3.2 Local memory and oral testimony


1. Why are local memory and oral testimony important?

One important source of information for the history of common land is the people themselves: those who have used or managed the common over the years.  There are likely to be people in the community – particularly older members – with a store of memories, knowledge and experiences, and they may be able to illuminate those periods when documentary evidence is lacking.  They may have specialist knowledge which does not appear in the formal record and has gone unrecognised beyond the common.  One of the main purposes of our project is to help communities to capture these rich, often hidden, seams of local knowledge and culture, before they are lost.  Possible contributors may include commoners, landowners, wardens or conservationists, game keepers, military personnel (where the common has been used for military purposes) and members of the community for whom the common is a familiar place of recreation.  You might have memories of your own that you would like to share by writing or recording a personal testimony, or by speaking to someone who can do this for you.


2. What do we mean by capturing local memory?

There are many ways to capture local memory and oral testimony, ranging from informal and anecdotal conversations, to more formal, recorded interviews.  You may be most comfortable simply taking notes while chatting to a friend or neighbour who knows the common well, over a cup of tea; you might like to gather a group of people together for a conversation about their memories and experiences; or ask people to note down their own personal recollections.  Alternatively, you may wish to work in a way that is more formal or generates more ‘hard’ data, perhaps by sending out a survey with your key questions, conducting recorded interviews with individuals or groups, or by making short film clips of members of the community talking about the common.  You will need to decide which of these approaches are most appropriate for you and your community.  At whatever level you operate, it is important to respect the rights and integrity of the people you are talking to, to be aware of sensitive topics and issues of confidentiality and copyright, and you will need to acknowledge or credit your source when reporting or presenting material gathered from the community (unless they have requested anonymity – see below).


3. Recording and filming oral testimonies

You may wish to record, transcribe or film conversations, interviews or testimonies, as this means that you do not miss anything that is said and helps preserve the person’s testimony for the benefit of others, including future generations.  This process requires careful preparation and handling of recorded material, and there are a number of practical and ethical issues to consider.  In this guide we give some simple pointers.  However, should you wish to carry out recorded interviews, we strongly recommend that you visit the Oral History Society’s website (http://www.oralhistory.org.uk), read through their excellent online guidance on ‘Practical Advice’ and ‘Ethics’, and consult their reading list.  We recommend that anyone undertaking an oral history project abides by the Oral History Society Ethical Guidelines, which detail the responsibilities of interviewers before, during, and after an interview has taken place.  This will put your work on an ethically sound footing, and make the interview process a rewarding experience for both you and your contributors.


4. Recording Equipment

Although digital recordings are preferable, not everyone has access to digital recording equipment.  If all you have access to is an old-fashioned tape recorder or dictaphone, these are still better than nothing, provided that the sound quality is sufficient for you to listen back and make transcripts.  If you wish to preserve the recording, you will eventually need to have the tape converted into a digital file before it degrades or becomes obsolete.  If you have access to a portable digital audio recorder, that would be a more versatile and durable means of recording.  Some local historians, local history societies and oral history projects have recorders, so you may be able to borrow or hire one.  For detailed technical advice, please see the Oral History Society’s ‘Practical Advice’ page (http://www.oralhistory.org.uk).  If, after recording your material, you wish to make transcripts, bear in mind that transcribing interviews can take a long time.  You can also use a digital film camera, should you have one, to film individuals or groups talking about the common; indeed, you may wish to film people speaking on the common itself.  This may be a very effective way of capturing the community’s relationship with, and knowledge of, the common.  However, you will need to make sure that everyone is happy to appear on film.  Bear in mind also that the sound quality may be poorer, and you will need to make sure that the camera is held steady, preferably on a tripod or fixed surface.  It would be a good idea to practice first!  Whatever equipment you use, remember to:

  • Make sure you have sufficient battery power and memory space with you to complete the task,
  • Record a short ‘test’ piece before beginning the formal recording in order to check that it is working, switched on, and at the right distance to pick up sound.
  • Make sure you have the informed consent of all those participating (see below)


5. Informed Consent

If you are making recordings, films and/or transcripts, you will need to seek the informed consent of contributors for the uses you intend to make of their recorded or transcribed speech.  You need to be explicit about what you intend to do, and both you and the contributor will need to sign one or more consent forms at the conclusion of an interview.  For example, if you are carrying out this research for your own or your community’s use (e.g. for your own research, a community film, or local history website etc), you will need to create a form which explains these uses.  A good specimen form is available on the Oral History Society website.  In addition, if you think you might submit recorded material to our online Common Resource Bank, then your contributors will need to be informed about the project and sign a copy of our ‘Contributors’ Consent Form’ (a copy is included in Part 4 of this Toolkit and additional copies can be downloaded from our website).  For more information, you can direct them to our website http://contestedcommons.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com, preferably in advance.   As the owner of the actual recording, you or your organisation will also need to give us your consent to make the material available in the Resource Bank.  Again, we strongly recommend that you familiarise yourself with the ethics and ‘good practice’ of conducting oral history interviews, and in particular, read the Oral History Society’s Ethical Guidelines and explanation of copyright law and consent.  Discussions of copyright and consent forms may seem rather daunting, but they are there to ensure that contributors are fully aware of, and comfortable with, the public use of their comments.  If you have any doubts, please seek professional advice.


6. Tips on conducting an interview

For detailed advice, please look at the principal oral history text books, talk to local historians who have experience of oral history interviews, and consult the Oral History Society website (http://www.oralhistory.org.uk).  Here are just a few simple tips:

  • Agree a comfortable and acceptable place to meet (preferably somewhere quiet!).
  • Make sure you understand your contributors’ roles and relationship to the common, and which area of land you are going to discuss with them (it would be a good idea to take an Ordnance Survey map with you to confirm this and to identify specific places and features mentioned during the interview).
  • Think about the themes you want to cover.  Make a short list of essential preliminary questions (e.g. the contributor’s name, date of birth, occupation, and relationship to the common), followed by some simple, thematic questions that you would like to ask over the course of the conversation (you can use our project Research Questions as a starting point – see Part 1 of this Toolkit).
  • Before you begin the recording, explain how you are going to conduct and record the interview, and the uses to which the recorded material will eventually be put.  If you intend to send material to our ‘Commons Resource Bank’, please explain the project to them.
  • Make sure your recording equipment is working and at the right distance.
  • Remember your questions, but allow the conversation to flow naturally, allow the contributor plenty of time to speak, and let them speak for themselves.  Don’t be afraid to explore unplanned topics or trains of thought.
  • At the end of the recording, talk your contributor through the content and purpose of the consent form(s), and give the them opportunity to sign; of course, they are free to decline or put limitations on the use of the material.
  • Make sure you exchange contact details, so that if contributors have any doubts or queries, they can get in touch.
  • Let your contributors know if/when their material is made publicly available (e.g. appears on your website).


7. Privacy and Anonymity

Many contributors will be happy to be named and credited in reports drawn up following informal conversations, or in sound files, films and transcripts, and this is preferable as it gives the information validity and a sense of identity.  However, if they wish, contributors can remain anonymous in any publicly available material.  As the researcher/interviewer, you will need to keep a record of your contributors’ names and contact details, but you can make sure that all the material made public remains anonymous by editing their names out of reports, copies of recordings or transcripts.  You may also need to consider the privacy and interests of any third parties who are mentioned during the course of an interview (please see the ‘Ethics’ advice provided on the Oral History Society website for more information on this – (http://www.oralhistory.org.uk).


8. Using Oral Testimony in your ‘Commons Story’

‘Secondary’ use

You may simply wish to draw on the oral testimonies you have gathered to inform your own research by summarising or quoting speech in the body of your written report. In this case, please make sure you acknowledge your sources (unless they have requested anonymity) in your text.  If you have carried out interviews and/or recorded interviews, audio testimonies and made films, etc., then your contributors will need to have given you their consent and signed an agreement with you to say that you could use their interviews in your research and writing; however, if you are only sending us your own written report then it is unlikely that we would need your contributors to complete a consent form for us.  Please do get in touch if you are unsure.

‘Primary’ use: submitting raw data, recordings and transcripts

If you would like to archive your material in our online Common Resource Bank, alongside other community’s memories and testimonies, that would help us build up a body of publicly available ‘commons knowledge’.  If submitting raw data – oral testimonies as digital audio files, film files and/or as a written transcripts – for display in the online Commons Resource Bank, please adhere to the guidelines given in Part 4.  Your contributors will need to provide their consent for this and your material must be accompanied by a signed copy of our ‘Contributors’ Consent Form’.  We cannot guarantee that all sound/video files submitted will be posted online as there may be issues of sound quality or confidentiality; however, we are aiming to make selected sound and film files available, so if you think you have a good recording/film, and your interviewee is happy for it to go ‘live’, please do consider submitting it along with your report.


And finally…

If the practicalities and permissions of capturing local memory and oral testimony sound daunting, please don’t be put off!  People are often very happy to share their recollections, and this may prove to be the most important and interesting aspect of your research, capturing a community’s relationship with its common land before this vital source of knowledge and experience disappears.  You may well find that you prefer to gather evidence through informal conversations and to make ‘secondary’ use of it, rather than creating and archiving full oral history recordings.


(Text by A.J.L. Winchester and E.A. Straughton)