2. General principles
Oral history recording is practised in varied institutional settings. In libraries and archives oral historians have particular problems which are not shared by many of their university colleagues. Partly these problems arise owing to the novelty of the creative function , which is in contrast to the traditional collecting role of these centres. There are, however, more important and less transient difficulties than this. First, the subject range of collecting centres can be extremely wide. Broad based recording programmes require a correspondingly varied range of historical expertise that is rarely found in a single institution, let alone a single historian. Secondly, unlike the majority of university projects -which may be personal to a particular historian or funded by limited and short term budgets -institutional programmes will tend to be ongoing. Thus the primary problem and challenge for libraries and archives lies in sustaining a large number and a wide variety of well designed recording projects.
In responding to this challenge, oral historians in libraries and archives should recognise both their strengths and their weaknesses. Among their foremost strengths will be a detailed knowledge of what printed and documentary records are available in their collecting fields. The absence of traditional records will itself suggest the kinds of recording projects which should either be set up or at least investigated. There are usually well established communications between libraries and archives which can be used to establish whether such gaps in historical records are absolute, as opposed to being merely deficiencies in a particular collecting institution.
However, the records of most historical fields are deficient in some respects. While absolute gaps provide obvious paths to pursue, projects can also be based -even in well documented fields -on what the records do not tell historians. In the evaluation of existing record groups the training and experience of library and archive staff will be valuable and relevant.
So topic selection, the key to any soundly based recording programme, is a function which collecting centres are usually well qualified to carry out. However, the professional experience of librarians and archivists may have prepared them less well for the need to define objectives and otherwise prepare their selected projects Oil the basis of the most recent scholarship. Historians responsible for broadly based recording programmes in collecting centres seldom have the opportunity to develop their subject knowledge to a sophisticated degree in very many fields. So, even if they have considerable research experience, collaboration with appropriate subject specialists is probably the most prudent and an always valuable recourse in preparing any project.
Project preparation within professional collecting institutions should, however, take into account more than research criteria. Collecting centres do not exist solely for research. In a great many cases their main function is broadly educational and their main users the educated general public. Collecting and presenting materials as they are for non-specialists, their recording projects should also relate to the wide variety of interests which they exist to serve. Those who consider oral history to be purely a research method sometimes find it difficult to reconcile the function of reflecting the past with that of uncovering it. However, oral history does permit the pursuance of both ends without one necessarily damaging the other. The aim of oral historians in libraries and archives must be to ensure that their work actually does achieve this.
For the purpose of oral history recording the contradistinction between research and education arises because projects can be geared more towards one end than the other. Many collecting centres could validly organise their recording work on rather general subject lines, with the deliberate aim of producing material which will have the widest possible educational application. This would provide little original information. It can be argued, however, that very narrow research projects -of great value to a small number of scholars -may be of little practical value and use for the many other users whom libraries, archives and museums serve. On the other hand, not to raise with informants questions which might provide scholars with otherwise unrecorded information would be to miss important and perhaps unrecoverable opportunities for posterity.
If collecting centres are not to give the needs of one group of their users priority, where then are they to strike the balance? This can only be achieved by developing an approach to oral history which combines depth and breadth. The careful selection of project subjects in areas where oral evidence can make a significant contribution to historical documentation is essential. But while seeking to record original information, the approach should not be so esoteric as to preclude opportunities for collecting sound recordings which have a more broadly educational potential. In practical terms this means interviewing in a flexible way. We should not confine ourselves to investigating only prescribed research themes. Within the general subject area of the project, information should be recorded about any interesting events or activities which the informant participated in or witnessed.
The case for recording in breadth as well as in depth may also be made by contrasting oral history in the universities with recording projects in collecting institutions. University historians are generally using recording techniques in specialised fields of personal academic interest, as a means of collecting information primarily for _their own use. Libraries and archives rarely acquire materials with any comparably specific ends in mind. So, in the range of their recording, they should be able to adopt a more flexible approach. This practice is not only possible but politic. Experience administrators of any kind of reference collection know that public and research interests change. As libraries and archives are collecting for future as well as present generations, they should not be over influenced by current fashions.
The need for breadth and depth in collecting institutions is accompanied by a need for the known as well as the novel. Personal reminiscences which represent the common experience have a permanent value in the process of acquiring a real sense of history. Even when they add little to our knowledge of the past, they can contribute much to our understanding of it. Anecdotes are particularly valuable in that they most commonly achieve the profound sense of involvement which gives oral history recordings a strength of personal character unique among the various classes of historical documentation.
There are, however, inherent contradictions in a very flexible approach to oral history which have to be guarded against. For in seeking to meet all demands lies the danger that you may satisfy none. So flexibility requires not less preparation but more. It calls for a structured approach, so that within a disciplined plan interviewers are in fact able to move freely with purpose and effect. For by laying down fairly rigid research rules, the breaking of them will not only be a deliberate decision (or at least a conscious occurrence); it will also be constructive towards those ends other than pure research which a professional collecting centre should always have in mind.
As regards the scholarly use of oral history collections, how can the collecting centre best serve the academic researcher? Scholars will not be able to assess the nature and worth of oral evidence, or its relevance to their needs, unless each stage of its creation has been carefully documented (see also Chapter 3). The general aims of the collecting centre in carrying out a recording project, may be very different indeed from the purpose of the historian who eventually seeks access to the resultant material. So, along with the recordings and transcripts, the archive must also be prepared to furnish its users with the fullest details of the collecting methods which were used, as well as sufficient personal details of the informant for the scholar to be able to judge the quality of his source.
The principles suggested in this section as being particularly relevant to libraries and archives - or to the institutions in which such collecting centres may be set - have to be seen against the range of possible uses to which oral history material may be put (see also Chapter 12). Thus radio broadcasting and audio publications are realisable ends, offering attractive opportunities for the very wide dissemination of archive records. Within museums, and elsewhere for exhibition purposes, oral history recordings provide a display technique which is Singularly effective for reminding visitors that history is about people, as well as giving background and depth to the objects exhibited. To teachers, the scope for using recordings in the classroom is wide and, unlike most of the published audio packages which are available, oral history archives provide educationists with raw materials from which they can select and compile the aids they judge best suited to their particular needs. Scholarship has already been sufficiently served by oral history to make it unnecessary to re-emphasise the value of oral evidence in research and publication. Finally, the familiarity of the public with audio information and stimuli over several decades will undoubtedly offer many new opportunities for using oral history recordings in research and education. In this full range of exploitation lies the dividend which collecting centres should seek and this, in turn, underlines the need to develop a more archive centred methodology which both draws upon purely academic experience and adds to it.