Advice on oral history interviewing during the Covid-19 pandemic
This article is divided into subpages:
- Remote oral history interviewing during COVID-19
- In-person oral history interviewing during COVID-19
Remote oral history interviewing during COVID-19
Version 6 (15th May 2020)
Authored by Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist, British Library, [charlie.morgan[@]bl.uk] with Rob Perks, Mary Stewart, Camille Johnston (British Library Oral History, London). With thanks to Tom Lean (University of York), and Adam Tovell (British Library Sound Archive). With thanks to the Oral History Society for hosting the advice online.
Disclaimer: This guide is intended as no more than guidance based on the experience of the British Library Oral History team, with input from other members of the Oral History Society. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information brought together here from a wide variety of sources and experience, neither the authors, the British Library or the Oral History Society can accept liability for any consequences which may result from the use of this information for any purpose. As this is a work-in-progress guide which will be revised and updated the author welcomes comments and queries
This guide was written in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 which has required the suspension of all face-to-face oral history interviewing. In response to increased interest in conducting remote interviews this document attempts to summarise the ethical, legal, methodological and technical issues that individuals and projects will need to consider before deciding whether or not to conduct a remote interview.
Oral historians have traditionally favoured the face-to-face interview and discouraged remote interviewing. It involves a different skill set, and it is often difficult to build rapport from a distance, to be sensitive to mood changes, to provide non-verbal feedback, and to establish the relationship needed for a successful oral history interview. Interviews recorded via telephones and web services are often of poor audio quality, result in digital files that cannot be archived, and present challenges around data security, and signing and storing interview documentation. In addition, remote interviewing can tend to exclude or minimise many of the community building and ‘process’ elements of oral history projects, which are often as important as the ‘product’ itself. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has created an extraordinary situation where face-to-face interviewing would endanger the health of the interviewer, the interviewee and society as a whole. The Oral History Society has therefore recommended all face-to-face interviewing be postponed until further notice.
Postponing face-to-face interviewing does not mean that the work of oral history must also pause, and individuals and groups may take this time to work on content summarising, transcribing, editing, research, writing, webpage preparation or analysis, amongst other work. At the same time, we recognise in some cases it may be necessary for oral historians to continue with active interviewing, for example if a vital interviewee is unwell, if the project is documenting the pandemic itself, or if project deadlines cannot be postponed, and that in such situations the only option will be to make use of remote technology.
2.When to conduct a remote oral history interview
Remote interviewing is currently the only safe method of conducting an oral history interview, but we do not expect this situation to last forever. We do not know how long the Covid-19 pandemic and the global response will last, and it may be that we are entering a ‘new normal’ for oral history, which requires us to develop alternative recording methods. Furthermore, we take inspiration from the disability justice movement and others for whom remote interviewing offers opportunities that in-person interviewing does not. We are still working under the assumption that social distancing will at some point come to an end and oral historians will be able to resume face-to-face interviewing. If possible you should postpone your oral history interview until that point, and instead remote technology could be used during the period of social distancing to build a relationship with the interviewee or to check that they are healthy and safe, or perhaps to continue an interview you have already started face-to-face. If delay is not possible there are several criteria that should be considered before deciding whether or not to conduct a remote oral history interview:
2.1 The urgency of the interview
Can the interview be postponed? All of us are at risk, but the current pandemic presents a specific threat to some individuals and groups over others, for example some, but certainly not all, older or immuno-compromised people. Whilst we should avoid blanket categorisation of people as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ due to assumed vulnerability, the first consideration in whether to conduct a remote interview is the degree of urgency and whether a face-to-face interview is likely to be possible once the pandemic has ceased. Urgency should also be judged on whether existing archived oral history interviews can be used as substitutes for new interviews, and whether existing research on the subject might provide an adequate evidence base. Finally, interviews might be seen as more urgent if they are specifically related to documenting the current situation or are interviews on the topic of infectious diseases.
2.2 The type of interview
What kind of oral history interview are you conducting? It will be difficult to record a long life story interview over remote technology, but it might be possible to conduct shorter and more focused research interviews. In larger projects this may help you in prioritising which interviews to conduct now and which to postpone.
2.3 The condition of the interviewee and the interviewer
How much of a priority is an oral history interview in the current circumstances? The Covid-19 pandemic has already left many people in financial, psychological and personal distress. Many people – and this could include both the interviewer and interviewee – are finding it hard to pay for rent, bills and food, or are struggling with childcare; others are forced to remain in difficult or abusive households. Individuals, communities and society will be dealing with ‘anticipatory grief’, as well as the loss of loved ones under extraordinary circumstances, and the subsequent psychological impact of mass bereavement.
In some cases an oral history interview might function as a coping mechanism for the interviewee and help them to process their experiences of the pandemic. In this case an interview might be beneficial. However, an oral history interview is different from a therapeutic encounter and oral historians should be aware of where their strengths and skills lie. Oral history should not be confused with therapy or emotional support, though there might be some interviews relating to traumatic memory and distress where the interviewer needs to shift their approach. It might be that such interviews should simply be delayed until a face-to-face encounter can better provide sensitive listening and support in cases where interviewees become distressed
At the point of writing this guidance the primary concern for most people is ensuring that they and others are safe and supported, and the request for an interview may be seen as intrusive or insensitive. In addition, when interviewing healthcare or other frontline workers there is a danger that “single session interventions that require staff to talk about their thoughts or feelings” may increase the likelihood of PTSD (see this summary by the King’s Fund). Can you be sure that individuals at this time have been fully informed about the process and are able to freely give their informed consent to taking part? Would a remote interview be the best legacy for that individual to leave in the historical record? Remember that continuing an ongoing oral history interview that commenced face-to-face will present fewer challenges than starting a new one, and that some oral historians maintain that during a period of crisis you should only interview people with whom you have a pre-existing relationship.
Finally, you should consider your own situation as the interviewer or project manager. The Covid-19 pandemic is a global pandemic and is affecting all of us, albeit in different ways. This is unique in living memory and differs from previous crisis situations documented by oral historians, which tended to apply only to specific localities, and often only affected interviewees but not interviewers (see bibliography below). Do you have sufficient time for pre- and post-interview work such as research and summarising? Can you suspend your own experiences of the pandemic and allow your interviewee’s testimony to take precedence during the recording? If you are working with volunteers do you have the staff and expertise to provide them with the necessary practical and emotional support?
2.4 The purpose of the interview
Can remote interviews be archived? One of the biggest problems with remote interviewing is the quality of digital files that can be recorded. They may be poor audio quality (which will make any transcription or re-use in broadcast or web outputs challenging) or they might use low resolution and/or proprietary audio software which might not be forward-compatible. If the oral history interviews are being recorded with the intention that they be deposited for long-term archival preservation this will be a key consideration in deciding whether or not to conduct a remote interview. Oral historians and projects should consult with their archival partners at the point they are considering remote interviewing to ascertain whether the archive would be willing to accept remote interviews as part of deposit. While we, in line with OHS guidance, always recommend archiving recorded interviews, we acknowledge that in some cases interviews are only intended for immediate research purposes and not for archival preservation. In these few instances remote interviewing will be more feasible.
2.5 Project timescales
Can funded projects postpone their work? We strongly recommend you contact your funder or lead researcher before making a decision on remote interviewing. Most funding bodies (including the National Lottery Heritage Fund and UK Research and Innovation) have suspended or extended existing deadlines for oral history projects, research projects and postgraduate research. At the same time this does not mean that these bodies will provide additional funding, therefore the timescales that predated social distancing may need to remain due to financial and practical necessity. If projects only have staff available to conduct interviews (or to supervise volunteers in conducting interviews) within a defined timeframe they may want to consider remote interviewing. However, if the project has not received training in oral history techniques then we would strongly advise against any remote interviewing until adequate training can be provided.
2.6 Technological capability
What technologies are available for remote interviewing? Section 5 of this document deals with the technical options for recording remote interviews. However, these options are only viable to the extent that interviewers and interviewees are comfortable in using them. If interviewers are not adept with the software themselves and are unable to guide their interviewees effectively, and if interviewees are not able to use any of the software options listed below, or have trouble using them, then a remote interview will be very difficult.
2.7 Legal issues
What are the legal and data protection implications? Different providers of remote interviewing software will claim different rights over the audio recorded and there are security concerns about some. You must be especially diligent in reading the terms and conditions of any software you use in order to ensure you do not breach any data protection legislation which might apply to the country you reside in, the country your interviewee resides in, or the country that the software provider resides in. You also need to consider whether the confidentiality of a remote interview can assured if the software provider routinely records and retains content (rather as Google does with some of their applications), or exercises rights over anything that you record yourself. Importantly, you should check whether any files you record are being stored in cloud storage or are being recorded locally to your computer; the latter option will have significantly fewer data protection issues. For sensitive, closed, restricted, or confidential interviews it might simply not be possible to use most remote interviewing options.
3.What to consider when conducting a remote interview
Remote interviewing presents technical and methodological challenges, some of which are not present in face-to-face interviewing. As it stands there is limited literature on the subject and we welcome further discussion. The following technical challenges may apply:
- If you are using the internet for remote interviewing you should be aware of the current stress on bandwidth due to the increased number of people working from home and using the internet for leisure purposes. Also remember there is poor internet and telephone provision in rural parts of the UK. When using the internet for remote interviews always ensure that you switch off all other devices using your own Wi-Fi or internet network and ask interviewees to do the same. You are also likely to get a better connection by connecting directly to your router with an Ethernet cable as opposed to connecting by Wi-Fi.
- In-built microphones in computers and laptops will likely be of poor quality. If both you and your interviewee can use external microphones (or a headset with a built-in microphone) your interview will be of significantly better audio quality – in fact this may be the most important factor in ensuring you record good quality audio. For most methods of recording it is also preferable for you and your interviewee to wear headphones. Both of these pieces of equipment use the computer audio jack, so if your computer has only one audio jack you will need to assess and prioritise your equipment or find an alternative, such as a USB microphone or Bluetooth headphones. Note that many firms have sold out of audio-visual equipment due to increased demand at the start of the pandemic.
- If you are recording only the audio channel of a video call remember that future researchers will not see the video. If you or the interviewee refer to documents, objects or non-verbal forms of expression make sure it is clearly described as well.
- If you are recording through a computer, ensure that all other audio and video playback has stopped and that any programs which might have audio notifications have been closed. Refer to Oral History Society guidance on recording with smartphones.
- If you are saving the recording on to your computer hard drive make sure there is enough storage space available for the file: as a rule of thumb ensure there is 1GB space per each hour of recorded stereo sound.
- The volume levels of the interviewer and the interviewee are likely to have greater variation in a remote interview than in a face-to-face interview. Consider how you can minimise this, for example by recording to a stereo track where the levels can be adjusted individually after the recording has finished (which is not possible in a mono track).
- Remember there will likely be many distractions in both of your homes, including children, pets and neighbours, amongst others. Try to minimise these as best you can by seeing if both parties can find a quiet, softly furnished, comfortable and confidential space, a separate room if possible or by cordoning off space in a bedroom rather than a communal area.
- Interviewees might find it harder to speak for long periods in a remote interview than in a face-to-face interview, and might need more frequent breaks.
- It will be harder to deliver non-verbal feedback remotely than in a face-to-face interview. Additionally, it will be harder to identify non-verbal cues that might indicate either an opportune moment for a follow-up question, or the need to pause if the interviewee becomes upset. You may need to alter your interviewing technique and question structures accordingly. In face-to-face interviewing there would usually be time to talk after the recording ends; we suggest you try to build in at least a few minutes of time to chat after ending the remote recording, which will help both parties.
- Consider carefully how you will store the audio recording of your remote interview at home. Ideally the interview should be kept on secure and encrypted local drives and you should use checksum software whenever you move your audio to a new location (the British Library Oral History department uses Blackbush checksum software and it can be provided free on request). Remember to keep multiple copies and that ‘one copy is no copy’. Consider whether you can securely transfer audio data to someone with access to archive storage, perhaps via WeTransfer Pro, which enables password protection.
- If possible, use this remote interview as one session amongst others, to be continued when social distancing measures are relaxed and you can meet face-to-face.
A difficult aspect of remote interviewing is arranging how interviewees can sign a participation agreement prior to the interview and a recording agreement afterwards, and how to ensure they understand the forms they are signing. See Oral History Society guidance on GDPR for more information. If you are interviewing individuals who have electronic signatures you can ask them to complete forms in this way. If your interviewee has access to a printer/scanner they could print and sign documents and either post them back to you or send a scanned copy or a photograph of the form. Finally, if you have access to a printer and they do not you could consider printing the form to send to them and asking them to post it back to you. Remember that approaches you take during social distancing might just function as stopgap solutions, and additional documentation will need to be signed in the future.
Signing the post-interview recording agreement can be deferred until social distancing measures are relaxed, but in order to be compliant with GDPR the interviewee will need to explicitly agree with the participation agreement prior to the interview. While a signed agreement always carries more weight, if this is not possible the position of the British Library is that the interviewee should state on the recording that they have received, understood and agreed to the participation agreement. This form of verbal agreement should only be relied on during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic and should be supplemented with a signed agreement when possible. If you are working for an organisation with a Data Protection Officer we suggest you consult them before following this approach.
We also recommend having a phone or video call before the interviewee signs, or agrees to, the participation agreement in order to make sure they understand both the form and the interview process. Once you have received documents in paper or digital form you will need to have a process in place for secure storage of the documents containing people’s personal data in order to be GDPR compliant, and this should be described on the participation agreement itself.
As with all oral history interviews the usual rules around reasonable adjustments for disability apply, and alternative methods for indicating and recording ethical agreement for those unable to write are encouraged. Refer to the Oral History Society Legal and Ethical FAQ for more information.
5.Options for recording a remote interview
Having considered all the issues in sections 1-4 of this document, there are numerous technological options available for anyone who wishes to proceed with a remote interview. Many will be unsuitable for oral history recordings, especially those that you might want to archive, so when choosing a method we would suggest you consider the following factors:
- Ease of use: Is it a method you and the interviewee can both understand and make use of?
- Copyright, data protection and safety: Does the provider claim any rights over the recording or the words spoken? Do they retain any data and if so where is it stored, how is it accessed and is it GDPR-compliant? How susceptible is the provider to hacking and how can you protect against this? Popular VoIP services like Skype or Zoom might be more susceptible to hackers and claim more rights over your calls than open source options like Jitsi.
- Audio or video: Do you want to record an audio-visual interview, or the audio channel of a video conversation, or simply conduct an audio phone call? A video call will have the advantage of visual cues, but a telephone call will have fewer issues around rights, data security, and data protection
- Time constraints: Does the provider cut you off after a certain period of time? Are there maximum running times?
- Cost: How much does the equipment, software or phone call cost, and might you be locked into a contract? Should you, or your organisation, undertake any contract with a software or service provider? Are there cost savings (or risks) for multiple users?
- Format: Does the method chosen produce a highly compressed file (such as mp3, mp4 or a proprietary file) or a format suitable for archival preservation (such as wav)? For audio, the wav format has become a de-facto standard for preservation due to its simplicity, widespread compatibility and ability to hold lossless audio data. This format is officially recommended by the IASA Technical Committee. Mp3 and mp4 files may present greater challenges for archiving due to their more complex makeup and implementation of proprietary codecs. However, even if you can save your recording as a wav file this does not necessarily mean the audio captured has come from an uncompressed source. It is very unlikely that any method of remote recording will produce an audio file of similar quality to what can be achieved in a face-to-face interview. If you are planning to archive your interviews the quality of the audio will likely be the most restrictive criterion and it is crucial you discuss this with any archival partner you are working with.
- Note that all VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services (for example, Skype, Zoom or Jitsi) and telephone calls (mobile or landline) employ some degree of audio compression. The level of compression employed will depend on internet speed and bandwidth, as well as the codec (compression software) used. The audio will be compressed even if the audio file you save on your recorder or export from audio software is a wav file.
- If possible you should still record the interview as a wav file, and note that recording as mp3 or mp4 and then converting to wav will not produce an audio file with equivalent quality to recording directly as a wav file. Saving any audio file in a lossy compressed format (e.g. mp3 or mp4) will result in a reduction in file size and in quality. This reduction applies even if the source material (e.g. a VoIP call) is already compressed in the first place. By saving already compressed audio in a compressed format, you are essentially ‘double compressing’ the file, further reducing its quality. The reduction in quality when compressing already compressed audio will be less than the reduction in quality when compressing uncompressed audio, but from an archival standpoint ‘double compression’ should be avoided in favour of saving in an uncompressed, lossless format. Saving already-compressed source material (e.g. a VoIP call) in an uncompressed format (e.g. wav) will ensure there is no further loss in quality.
With these factors in mind we list some potential options below, all of which are summarised in tabular form in Appendix A; remember that with all these options there are many variables to balance and there will never be a ‘one size fits all’ solution to recording remote interviews. It should be stressed that this list is not meant as exhaustive and other options, if they meet the criteria in this document, could be used for a remote oral history interview. Furthermore, most of the options listed in section 5.2 are only a method of recording an interview, not the means by which you are able to make contact. For a successful remote interview you will need to consider both the means of making the call (double-ender recording, telephone, VoIP software) and the way in which you will record the audio (capture by audio software or by a digital recorder). Whatever method you choose we strongly recommend you conduct a pre-interview call with your interviewee using the same technology you plan to use for the interview itself, recording some test files to review and later delete.
Finally, it should be noted that the British Library’s oral history team does not have extensive experience using these technologies and you are recommended to consult user communities and share your own practice. We welcome comments on your experience of using these methods in the current pandemic.
5.1 ‘Double-ender’ recording
A ‘double-ender’ recording is one 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 their voice appears after being compressed through a VoIP or telephone call. A double-ender will give you lossless audio, which is of a higher quality than the options listed in section 5.2, but bear in mind that the quality of each voice will depend on the equipment available and as always an external microphone will greatly improve audio quality (the same microphone as you would normally use for your face to face interviews).
5.1.1 Participant managed double-ender