Oral history criteria for selection in the field (David G Lance)

At risk of stating the obvious, let us begin with some general considerations that affect fieldwork decisions. Archives do not exist in a selection vacuum. There are three major factors, which dictate and predetermine what the character of their fieldwork programmes will be.

First, archives are established usually for quite specific functions that are defined by their founding authorities. Their activities are guided generally by the policies of the institutions they are a part of and the overriding criteria for their fieldwork activities should reflect the charters under which they have been constituted.

In most cases oral history recording programmes are either connected with the history of a particular city, province or country or else they are associated with a specific subject such as political history, social history, or military history. Depending on its raison d’être each archive will plan its fieldwork first by using the criterion that most appropriately develops its given role. For example, a regional archive in planning its programme might well use as a set of selection criteria for field recording that it should document its leading citizens, its traditions and customs, its government and politics, its industry and agriculture, its art and culture. Similarly, a subject orientated archive, such as one concerned with military history, might organise its research to deal with the history of land, sea and air forces; with arms industries and wartime agriculture; with political and military leadership; with social and economic conditions in wartime.

Secondly, fieldwork is determined by the nature of the institution carrying out the programme. For example, a research institute serving its own scholarly staff and an exclusively academic community will have different objectives from a museum, which has more general educational goals. In the former case field recording may be required to reflect a particular publishing programme the institute is pursuing, while in the latter it may be the creation of sound documents for use in exhibition or the classroom that most influences the choice of recording subjects.

Thirdly, oral history sources rarely stand in their own right but have to be related to the size and quality of other historical records that exist within the archives’ constituted field of study. This reality also directly affects fieldwork programmes and requires different strategies for different situations. To give but one example, a political archive in a developed country with a long tradition of formal record keeping and archival preservation programmes will usually be confronted by a vast amount of written documentation that has to be assessed in devising worthwhile fieldwork projects. By contrast, a similar archive in a Third World country with a history of colonial administration may find that its period of transition to self-government and its early years of independence are hardly documented at all, because during those years no bureaucratic infrastructure existed of the kind that produces such written records. In the first example, the archive would be concerned with gaps; in the second the need could be to fill a void.

These three factors may be seen as the backcloth against which fieldwork is carried out and the archive’s recording programme will be substantially influenced by them. Influential though they are in general terms, they will seldom provide the archive with precise answers to the fundamental question: what subjects can the oral history programme tackle? Unfortunately, there are few shortcuts to reaching these answers. Such decisions can only be taken by developing a thorough knowledge of all the existing sources that are available within the archives field of study and establishing the range of options, which are thereby open to it. Having carried out these tasks the archivist-cum-oral historian can then begin to plan his fieldwork programme.

What can be said with some certainty is that the number of possibilities from which archives may choose is almost invariably in excess of the resources available for fieldwork? This being so, by what kind of criteria may we decide to accept or reject possible research fields and, from those accepted, how do we establish priorities between them?

There are a variety of questions, which may be applied to test the practicability of potential subjects for oral history fieldwork. The two most basic ones concern the suitability of the subject and the availability of informants.

First, is the proposed subject suitable for oral history research? Oral history recording is dependent for worthwhile results on individual memory, a faculty that is notably uncertain. People forget, and the more dependent the historian is on precise factual recall of specific events then the less dependence he may be able to place on the answers he receives to his questions. For example, the politics of a particular period may be analysed in at least two different ways. One may be concerned with decisive events; who said what to whom in what place, at what time and with what immediate and longer-term results. The informant casting his mind back over years or even decades on such specific details would be only human if his recall was not always accurate, and without other sources against which to check these details the historian would obviously not be able totally to rely on them. An alternative approach would be to consider the same political period from the point of view of some of its dominating characteristics. By what means did a particular politician exert his influence? How did he organise his ministry? What was his style in relationship with political colleagues or with civil servants? How did he deal with the mass media? and so on. These kinds of questions are concerned with patterns of activity, which probably took place over a period of years and were observed by many different people from a variety of different standpoints. Field recording projects geared to such patterns of activity are more likely to be successful than those, which are closely confined in place and in time.

Secondly, are the informants available to be recorded? This is not just a question of recognising that interviews cannot be conducted by spirit mediums! It is a case of anticipating the practical obstacles that may prevent you from dealing with the living. As an example, one fieldwork project, which we launched, was concerned with British involvement in the Spanish Civil War. On the face of it, this was an eminently achievable piece of research since a great many British participants were still around. What we didn’t foresee were the reactions of the potential informants that our project was dependent upon. These fell into two extreme and differently polarised groups. On the one hand there were the many communists who served with the International Brigade. These tended to regard the Imperial War Museum as a pillar of the very establishment that they opposed. In some cases they wanted nothing to do with us at all while in others they were circumspect to the point of saying “Well, I’ll give you a statement but I won’t answer any questions”. Not exactly promising ground for fieldwork! The problem when it came to those who fought on the Nationalist side was different. Although we made various public and private appeals, they simply could not be found. Despite the greatest delicacy of phrasing we were led to the conclusion that, in essence, our appeals seemed to say “All British Fascists please contact the IWM”. Today it seems more acceptable to have been of the extreme left than of the extreme right in this war and while those of the left have often courted publicity, those of the right prefer quietly to fade away.

This question of availability has a number of facets. At its most obvious it means, do the informants you need still survive? Assuming they do, it also asks: are they likely to be willing to take part in a research project? This requires the further refinement, are they likely to co-operate with you personally or with your particular institution? Availability has still more connotations. If they are alive, agreeable to the notion of facilitating historical research and willing to collaborate with you, are they also available in sufficient numbers and in the right categories for you to be able to interview a selection that would be sufficiently representative of the research field you are considering? The last survivor of the Lusitania might be good material for newspaper circulation but he is a pretty narrow basis for oral history research! Similarly, if you wanted to study the famous unofficial Christmas truce in 1914, when both sides left their respective trench lines to meet peacefully in no man’s land, but found that only survivors from one side were available, then a qualitative restriction would be imposed on your fieldwork.

Those are, of course, simplistic illustrations. But if the oral historian is dealing with the composition of a specific social group or the structure of a complex historical situation, he is often required first to make a fairly elaborate analysis of availability in those sorts of terms.

Another criterion that applies in a lot of oral history work is whether the timing is right. There is often a right time and a wrong time for fieldwork. For example, a politician still active in political life will usually give a very different kind of interview than one who can look back and reminisce without further ambitions. If the historian makes a wrong decision in the timing of his approach he will not only produce an unsatisfactory or incomplete recording; he may also prejudice his own or any other fieldworker’s opportunity to repair the damage, since informants are not always willing to repeat the exercise. In many cases timing may be all-important, and this is not by any means confined to political interviews. Generally the closeness of events heightens their importance, their sensitivity and the passions that may be associated with them. It can, therefore, require a fine piece of judgement to decide whether the advantages of an informant’s better short-term recall will be outweighed by the disadvantages of doing the fieldwork too early, when openness, detachment and objectivity are threatened by the sort of factors just mentioned.

Selection for field recording should also take account of other fieldwork programmes. This requires archives to establish and maintain contact with all other field workers active in those areas of subject interest. If academic or media collectors, for example, are carrying out recording projects that are central to an archive’s field of study, it is frequently more sensible to try to obtain those tapes or copies of them than to duplicate a project by the archive’s own efforts. Similarly, archives should co-operate with each other. Too much work needs to be done to waste resources on largely overlapping endeavours. Archive users, for whose benefit fieldwork is usually supposed to be carried out, are better served by a wider range of material being collected than by monopolistic tendencies for comprehensiveness which may lead an individual archive to tread again already well covered ground. The archive’s choice of project should, therefore, reflect the availability of oral sources outside its own holdings by giving priority to fields, which are unexplored.

The single most important criterion by which oral history archives may plan their programmes is common to many other disciplines in which archival collections are built up by field recording. Namely, priority should be given to recording the most elderly informants. By concentrating first on, say, the seventy or eight-year olds our projects may suggest themselves with all the brightness of a flashing neon sign, and for certain kinds of research this is perfectly legitimate and the most straightforward way of organising fieldwork. An archive’s interests might, for example, be focused on the working methods and conditions which preceded certain technological developments; or a specific period of urbanization might have brought to an end a variety of customs and traditions which it is important to document; or, again, it might be the leading citizens of a particular region or the chief innovators in some special field of human activity that are central to the archive’s goals. Where these are the type of considerations that dominate the archive’s work, then selection by age is a criterion of primary, simple and effective utility.

While this yardstick of age touches most oral history research – and indeed fieldwork generally – its application is by no means always the simple formula I have just suggested. Commonly it will create conflicting situations. To give an example of the kind of dilemma which can arise, we may wish to look at some aspect of the First World War through the eyes of the surviving informants who experienced it; but we might also wish to investigate the planning of the D-Day landings in 1944 from the point of view of a small group of the specialists who controlled some element of it. In both cases we may be concerned with people in the same age group. In giving priority to one, human mortality may prevent us from doing the other. This very often, is the nature of the fieldworker’s choice. As a generalization I would say that the age of potential informants is a fundamental criterion by which to establish priorities; but an equally important consideration is the need to record as quickly as possible those key individuals who, for one reason or another, have made a singular or distinctive contribution to the archive’s field of study.

I said that I wanted to begin my paper by stating the obvious. I now think that I may have done this throughout! The formulation of selection criterion is a valuable discipline and their availability may make the practical tack little easier. Better still, is the thoughtful adaptation and development of general guidelines to the needs of specific archival situations, which will provide very much more useful working tools. When all this has been said and done, however, complex choices will always have to be made by individual archivists.

David Lance is now Curator of Audiovisual Records in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Formerly Keeper of sound Recordings in the Imperial War Museum, London. This paper war first given at the IASA conference in Washington DC, 1983.