Starting out as an Oral Historian – Rosie Bush

How can Oral History Society (OHS) training meet the vastly different needs of academic and non-academic historians with diverse interests? In this Lug post, our Associate Researcher, Rosie Bush, shares her experiences of the OHS ‘Introduction to Oral History’ course. She outlines the areas the course covers and considers the steps that follow when starting out.


I’ve been volunteering with the Oral History Unit since January and have learned lots already from the team and wider Collective. But when working with experienced colleagues who have such specialist knowledge, there is often little time to cover the ‘basics’. I enrolled on the Oral History Society’s introductory course to try and fill in the gaps.

There were around twelve participants the day I attended the course, each with varied levels of practical experience and with different strengths and needs. Some were using oral history as one tool in a wider research project; others were creating voice-led community projects. There were people with extensive audio and radio experience; and then there were others who had been collecting family oral histories without the technological knowledge to proceed. Some people had no experience of interviewing strangers, whilst others did this for a living.

As a school teacher, I am quite used to questioning and listening to a range of personalities, and having taught English Language for a decade, I can transcribe and analyse speech. But while there are overlaps between linguistics and oral history, there are infinitely more differences when focusing on the story of an interviewee, rather than the manner of speech.

The course was delivered by Dr Michelle Winslow, an oral historian from Sheffield University. Michelle told us how she combines her medical and oral history experience through her work with patients receiving palliative care, offering to record their life stories during their time in hospital. To many patients, the opportunity to be listened to and have their memories archived is a very positive and rewarding part of their treatment.

The course content provided a clear definition of what oral history is (and isn’t), giving an overview of its origins and evolution as technology has developed. We then discussed the credibility of oral history and its relationship to memory and historical fact (something talked about at length by Alessandro Portelli during his lecture at Newcastle University in January).

Practical advice was also given on the course about who to interview and how to conduct a good interview, with some fantastic and some frightening examples of interviewing during the ’dos and don’ts’ section. Tried-and-tested advice was given by Michelle on which recording equipment and editing software to use, with helpful insights from some of the course attendees also.

We were given the chance to test our learning through paired interview practice, which was both nerve-wracking and fascinating. We evaluated the process of being both interviewer and interviewee after this, before moving on to discuss copyright, ethics and GDPR. Some time was devoted to post-interview actions such as summarising, transcription and archiving, although another OHS course is available on this in more detail.

I came away feeling reassured and raring to go. I’m planning to undertake some ‘practice’ interviews on family members, building up to capturing the stories of teaching colleagues, community groups and beyond.

I’d highly recommend the course for those starting out, or with gaps in their knowledge. The OHS offers a number of courses but this ‘Introduction’ is an obvious place to begin. Impressively, Michelle managed to meet the needs of everyone. But then, she is an oral historian: she had a plan, allowed time for us to be heard and adapted accordingly.

About Rosie:

Rosie Bush is one of the Oral History Unit’s associate researchers. She grew up in Northumberland but moved to the Midlands to complete her degree in English Studies at Nottingham University and PGCE in Secondary Teaching. Rosie taught in Derbyshire for a number of years before taking a break to complete an MA in Public History and Heritage Management at Nottingham Trent University before moving back to the North East. She now teaches English and Drama at The Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick. Rosie loves attending the theatre and co-runs a children’s drama group, the Puffin Theatre Club, in the coastal town of Amble. She loves exploring the local area and writes a monthly column for the Northumberland Gazette titled ‘Hidden Heritage’, which is also her Twitter handle: @heritage_hidden.

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