Well-being and oral history

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has listened to upsetting content during oral history interviews.  Recounting a painful, difficult or traumatic memory can be very distressing for the interviewee and we should always be sensitive and responsive to this.  However before we begin an interview, we can never know, on either side, how it might affect us or whether the effects will be long lasting. Indeed, we can sometimes be surprised or blindsided by the impact of conducting an interview, regardless of the topic, because of all the associations it has brought to mind, both negative and positive. 

Martha Norkunus has written about how the emotional relationship that develops between interviewer and interviewee has a lasting impact on both people involved:

 “Because neither the listener not the narrator knows where the contours of traumatised memory lie, those who listen to these stories are fully exposed to the victim’s pain and grief; the narrator and listener can be trapped in an interaction of emotions. Others encounter emotionally painful narratives unexpectedly, in the context of life history interviews not ostensibly about genocide or violence… the stories can change the listener’s sense of self.”

Martha Norkunus1Martha Norkunus, ‘The vulnerable listener’, in Anna Sheftel and Stacy Zembrzycki, Oral History off the Record: towards an ethnography of practice (Palgrave, 2013), pp 81 – 96,

What should oral historians do if they have been negatively affected by an interview? What sorts of formal or informal support mechanisms should be in place? Is it ok to just offload on our hapless partners, friends or family, or do we just try to forget about it?  Unfortunately, too often the oral historian falls between the gaps, of good support on the one hand and no support on the other.

What should we do if we are engaged in a project where the subject is upsetting, where there is no place to offload and we find that things have really got to us in a big way? Who do we turn to then?  These are the questions I found myself asking recently, after working on a particularly stressful and upsetting oral history project which affected my sleep, my mood and my well-being, leaving me feeling vulnerable, shaken and unsupported.  

This experience made me understand that if this can happen to me, a seasoned oral historian, it can happen to anyone. So I reached out to other oral historians who might understand what I was going through, or might be able to advise me, via the Oral History Society member’s discussion group. This is a special online forum where members can ask questions, seek advice or explore ideas about work with oral history.

The replies that I received from other oral historians, offering me support and telling me about their experiences, made me appreciate that I wasn’t the only person who had been negatively affected by working with difficult oral history content. It also seemed to me that the well-being of interviewers was somehow getting overlooked. I could also see that there were wider implications for oral history interviewing, for researchers and for freelancers generally, especially when dealing with difficult, sensitive or traumatic content.

I raised my concerns with the Oral History Society and they asked me to share my experiences with other Regional Networkers at our annual CPD event.  We discussed the subject of well-being and oral history, including a range of factors which can add extra layers of stress to already challenging subjects. We spoke about how these factors can affect the interviewee, the interviewer and even the outcome of the interview.  

In response to the issues that were raised in our meeting, a working group has been set up to look into ways of addressing these concerns and develop well-being guidance for those engaged in oral history. The aim is to set a professional standard for organisations undertaking oral history projects, especially when working with difficult or challenging material, of how to protect the well-being of employees, freelancers, researchers and volunteers.  This might be especially helpful where there is a danger that individual well-being could become a casualty of tight deadlines and high expectations. The working group will be publishing the results of their findings and well-being guidance on the Oral History Society webpages in the coming months. 

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this blog whilst engaged in oral history activities, or if you feel that your well-being has suffered, it is advisable to talk to someone or seek support, either formally or informally.  We would also like to hear from you, if you know of examples of well-being good practice in oral history projects or research.

Further reading:

  • Researcher Wellbeing’ is a collaborative project between historians, a counsellor and an occupational health professional. It sets out guidelines about history researcher vulnerabilities, mental health and wellbeing.  
  • D. Jones, ‘Distressing histories and unhappy interviewing’, Oral History, 1998, vol. 26 no. 2, pp. 49-56
  • Emma L. Vickers, ‘Unexpected Trauma in Oral Interviewing’ from the Oral History Review, Vol 46, 2019, issue 1, is interesting and has some practical suggestions for interviewers.
  • M. Klempner, ‘Navigating life review interviews with survivors of trauma’, Oral History Review, 2000, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 67-83.
  • Martha Norkunus, ‘The Vulnerable Listener’, in Anna Sheftel and Stacy Zembrzycki, Oral History off the Record: towards an ethnography of practice (Palgrave, 2013), pp 81 – 96.

Footnotes

  • 1
    Martha Norkunus, ‘The vulnerable listener’, in Anna Sheftel and Stacy Zembrzycki, Oral History off the Record: towards an ethnography of practice (Palgrave, 2013), pp 81 – 96,

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