considered more important, and thus preserved. Philippa, head of the GNM Archive, mentioned in one of our training sessions that as an archive, we couldn’t tell you who the first journalist of colour at the Guardian is. Something as simple as that cannot be found in our archives, because it wasn’t considered “important” to know. It was then our aim to try and fill in a little bit of that history as much as we can and preserve it in the archive for future access.

A screenshot of a previous oral history project the GNM Archive carried out.

There were two main branches of consideration beyond the design of the oral history interviews themselves. The first was training – how could I equip interviewers with skills to conduct oral history interviews remotely?

I think I’m not alone in saying that it’s very hard to deliver any kind of interactive workshop or presentation remotely. While I’m fully supportive of people only turning on their cameras and mics if they want to, it is quite hard as the presenter to gauge whether or not our way of training is received well by our audience. Normally, by looking at facial expressions and non-verbal cues, I can gauge whether or not I have to adjust my tone, or change the way I’m explaining things. However, much of this is hidden when done through video calls.

I first did the training as a test run to internal volunteers, who came from different parts of the Guardian Foundation. I essentially piloted the training to a group of people who were very used to delivering training as part of their work at the Foundation. This proved to be a very rare opportunity to get feedback from people who knew what it was like to deliver training remotely, and knew how to give feedback. This prepared me for hosting the workshop for external volunteers with more interactive elements involved.

I boiled down the crux of conducting oral history interviews into one word – “conversation”. For this project in particular, we were interviewing people who were very good at interviews, but not oral history interviews. Our interviewers, on the other hand, came from different backgrounds. Not everyone had history backgrounds, and not everyone had had experiences of interviewing other people. For those with journalistic backgrounds, it was almost a gut instinct for them to want to ask investigative, pointed questions. Through framing it as a “conversation”, rather than using the term “interview”, it could help with maintaining a distinction between an oral history interview and a journalistic interview.

The second branch of concern revolved around technology. Despite the variety of video conferencing and audio recording software, the diversity of these different platforms seemed to actually complicate the recording process. Moreover, as part of a larger organisation, we had to negotiate data protection and IT security policies with departments that did not necessarily interact much with the archive or knew what fell under our remit. The subject matter of our interviews could also contain potentially sensitive topics, which required an additional element of safeguarding and data protection as well.

Secondly, we had to make sure that the conferencing and recording software we were using would be user-friendly and easy to pick up. As everything was done remotely, it’s no longer as simple as just putting down two dictaphones and pressing record. We had to come up with video conferencing software that ourselves, the interviewee, and the organisation would be happy with using. In a way, the reality of remote working also helped.  People are far more used to video conferencing, and it is far easier to arrange a video call than it is to meet someone in another city.

Ultimately, we used Google Meets as the main conferencing tool – it is the preferred software already used by the wider organisation, so most of the parties involved were familiar with it. After many trials and errors, as well as negotiations with IT and data protection, we were able to use Zencastr (on classic mode) and Audacity as our back-up recording softwares, with the former being used internally, and the latter being used when we moderated volunteer interviews.

While it was a lot of work, it was an extremely special opportunity to capture the stories and memories of the people who make up the Guardian’s history. Having been in university for the last few years, the oral history project was an incredible way for me to refresh and develop new project planning and training skills. While I have had experience with conducting oral history interviews as a researcher, I had never planned an oral history project at such a scale. Luckily, I had the fortune to be part of a team that supported each other closely, despite the fact that all four of us had never met each other in real life.

In the end, while a positive (and very enjoyable) step forward, the project reminds me that there is more to be done in our sector, and this country as a whole, to recognise that our fabric of history cannot be complete if only white narratives are given centre stage. Oral histories capture a dimension of human emotion and recollection that is unique to its medium, and it is perhaps a prerogative for us to ensure that the human voice, especially those who are not given the chance to speak, is preserved and acknowledged as a crucial part of our history.

Charlotte Im is a PhD student at University College London, studying information flows and behaviour. She has previously worked at the Guardian News and Media Archive, Exeter City Football Club Museum, and Hong Kong Film Archive.

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