I fell into oral history when I started my PhD in 2009, researching the experiences of men in reserved occupations in Second World War Clydeside. Six weeks after finishing my PhD, I gave birth to my now 8-year-old daughter, and my other two children followed in 2015 and early 2019. Aiming for a flexible approach to life, I chose to work in various short-term and freelance contracts over the last decade, working in various interviewing, summarising, transcribing and advisory capacities, alongside my academic teaching work. I always planned, though, to eventually develop another oral history project of my own. When my youngest son turned one in January 2020, I began to turn my attention to this project.
We all know, though, how 2020 turned out, and my plans took a different course from anything I’d had in mind. I had been doing some interviews for NHS at 70, a project exploring patient, staff, policymaker and public experiences of the NHS, and, when lockdown began in March 2020, I was asked if I would do a few remote interviews for the project, using an Olympus TP-8 telephone pickup microphone. I had never interviewed remotely before and decided to practise on some unsuspecting friends before embarking on doing these. These friends all happened to be parents and, because we had just entered lockdown, I decided to ask about this.
The practice interviews ended up longer than the ten-minute sessions I had in mind, and we discussed the interviewees’ feelings about the childcare closure and lockdown announcements of March 2020 and how they dealt with the subsequent aftermath. Despite my own life feeling somewhat chaotic at the time, I decided to continue and interview a few parents each week. In September 2020 I received confirmation of success in my application for a British Academy/Leverhulme small research grant to aid me in continuing the work over a two-year period. I called the project ‘Rainbows in the Window: An Oral History of Young Families in Britain in the COVID-19 pandemic’, and have now completed over 120 remote interviews; I will conduct around 50 face-to-face repeat interviews in late 2021/early 2022.
I carried out all of these interviews using the Olympus TP-8 microphone. As I generally don’t consider myself as a technological expert and usually spend a bit of time muddling through with new pieces of technology, I was pleasantly surprised that the Olympus TP-8 was straightforward to operate. To use it, I plug it into my audio recorder as an external microphone and enable the plug-in feature on the recorder so that the microphone can pick up sound. The earpiece slots into my ear like a standard earphone, and, when interviewing, I place the phone over my ear, keeping the speaker unobstructed.
The interviewee just needs to answer their own phone as though receiving an ordinary phone call. This is one of the things I like most about it – there’s no need for anyone to download anything, click on any links or use any other equipment. The recording levels do need to be much lower than in a face-to-face interview, as the Olympus TP-8 is pretty sensitive, and I now also keep my hair tied back in interviews so that there’s no rustling over the speaker! A landline works in the same way as a mobile, but the sound is more crackly, so my preference is to do interviews from mobile phone to mobile phone, unless the interviewee has a poor phone signal.
While the TP-8 is easy to use, gives you a wav. file at the end (although the voices are condensed down the phoneline), has no more security considerations than a normal phone call, and is very reasonably priced (at around £20), it also presents some difficulties. It’s not best quality microphone and it’s not possible to use any other external microphones with it. The recording produced is a mono file, meaning that it’s more difficult to balance the levels of the two speakers, while the quality of the sound is hampered by the fact that the interview takes place down a phoneline, which can be particularly problematic if the interviewee has a dodgy phone signal.
I have also asked most of my interviewees how they feel about being interviewed over the phone, given that, without interviewing face-to-face or using video conferencing software, I couldn’t see my interviewees and they couldn’t see me, meaning that I lost my usual ability to demonstrate that I was listening through body language. I did find that, because of this, I found myself communicating verbally more than I would in a face-to-face interview.
While some interviewees did say that they preferred talking face-to-face and felt awkward speaking on the phone, others indicated that they had become used to remote communication over the year, and, perhaps more surprisingly, others reported feeling less self-conscious on the phone and said that they preferred it anyway. It has been the case, though, that my phone interviews have usually been shorter than previous face-to-face interviews I have conducted, possibly stemming from the more tiring nature of holding a phone to your ear for a lengthy period of time. I was also, though, undertaking interviewees with people with young children, often with little time to spare while looking after them.
On balance, then, while there are some clear issues with sound quality with this and other forms of remote interviewing used over the course of the pandemic, I have been surprised by how well many interviewees have responded to the phone interviews and, while I hope very much to return to face-to-face interviewing very soon, I think that this kind of technique will not necessarily retreat completely back into the shadows when the pandemic is over and should have a place in the oral historian’s remote interviewing toolkit in the future.
Watch Alison explain how to use the Olympus TP-8 microphone on the OHS YouTube channel.