October 20, 2015

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.

- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Alexander Freund

    Dear Dr. Davis,
    Thank you for your thought-provoking ideas and useful references. I agree that using archived oral histories presents a rich field for new research. The use of archived interviews will only increase in the future and so will both the challenges and the opportunities for conducting longitudinal studies and inter-generational research (I have written about this as a historian for social scientists here: http://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/28634).
    In a recent project we used archived interviews with postwar refugees, including Holocaust survivors, that had been conducted in the 1970s-1990s. We re-interviewed some of them in the 2010s as well as some of their children and grandchildren to understand how memories and narratives change over time and are negotiated within families. We have not yet started publishing the results, but an earlier piece on three-generational and family oral history (focusing on how a German-Canadian family talks about the grandmother’s experiences in Nazi Germany) hints at the possibilities (http://www.oralhistoryforum.ca/index.php/ohf/article/view/249).
    Another question is what to do with oral history interviews that have insufficient context (i.e. metadata) and are of poor quality. I have been working with a set of interviews where 3-4 hour interviews were “edited” or “redacted”, on the original cassette tapes, to 10-12 minute “narratives.”
    I am looking forward to reading more about your findings.
    Alexander Freund, The University of Winnipeg

    22 Oct 2015, 14:13

  2. Nickianne Moody

    I was interested to read the angle of your initial blog as I am in the process of planning an oral history to accompany an archive. Therefore the data is being gathered for a next generation of researchers to make sense of the documents as cultural practices rather than just texts. I have often considered this in the context of ethnographic work so it is useful to think about the cross overs.
    Nickianne Moody Liverpool John Moores University

    26 Oct 2015, 11:29

  3. Andrea Hajek

    hi Angela, thanks for this. I too am working with some archived interviews, alongside conducting my own, and I actually came across a very practical problem – one interview I listened to was with a woman who has deceased, in the meantime. The archivist told me that I needed to ask the interviewees who had been interviewed for this archive (back in the 1980s) individually for permission to use these archived interviews, which of course I can’t for the deceased woman. I’ve seen discussions about similar issues on online forums and mailing lists but I can’t recall what the ethical guidelines precisely are. If anyone can advise please let me know. Thanks.
    Andrea Hajek, University of Glasgow

    27 Oct 2015, 08:58

  4. Angela Davis

    Hi Andrea. Just a quick follow up question – what paperwork actually exists for the interviews? Are there any clearance forms? I think that if nothing exists you have to try and get in touch with the next of kin. If that’s impossible you can use the interview for context but not direct quotes etc. If a clearance/copyright was signed by the interviewee at the time and it’s just a condition of the archive that you ask permission (rather than the interviewee) I think if you’ve made every effort to get in touch with the next of kin you could go ahead and use the interview.
    Angela Davis, University of Warwick

    28 Oct 2015, 07:04

  5. Andrea Hajek

    hi Angela, there are consent forms with the interviews that have been transcribed, but not with the audio interviews – they are on CDs which I could listen to in the archive but there wasn’t any accompanying documentation, so I guess for those interviews it’s down to the next of kin, as you say. Thanks;-)

    30 Oct 2015, 11:54

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  • Thank you for this informative and useful blog. I agree that historians have much to gain from looki… by Alexander Freund on this entry
  • hi Angela, there are consent forms with the interviews that have been transcribed, but not with the … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • Hi Andrea. Just a quick follow up question – what paperwork actually exists for the interviews? Are … by Angela Davis on this entry
  • hi Angela, thanks for this. I too am working with some archived interviews, alongside conducting my … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • I was interested to read the angle of your initial blog as I am in the process of planning an oral h… by Nickianne Moody on this entry

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