“Digital technology is more like a still-life picture. A sample. It is frozen in time. Sound, on the other hand, is audible only over time. We hear sound as it decays… Not surprisingly the digital universe is a visual one: people staring silently at screens, where the only sounds in the room are the keys and mouse clicks.” (Douglas Rushkoff – Present Shock, 2016, p. 113)
I went to the first day of the Oral History Society Conference at Roehampton University last month. I was going to describe these as as my reflections on the day. But it’s sound. And there’s a difference. That was the whole point of the conference. So here are my echoes from that day.
Analogue to digital
Mary Larson gave the keynote talk which covered the last fifty years of the dynamic between transcript (text) and sound (audio) in oral history. She did this by reflecting on the media shifts through that time – from tapes to video to mp3.
In the USA, the historically-respected record was the transcript. It was in the same medium as the academy. It was reliable. It was easy to share and access. Such was the power of the transcript that the humble tapes were in fact wiped and re-used. Can you imagine that – keeping the transcript and chucking the sound?
Over the past few decades the power relationship between sound and transcript has shifted. As tapes and recorders became cheaper, as video appeared, as the web allowed first easy distribution of transcript and later sound, so the balance between the two has changed. With these shifts in possibility and emphasis came changes to what oral historians thought they were documenting. Why are we doing this and what are we collecting? Historical facts? Or socially constructed performances of memory?
As technology improves access to the recordings, the curator or archivist’s responsibility for context and curation gradually gives way to the user’s increasingly pro-active role. But at the same time may sources online lack the required metadata to allow adequate contextualisation. If this metadata is lacking completely then yes, that’s clearly a huge problem. But I would argue that in many contexts it can be useful to present unmediated sound. This idea seems to be a fairly contentious one. This is a crucial point which I’ll come back to later.
Larson concluded by emphasising the importance of context and aim, and meditating on the potential for immersive location-based resources, as Simon Bradley has pointed towards. I didn’t quite follow the idea that oral history in a digital age could be understood in terms of cognitive psychology as much as historiography. But it certainly made sense later in the day.
Text and voice
Next up was Steven Sielaff from Texas. He described ways in which technology is used alongside sound. The Oral History Metadata Synchronizer allows transcription to sit alongside video so that the two can complement each other. The tool is really neat. Another clever device, a really interesting one for anybody who has ever struggled to get people to click on audio links, is SoundCiteJS. The idea is that you might be more likely to listen if the link is in-linewith the text, rater then embedded. I can’t get the thing to work in this blog but I’m going to persevere. It’s really cool.
The second presentation in the session was Laura Mitchison and Rosa Vilbr of On The Record on the Centreprise oral history project. Centreprise was a cooperative in Hackney which enabled Hackney people to publish their own works. The presenters made the point, powerfully, that the unmediated ordinary working class voice can be every bit as revolutionary as the political cry – “The texts spoke of making history an engaged mass activity”. The young people involved in the project are keen to improvise their own versions of the Centreprise people’s stories – here is the ‘community/user’ lending their own levels of meaning to archival stories. The The whole thing made me think of the mutual kindness and strength shown by all the radical support networks I’ve ever been lucky enough to drift through. It also brought back happy memories for me of volunteering at Hackney Archives in De Beauvoir town.
Rebecca Pearce gave a pretty astonishing talk about an incredibly dry subject – the National Drought Inventory (sorry). Believe it or not, the projecct is filling in scientific gaps in the understanding of the history of drughts by gathering qualitative data from newspapers and oral histories. It seemed to me a brilliant example of finding just the right methodology to solve an academic problem. And a great inspiration to everybody who has ever wondered whether oral history is just added-value fluffy nonsense.
Dan Ellin’s volunteer-powered Bomber Command oral history project cleverly harnesses aeroplane geeks to create technical authority records to help tag the resources. And the interviewers are encouraged to use their new relationships with interviewees to enable follow-up scanning visits, to collect ‘tangible’ historical objects, like photographs, with which to animate the oral histories. I also liked the idea of volunteers being trained up online using e-resources – crucial if your volunteers are based all over the country.
Rosa Korowska Kyffin presented the Velvet Fist archive project. One of the aspects of this brilliant project was training up young people to interview choir members. Rosa explained that because there was less common ground between the interviewee and interviewer the questions were fresher, more challenging, and less was taken for granted in the answers. This kind of inter-generational project questions established notions of what oral history is for, and who should be doing it. It reminded me of the Proud Trust’s This Is How We Got Here project, which trained young people to interview older people and allowed the young people to take the lead. One young interviewee on the project coined the wonderful term ‘wibbly-wobbly history’, to describe how progress is not linear and how things can seem to go backwards as well as forwards.
Reflections on practice
Helen Foster spoke about her experience of using Nottinghamshire lace weavers’ oral histories in her creative writing. Her work clearly benefits from the direct connection to people in a particular time and place. The sound clips she used were illustrated by stark, simple beautiful karaoke-style partial transcripts. Not all the words – just the tricky and important ones. It was incredibly effective. The rhythm of the text appearing on the screen in time with the voice was haunting.
Sue Bradley is often asked a question by her interviewees: who else will listen to this? What will they make of it? These are important questions to think about for oral historians, in terms of ethics and context. The intimate one-on-one interview, once archived, will (if all goes well) be made accessible to be listened to by others. But what do we mean by this listening? Sue challenged the audience to react immediately to her clips – what emotions did they inspire? How did listening to them make us feel?
Fiona and I were last up in the reflections on practice session. We presented a 20 minute introduction to Paul Graney and a few reflections on his collection. The trickiest bit was squashing it down from the hour-long version we did for the Manchester Histories Festival last month. It was pretty exciting being able to unearth this stuff in front of a room full of oral history experts.
Fiona did a bit of contextualising – speculating on where Paul might sit in the oral history canon, alongside the established oral history pioneers. One of Rob Perks’s questions afterwards was what would Paul have seen himself as? Was he consciously an oral historian? My answer to that was that I don’t think Paul would have seen himself as an oral historian but that he was serious about historical research – he understood the discipline, and he spent a lot of time in Manchester Central Library researching local history and the politics of industry. And we pointed out that he had recorded oral histories from BBC radio broadcasts – so perhaps we can infer that he learned from them.
But I also think he wouldn’t see any distinction between folk singing and oral history. They are both documents capturing working people telling their own stories in their own voices. But that question bugged me – can we get closer to what Paul thought he was up to? When I got back to Manchester, I popped into the library just to pick up my bike. But, as usual, I couldn’t help having just a quick look at something.
Barry Seddon, the former Manchester Evening News folk correspondent, was Paul’s friend and later executor. He came along to the Histories Festival event – and he brought eight reporter’s shorthand notebooks with him. They seem to date from the 1940s and 50s and are full of Paul’s unmistakeable longhand scribbles. I hadn’t had time before to delve into them. So, with Rob’s question in my head, I started to skim through the pages. I was in there for three hours.
Paul used every inch of the notebooks – it looks like he used them up front to back and then continued on the reverse side back to where he’d started. There’s autobiography (the tale of Gunner Graney), prose biographical fiction (the protagonists, with names like Johnny Madden and Alf Haggerty are clearly versions of Paul), drama, poetry and sketches. The sketches seem to be the characters who crop up in Paul’s worldview again and again – the sergeant-majors, the silly little bureaucrats, the tramps, the lovers.
One section jumped out at me. It was a historical essay on Ringstones, Derbyshire. Paul was clearly fascinated by the place. So he’d taken himself down to the library to try to get to the bottom of the history of the stones. Before launching into the results of his research, Paul meditates on the nature of historical enquiry…
In search of data for this article, I, like any other person hied myself to the public library and wallowed through countless musty volumes. I read every book available on the subject and dozens of periodicals containing articles pertaining to the matter. While the subject of historical matters is a fairly well known one, I find at the termination of my research that every one seems to hold a different opinion.
One alleged authority contradicts another authority. One article flatly contradicts the findings of others. The writings of a man with college degrees behind his name are openly flouted by an ordinary individual, who points with pride to his indisputable proof. From all sides I have been met with a challenge. “I am the only man who knows anything about this. I defy you to secure adequate information elsewhere.”
Although the task of acquiring accurate knowledge about a certain district is extremely difficult I have gathered a number of historical facts, which I believe to be close to the actual truth. These you will find in the following booklet… (Paul Graney’s notebook GB124.GRANEY/4/2)
I can’t wait to see what else is hiding in these notebooks. They might even tell us what Paul thought he was up to with his oral history practice. But whether they do or not, his work speaks for itself. Here’s a poem Paul wrote in the 1950s that could have been written this week.
While our workmates / Dream and sleep / And childen starve in filthy slums / When reason dies / And lives are cheap / And men become just trams and bums / The Bosses draw / Their dividends
What we talk about when we talk about listening
In the plenary discussion afterwards, Sue Bradley asked me to explain the point I’d made about listening to Paul’s voice. This is what I’d originally said.
I first came cross Paul Graney when I listened to the CD. The variety of the material blew me away. As I started listening to Paul’s memory tapes and oral histories I was hooked by the candidness of his voice – you can tell he was serious about building this archive, yet at the same time he obviously had a lot of fun doing it.
Some people find Paul’s voice soporific. But I enjoy the rhythm – it’s slow, but very deliberate, and it forces you to tuning in to it, and submit to his speed of narrative. Transcripts could never convey this sensation of tuning in to someone’s voice.
To somebody new to oral testimony, like me, this is what makes it special. Having the transcript and no voice is a bit like having the written music and no musician. Sure, you can understand it intellectually. But any physical, emotional and empathetic response can only be second-hand.
I couldn’t do it justice in the plenary, as someone completely new to oral history, sitting in front of a room of oral historians. I felt a bit out of my depth. But it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. And this is my attempt to explain.
The process of listening to another person’s voice triggers a variety of responses in our brain. I think some of these are instinctive and some are learned. This is true whether it’s recorded speech or it’s coming out of the mouth of a human being in front of you. We empathise, we compare, we imagine, we remember. We put ourselves into a conversation in a way that text could never inspire. Every listener will react in a different way – each voice triggers different memories, uncontrollably. Yet, at the same time, the most dispassionate audience cannot sit through the sound of a woman crying without feeling an emotional response. The emotional impact of the sound is at the same time a leveller and a differentiator.
There’s something submissive about the process of listening. The listener submits to the pauses and the rhythms of speech. The text version can be consumed with far less investment, in terms of time and attention. You can’t skim audio. This might explain why it’s so tricky to get people to click to listen to sound online. Blogs introducing sound often get loads of hits, yet the embedded mp3 files don’t show the same stats. Which is why tools like Soundcite might help.
But the point is there’s a lot of unexplored psychology going on in that listening process. Sure, there are debates around the nature of memory and its relationship with historical fact. But before we can even have that debate we need to know what we’re doing when we’re listening. One direction the plenary discussion took was that of re-use – the potential secondary audiences for oral history, whether as creatives, consumers or somewhere in-between.
Some of the most successful digital interactives in Archives+ at Manchester Central Library have very little curatorial text. The most viewed one has pretty much none. The big map screen doesn’t need it. Families and groups of friends use it as a prompt together, they tell their own stories using the maps. Presenting the assets without any context allows the user to take control. It also avoids narrowing the audience – everybody is welcome to lead the conversation. We’re not presenting a ‘History of’ anything, nor are we defining the audience with whom we’re speaking.
Curators, archivists and historians often feel uncomfortable with elements of this approach. We have understandable reservations about the possibility of misinterpretation and ethical worries on behalf of the depositors and subjects. Of course you have to have the metadata in your systems, in your pockets, and you have to think carefully about when and how to relinquish control. But I think allowing instinctive, unmediated responses to sound has a valuable role to play in both understanding the listening process and also enabling audiences to feel joint ownership.
Every time I present archives to a school group they come at the material from a different, unexpected angle. From their own angle. You can do so much preparation and prompting but the most powerful bit – the part they’ll take away from the experience – is their own interpretation of the stuff: “This room smells of OLD!” I think there’s something important we can learn from that.
Sound artist Matthew Herbert emphasises in his manifesto that all the sounds he records and uses in his art must be noted and published – context is important. But he also acknowledges the power of listening blind: “Context is really important to me personally… But one of the greatest things about listening is that you have to shut up, you have to be quiet.” In other words you have you give yourself to it completely. You have to submit. In the context of oral history this means submitting to the rhythm and speed of the voice but it also means doing the same with the patterns of the conversation.
Engaging with archive sounds: the electronic music world perspective, Matthew Herbert from Europeana Sounds on Vimeo.
This leads back to the immersive possibilities of the high-bandwidth internet. Perhaps there are ways to harness the context. It’s not an either-or game. The context can be a location trigger for relevant sounds, as Simon Bradley points out. The transcription can seamlessly float across the screen.
Look at these idiots wandering about training up their Pokemon. The Pokestops are places; buildings, statues, junctions, benches – all with a rich collection of photographs, voices and other historical documents intimately linked with them. Do the idiots care? I don’t know. But we’re definitely missing a trick.
I listen to a lot of radio, music and podcasts. Always have. But over the last year I’ve taken to listening to oral history when I would have been tuned in to curated sound. When I’m doing the washing up, sitting on the train, wandering around the supermarket or cycling. Actually I’ve had to stop listening on the bike since I fell off – twice – listening to Noe Noe the Belle Vue clown explaining how he got his name and how the circus transported its elephants.
I love sound because it allows other things to happen at the same time; although it requires submission it doesn’t demand total focus. There’s something really charming and personalising about listening to courting reminiscences in the ice cream aisle or a family’s problem with alcohol while washing the wine glasses.
These sounds are just a random selection from the stuff we’ve most recently digitised or converted from Minidisc. I love Minidiscs. All my phone knows is the file title, eg. OH.3456.mp3. That’s as much as I know too. Haven’t a clue who the people are, or what they’re going to talk about. Don’t need to. I can get that, afterwards, from the catalogue. If I want to. This is exactly the reverse of the tradionally understood process of accessing archives. Yet listening blind can tell us so much.
Without investment, we have no depth of return. Visiting a museum or watching a documentary or listening to a podcast is one thing. But touching/seeing/listening to the unmediated stuff – having the same access of the curator or journalist – is a wholly different experience. We’ll all have different similes but mine is bike rides. Pretty much every one of my rides features a point of such utter lostness, knackeredness or downheartedness that I question whether I’ll make it. Losing one’s bearings forces a practical reaction in the short term. But it also challenges our views of ourselves, and others, in the longer term. I still can’t do Sue’s question justice. But it’s fun trying.