Sound and vision blog

20 September 2017

Reflections on the clip bank: oral history interview highlights

Camille Johnston is a Masters student from University College London who recently completed a summer placement working with the British Library’s oral history collections.

When I began my placement with the Oral History section I couldn’t have predicted what I would discover over the summer months. I’ve been granted access to a vast collection of extracts taken from life story recordings which, while providing an amazing insight into the many different collections developed by the department, are also fascinating as items in themselves.

These extracts have been described as the 'best bits' of interviews, and often give the listener a real sense of the interviewee in just a few minutes. However, what is included in the extract – and what doesn't 'make the cut' – is inevitably a very subjective process. These extracts are products of the decisions made by the individuals involved in their creation.

In the following clip there are enough details to give the listener an idea of the context of the interview. We learn about the interviewee's job, his attitude to his work, norms in his profession, and his working relationships. Taken from the collection, 'An Oral History of British Fashion', Michael Southgate (C1046/08) describes the process of choosing models for mannequins and comments on the success of the Twiggy mannequin.

Michael Southgate - mannequins

A lot of work has gone into creating the clips but, because they were seen as ephemeral at the time of their creation, they are not as well documented as the full interviews they were clipped from. The bank is potentially a very useful resource for web and social media promotion but the clips in it need first to be organised, renamed consistently and permission to use each one checked and documented.

The process of taking extracts from recordings for use in exhibitions, public presentations, promotion, teaching, and internal events requires some consideration of not only the intended audience for the clip, and associated concerns relating to access conditions and copyright ownership, but also the implications of sharing only a small section of a life story recording. How can the integrity of the full interview be preserved when all that is presented is a short clip? Can a clip convey the subtleties of mood and expression present in a full length interview? What is lost or gained?

These questions have accompanied me throughout the summer as I’ve explored and audited the Oral History Clip Bank. The clip bank is a folder stored on a shared drive containing over 3,000 extracts from life story recordings. Clips vary from personal reflections, observations, and amusing anecdotes to potentially sensitive sections extracted for review by the department's advisory board.

The following clip is an example of a short anecdote, taken from the collection: 'Food: From Source to Salespoint'. Robert Johnson (C821/10) tells a story about Bill Knapman taking merchant banker visitors into the cold store.

Bob Johnson - the cold store

As part of my placement I’ve produced recommendations for managing and arranging the clip bank, adding extracts to the clip bank, and reusing existing content. This has included recommendations for file naming, the development of a spreadsheet to document information about clips, and guidelines to assist internal clip bank users. To make these recommendations relevant and useful they have been tailored to suit the needs of interviewers working within the department.

Clip bank picThe clip bank and its metadata spreadsheet

Over the three summer months I've met most of the oral history team and have learnt about the different processes involved in producing a life story recording. These processes include the initial research stage and development of interview questions, arranging and carrying out interviews over multiple meetings with interviewees, the process of summarising content in between meetings (and how this helps the interviewer to further tailor questions), ingesting recordings into the digital library system, and cataloguing these recordings. I've also practised editing clips using WaveLab, and explored how clips are shared online and within exhibitions.

Websites that host British Library oral history clips include: British Library Sounds, Voices of Science, Sisterhood and After, the Sound and Vision blog, and the British Library SoundCloud channel. Exhibitions which have hosted clips in summer 2017 include: Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty at the British Library, Artists’ Lives & Chelsea College of Arts: An Audio Exhibition at Chelsea College of Arts, Sephardi Voices at the London Jewish Museum, Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage at the Library of Birmingham and In Their Own Words: Artists’ Voices from the Ingram Collection at the Lightbox in Woking.

There is great potential for existing clips to be shared again and if clips are well documented this process will be much more efficient. The new system for managing clips therefore encourages and supports future access to clips. There are checks in place to make sure clips are not used inappropriately, and the spreadsheet documents all uses of a particular clip to make sure clips are not repeatedly used for similar events. The spreadsheet includes a 'Keywords' field to encourage users to log the different themes covered in clips, promoting more diverse use.

For example, the following clip could inspire ideas for set production, interior design, and the sourcing of materials as well as provide information relating specifically to Derek Jarman's film 'Caravaggio', Andrew Logan's working environment, and the closing of Biba. Taken from the collection 'Crafts Lives', Andrew Logan (C960/87) describes the Butler's Wharf studio space.

Andrew Logan - Butler's Wharf studio

More Clip Bank highlights will be added to the new Oral History Clip Bank playlist as they are discovered. For more oral history news join the team on Twitter.

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