Using archived oral history interviews
Angela Davis, University of Warwick
In today's blog post I discuss my experience of using interviews from the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust collection held at the British Library in order to find out about Jewish women's experiences in post-1945 Britain. Using existing archived interviews presents some particular challenges for us as oral historians which I think are worth reflecting on.
In order to do some research about the lives of women in 1950s Britain I have been using interviews from two collections of interviews held at the British Library: the Living Memory of the Jewish Community and the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre Interviews. These interviews are available to listen to on line and where possible I have also used transcripts which accompany some, although not all of the interviews.
In my previous oral history studies of motherhood and childcare in post-war England I have mainly conducted my own interviews so the move to using existing interviews offers some new things to think about. Indeed in recent years, a number of oral historians have considered the benefits and limitations of reusing oral history interviews in research (Gallwey 2012; Bornat, Raghuram and Henry; 2012; Grele 1987; Jackson, Smith and Olive 2007; Moore 2007). Although they can offer a really rich source base of material we could not access from other means, it’s not a straight forward process to reuse someone else’s interviews and there are challenges in terms of ethics, interpretation and understanding. Peter Jackson, Graham Smith and Sarah Olive believe that reusing oral sources ‘requires a rigorous and reflexive process of recontextualisation and a full appreciation of the dialogical nature of life history research’ (Jackson, Smith and Olive 2007, 20). If oral history interviews are co-created during the interview process listening in to interviews you were not involved in producing can feel like being on the outside of a conversation you desperately want to be part of! And sometimes it’s hard not to feel frustrated you don’t get to hear the answers to the questions you really want to ask.
Despite the large number of existing Holocaust survivor testimonies, Tony Kushner posits that ‘the use that is to be made of this material has hardly been subject to debate’ (Kushner 2006, 275). The reuse of all oral testimony raises ethical dilemmas, but I think that survivor testimonies do present particular difficulties. Discussing the use of holocaust testimonies from a social science perspective Rachel Einwohner asks whether subjecting the text of oral testimonies to qualitative analysis ‘detracts from the humanity of the individual survivor’ (Einwohner 2011, 424).However I believe that by focusing on their whole life stories my research can, to use the terminology of Einwohner, reinforce the women’s humanity by focusing on how they rebuilt their lives after the holocaust.
Moreover, despite the problems in reusing testimonies, using archived interviews provides a way of accessing the subjective experiences of Jewish women living in 1950s Britain that it would be impossible to achieve through employing other sources. The history of Jewish refugee and survivor women as they tried to rebuild their lives in 1950s Britain is currently absent from the historical record. Reconstructing the lives of these women is a central purpose of my research.
Bornat, J., P Raghuram and L. Henry (2012) ‘Revisiting the Archives – Opportunities and Challenges: A Case Study from the History of Geriatric Medicine’, Sociological Research Online, 17, www.socresonline.org.uk/17/2/11.html.
Einwohner, R. (2011) ‘Ethical Considerations on the Use of Archived Testimonies in Holocaust Research: Beyond the IRB Exemption’, Qualitative Sociology, 34, 415-430.
Gallwey, A. (2012) ‘The Rewards of Using Archived Oral Histories in Research: The Case of the Millennium Memory Bank’, Oral History, 41, 37-50.
Grele, R. (1987) 'On Using Oral History Collections: An Introduction', The Journal of American History, 74, 570-8.
Jackson, P. G. Smith and S.E. Olive (2007) Families Remembering Food: Reusing Secondary Data, www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.145076!/file/FRF-reuse-paper-WP-.pdf.
Kushner, T. (2006) ‘Holocaust Testimony, Ethics, and the Problem of Representation’, Poetics Today, 27, 275-295.
Moore, N. (2007) ‘(Re)Using Qualitative Data? Sociological Research Online, 12 www.socresonline.org.uk/12/3/1.html.