Sound and vision blog

18 February 2021

Remote oral history interviewing at the British Library during the Covid-19 pandemic

Soon after the first lockdown in March 2020 the British Library oral history team suspended all face to face oral history interviews. Cut off from our established workflows and working from home we were faced with the same question as everyone else, what now?

Led by Oral History Archivist Charlie Morgan, in April 2020 we issued some guidance on ‘Remote oral history interviewing during Covid-19’, kindly hosted by the Oral History Society (updated editions have followed). The guidance argued that for the majority of projects remote interviews would likely never be as good as in-person interviews – from a technical, ethical and practical perspective – and that interviewers should think twice before immediately shifting to online remote interviewing. We recommended delaying interviews that might not be urgent, and raised a number of ethical and legal issues, not the least of which was whether an interview in the midst of a global pandemic might add extra trauma and pressure for certain interviewees (and interviewers) struggling to cope.

As lockdown eased over the summer we developed new risk assessment guidelines, policies and check-lists to help interviewers safely prepare for socially-distanced in-person interviews. Led by Assistant Archivist Camille Johnston, we published ‘Recording oral history interviews in person during the COVID-19 pandemic’ and this formed the basis for a new BL/National Life Stories policy on in-person interviewing.

But no sooner had in-person interviews restarted than they were curtailed by the second and now third lockdowns, forcing us to revisit our earlier decision about remote interviews. This was especially the case for several of National Life Stories newest projects, including ‘An Oral History of Farming, Land Management and Conservation in Post-War Britain’ (generously funded by the Arcadia Trust).

Back in March 2020 the oral history community was relatively unfamiliar with remote interviewing, but since then we and others around the world have been experimenting with a host of technical options. Our own experiments, alongside Oral History Society trainers, focussed on the options we had suggested in our ‘Remote oral history interviewing during Covid-19’ guidance, and resulted in a series of how-to videos on the Oral History Society’s YouTube channel. Some options record video, some don’t. Audio quality and costs both vary. Issues like poor broadband and ‘Zoom fatigue’ persist. Unlike in-person interviewing there remains no single ‘best practice’ approach to remote recording.

Aerial photo of a desk with a laptop, keyboard and mouse shown next to a USB microphoneRemote recording set up. Image: Liz Wright.

For our own projects we settled on using a podcasting programme Zencastr (now Zencastr Classic) which, for reasonable cost, delivers high quality uncompressed wav recordings through a ‘double-ender’ recording where all audio is recorded locally. This means that both the interviewer and the interviewee will each be recorded as they sound, and not as you would hear their voice after it has been compressed through, for example, Zoom, Teams or a telephone call. Zencastr, like all US-based software services, is no longer fully compliant with UK-EU GDPR as a result of the withdrawal of the US-EU ‘Privacy Shield’. Every institution must now make its own risk-based decision about whether or not to use US-based software services on a case-by-case basis. In this instance the BL decided that use of Zencastr was an ‘acceptable risk’, as it was crucial for the continuation of our work during the pandemic, and the data would be stored on remote servers for a minimal time period before being deleted.

While a podcasting programme such as Zencastr records high quality audio it doesn’t have any video functionality. To allow greater rapport we decided to use a video conferencing programme (in our case Zoom) on mute at the same time so both the interviewer and the interviewee can see one another. Finally, as built-in computer microphones are generally of poor quality, we purchased multiple USB microphones for interviewers and also for interviewees, who receive their microphones by post and forward them on to the next interviewee the same way. There are many USB microphones to choose between, the best quality running into hundreds of pounds apiece. For its balance of quality, cost and ease of use we decided to use the Bumblebee microphone made by Neat. The added cost of the microphones and their transit has been balanced by savings in interviewer travel costs, especially when interviewees are far away requiring overnight stays.

We produced guidance for interviewees to help them set up the microphones, check that their computers had sufficient storage space, and join the Zencastr call. And then we began interviewing.

Paul Merchant, interviewer on the farming oral history project, was one of the first in the BL team to use the new kit and remarks, ‘although this method cannot reproduce the more subtle and intangible aspects of life story interviewing, it has allowed us to record very valuable material with existing and new interviewees, with archive-quality stereo audio.’

John Marshall interviewed by Paul Merchant (C1828/23)

Download John Marshall interviewed by Paul Merchant Transcript

Paul explains that his interview technique has had to change – shorter and more precise questions tend to be needed – and feelings and emotions are more difficult to spot, especially with new interviewees whom he’s never met face to face. He has found remote interviewing sometimes lacks the emotional intimacy of in-person interviews, where the tiny signals and tells of body language and posture can often dictate a particular questioning line and are not easily seen and understood via Zoom. Asking ‘difficult’ questions becomes more challenging.

Photograph of an interviewee wearing headphones and looking at a computer screen while taking part in a remote oral history interviewRemote interview with John Marshall in Fife, Scotland, November 2020. Image: Rhona Marshall.

Liz Wright, who has also been recording remotely for another time-limited project, agrees with Paul about the difficulty of interpreting body language on-screen, and feels that the pace of an interview can be affected – especially when it comes to understanding different types of silence and how to respond to them. And practically the added technology can make interviewees initially more nervous and apprehensive, and it can take time for them to trust the process, bearing in mind that some of them may never have communicated via video call before. Despite these challenges the remote interviews, which have so far been continuations of recordings started in-person in the autumn, have recorded very interesting testimonies of high quality.

Paul, Liz, and the team have also had to develop new ways of ensuring all the interview documentation is shared and signed off: the pre-interview Participation Agreement and post-interview Recording Agreement. And our archival team have had to implement entirely new workflows for safely and securely transferring and storing audio files using a web-based file transfer service that allows for password protection (the paid-for premium service WeTransfer Pro).

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic there were questions about whether we were entering a ‘new normal’ for oral history, where remote interviewing would become the dominant approach. Our experience so far suggests otherwise and indicates there are still many aspects of the in-person interview that can’t be replicated at a distance, especially for in-depth interviews and with new interviewees. Yet it is still true that the world of oral history has changed dramatically in the last twelve months. It is now clear that high quality remote interviews suitable for archiving can be recorded, and this in itself opens up many possibilities to interview people who live far away or in other countries. Even once we can return to in-person interviewing, remote recordings will still be a part of our oral history toolkit.

Blog by British Library Oral History team, February 2021

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