My first day on our new Homeless Library project - chock full of nervousness and anticipation.
I was booked in to see Andrew at the North West Sound Archive, to get some advice on our planned recordings for the Library. The Archive is an amazing resource, with over 150000 oral history recordings in its vaults and years of experience between the staff members. As we talked, I could hear another conversation in the next room. While Andrew had a nicotine break I put my head round the door to see who was there - the room was full of old reel-to-reel machines. The voice was a recording of a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a member of the famed International Brigade. It was the voice of history itself, with a capital H. I felt daunted again by the responsibility of the job we are trying to do - to make the first ever history of homelessness in the UK.
Andrew kindly talked me through some do and don't basics for oral history recording, which I will share below. He also reflected on our own project.
Here are my notes from that morning:
Basic point one. Ask essential questions. This isn't just a chat, it's an interview. If it is allowed to become too random it'll lose its way and you'll forget what you need to ask. Decide what questions you want to cover before the interview and make sure you ask them. The NW Sound Archive suggest 5 basic questions to start off with: what's your name, where were you born, when were you born, what did your parents do for a living and where did you go to school? These questions tend to relax an interviewee because they're easy to answer. They also give a clear time and place to the material and gently bring in issues like social class. A sixth question for our project might be 'How did you become homeless?'
This is a sound recording of the interviewee, not the interviewer or anything else. So give them as much space as possible. Try not to interrupt, not even with encouraging noises, umms and errrs, and keep an ear out for background noise that could disrupt the recording. Strip lighting buzz has destroyed many recordings. In our project traffic noise might be a problem, although it is also descriptive of the environment in which some homeless people live. Don't put words into people's mouths, let them describe events and give their opinion on them as freely as possible. Keep quiet, nod and smile. The most powerful oral histories are the ones that are allowed to flow uninterrupted. Don't strain to be significant, 'historically valid', or generally smart arsed, the main thing is to catch people's stories as clearly and spontaneously as possible. Future historians will sift through this material for what they need, making their own selections. Although edited versions of the material (like our one minute day-in-the-life recordings made with homeless people) are valid, always keep the original interviews too.
After we had talked for a couple of hours, Andrew looked quizzical. "I've never come across a project quite like this one y'know."
I asked him why. After another ciggy break he came back with a reply. Our project is unusual for a number of reasons. It is difficult to get recordings of homeless people because there has to be a relationship of trust built up and few people have done that. It is also unusual because some of the recordings will take place in very uncontrolled environments, for example on the street, with interruptions of many sorts and the world intervening generally. Most profoundly, it is unusual because our project is more concerned with people's emotional history and motivations than it is in recording witnesses of known historical events. The questions we ask will tend to be about internal, emotional events, not verifiable facts. Andrew suggested that we look the Getting Our Heads Together project, which documented the experiences of a mental health group in Blackpool and included very subjective material about people's emotional lives to become part of the texture of their oral history accounts.
After I left the Archive, the voice of the International Brigade veteran was still with me. It was a haunting little phrase that I'd overheard from the recording. Somehow seemed to speak to our own project and the people it will include: "He was a restless soul."