recording an oral history

Thoughts on… Oral History

Posted on: 3rd June 2023 No Comments

At the heart of our work is deep listening. We often do this through conducting oral history recordings. Recording someone’s memories and reflections is a true privilege and there is huge value in both the process and the recording itself. We have recently been conducting a lot of oral history recordings for different organisations and thought it would be interesting to reflect on this here.

When was the last time someone sat and deeply listened to you?

A time when you felt truly heard and understood, not judged, or hurried?
When we ask people this in our oral history training sessions, the answer is often “my therapist” or “I have one friend” or even “my dog.” Some people struggle to think of anyone.

The sad truth of it is that in our ever-frantic lives, we don’t always make time to be still and listen. Which is a great shame as the value of being heard is paramount to our wellbeing. Deep listening helps us to connect in a meaningful and profound way. It helps us to empathise and learn.

recording an oral history for tattoo exhibition

Recording an oral history for the Tattoo Tales project with the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

Learning through listening

We really look forward to the oral history recordings we conduct. Each one provides a special opportunity  to learn about someone’s life. We provide a safe and open space for sharing and it’s an honour to listen. We have recorded people of all ages and from all backgrounds and heard personal stories of people who we’d perhaps never meet in everyday life. If we listen without judgment it is incredible what we can learn from each other. It is common for us to come away feeling inspired, particularly when hearing stories of resilience and care.

Despite our love of the process, we sometimes go away from recordings with a degree of sadness and feeling of loss. From older sharers we hear of close- knit communities where people looked out for each other through the hard times and the good. We hear of a time when we weren’t distracted by screens and spending time sharing stories was commonplace. We hear of a deep awareness of nature that was woven into daily life. This might sound a little like we’re wearing rose tinted glasses. Obviously there are many changes that have brought positive benefits to people’s lives, but there is value in listening to these stories as we learn to live more sustainably, in more connected, happier communities. The changes people in their 80’s and 90’s now have witnessed are phenomenal. Whether talking about farming practices, community schemes or maintaining food supplies, there is so much to learn from the past. With this comes a sense of urgency, to record those who remember further back, before their memories are lost. Through oral history recording we hope to conserve these unique ways of living and find a place for them in our futures.

oral history recording

Recording by the sea for the Gwelan Podcasts

Oral history for everyone…

Oral history is not only for trained professionals. We are all surrounded by people with fascinating stories. They just need a prompt to share them!  So, we urge you, next time you’re sat on a park bench, or on a bus, ask a question. Listen. If you are able to listen without judgment and with interest, it’s amazing what you might hear and the connection you could make.

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