Posted on behalf of Tilly Blyth, Senior Academic Consultant for An Oral History of British Science:
Last week the team went to Birmingham Museum Collections Centre to interview Dr Ray Bird in front of the HEC 1 computer. In the 1950s Ray worked for British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM), one of Britain's biggest suppliers of electro-mechanical punched-card equipment for data processing. Working with computer designs by Andrew Donald Booth of Birkbeck College, Ray built the prototype HEC 1. The BTM range of HEC computers went on to become Britain’s best-selling computers during the late 1950s.
The trip was the team’s first attempt at using digital video for oral history, and it raised some interesting questions about how to make the most of video in oral history and what the end product was that we were trying to achieve.
Since the beginning of the project the team have been keen to use digital video to complement the oral history recordings we have made. We agreed that talking heads of interviewees often offer little extra value to the viewer, and we were concerned that the presence of a camera may compromise the relationship between interviewee and interviewer. So we decided to use short video recordings to document the interviewees’ relationship with particular instrumentation, specific geographical settings or key turning points. Ray Bird offered us a wonderful chance to reunite an engineer with a familiar machine, and when he first saw the HEC 1 computer in the museum store he immediately greeted it as if it was an old friend.
We had done a large amount of work producing shots lists prior to filming, but as the interview progressed it became clear we needed to think more about the format of our final product. Should the video be unedited, so that researchers can access to whole recording and develop a broad sense of the individual? Or should we create an edited film that cuts out some of the errors and follows the rule of a narrative led ‘final’ film? Should the team really be making the choices about what stays in the film and which parts are cut from the historical account?
It is interesting that we are considering acting quite differently for digital video when we would never edit an oral recording. Perhaps the solution is in providing viewers with both - an edited final film and an archive of the raw footage. But this is only possible if we are able to keep up with the large storage capacity required for video.