Processing our oral histories

Over the last few months I’ve been hard at work, doing some of the ‘processing’ tasks that are often part of an oral history project. When I joined the project, Grace already had lots of completed interviews and she’s conducted even more since then. More than fifty are now complete, and we’ve got more planned. But recording each oral history is only one stage of the research process.

One of my first tasks has been to create summaries of each interview. The summaries provide an outline of what the interviewee talks about, along with time-stamps so that we can find that part of the interview and listen to it to hear more detail. Where passages are particularly rich or especially relevant to our research topics, I’ve transcribed them verbatim. I’ve listened to each interview carefully in order to produce the summaries so I’m now ‘up to speed’ with the oral history research Grace had already done. More importantly, the summaries themselves are really helpful for looking at individual interviews  – we can check if particular topics came up without listening to a whole interview, we can find out which sections of the recording to listen to in more depth when we need it, and we can quickly understand the context of those sections and understand the overall themes and narrative arcs of the interview by reviewing the whole summary.

As we try to analyse all the interviews, or particular groups within them – for instance, service children – other challenges emerge. Some parts of oral histories are very memorable, but because we are working with a large number of interviews it can be difficult to remember with certainty who said what, and ensuring that no testimony about a theme is overlooked or forgotten is near impossible without a system to help. So, I’ve been using software called Nvivo to index the oral history summaries. Grace and I established a list of topics and themes that are central to the project research questions. I’ve been working through each interview and essentially labelling passages as relating to those themes whenever they are mentioned. Applying these labels is a time-consuming process, and one that becomes more fiddly when working with group interviews because labels to differentiate the speakers are required, too. Nevertheless, it is time well spent. Now that the complete interviews have all been processed in this way we have something approaching a database of the oral history content. The software can be used as a sophisticated index and finding-aid, allowing us to see who had something to say about, for example, Education, Cold War Fears, or Accommodation on Base, and allowing us to quickly extract the labelled sections to see what each person said and to compare different people’s testimonies about these topics. As well as making it easier to return to parts of an interview to examine them in depth, the software counts how often I’ve applied each label, showing at a glance which topics and themes occur frequently and which ones are rarely mentioned. This can confirm or correct our sense that given themes come up all the time or aren’t talked about at all. Nvivo can’t do the analytical work for us, and nor would we want it to, but applying the labels and creating the database is the beginning of the process of analysing what each oral history contains. Now that the labels are applied, Nvivo can help us navigate through the collection of testimony and enable us to identify and better understand what the experiences, attitudes, and memories of those who’ve lived on British bases in Germany.   

Project team update

GERMANY UNDER ALLIED OCCUPATION (BU 13082) The arrival at Cuxhaven of wives and children of soldiers serving with the British Army of the Rhine. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

In the previous blog post, Grace promised that news would follow about the appointment of a project Research Assistant, so I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Joel Morley, and I was recently appointed as the Research Associate on the British Military Bases in Germany project. I was drawn to the project by my interests in oral history, memory, and the social and cultural history of war and its legacies. My independent research centres on the memory and legacies of the First World War in Britain. I have published an article that uses oral histories with Second World War veterans to explore whether and what they had been told by First World War as they were growing up, and another that uses the Mass Observation archive to examine how memories and impressions of the First World War affected Britons’ morale at the outset of the Second World War. Over the next year, as well as working on the British Military Bases in Germany project, I’ll also be working on my first book, which establishes how the memory of the First World War shaped the attitudes and subjective masculinities of those who served in the Second World War.

Prior to joining Bristol, I spent three years as Senior Research Officer on a Leverhulme-funded oral history project, ‘National Service Life Stories’ with Dr Peter Gurney and Dr Matthew Grant at the University of Essex. This project used more than 100 oral histories to examine how National Service during the early Cold War period shaped the lives of a generation of British men, and how they remember their conscripted service and position it in relation to the Cold War. As I work with Grace to conduct, summarise, and analyse oral histories conducted for the British Military Bases in Germany project I’ll get to hear how a wide range of people – regular service personnel, their spouses, their children, and civilians working for and with the armed forces – experienced service in Germany. I’m looking forward to exploring what their day-to-day lives were like, how family life was shaped by and adapted to overseas postings, and how they understood British presence in Germany over the second half of the twentieth century. I’ll be leading on some public engagement activities and we are currently refining ideas about the form that these will take. I’ll also be helping to organise our Cold War Voices workshop at the University of Bristol, which we will have some details about very soon.