Oral History in an age of Pandemic

Jon G. Malek's picture

Dear friends, 


The requirements of new health practices, including social distancing, raise unique problems with oral history, not to mention the crucial element of connection. I've seen several mental health features speaking of how this time can negatively affect how we connect with others, and I wonder what everyone's experience has been with oral history. Where I am, we have entered a phase where more and more contact is permitted, while maintaining social distancing. However, when approaching potential participants, I find myself awkwardly typing, deleting, and typing again an invitation to interview, especially with senior populations. My first instinct is to suggest Zoom (and its ilk), however, I'm not sure how familiar elderly participants might be. To be fair, though, I'm often surprised how adept many are, especially as many in the community I work in use such platforms to talk with family abroad. Of course, remote meeting software cannot replace in-person communication; and yet, I find it somewhat unethical to suggest this, especially to a senior who might be taking extra care for their health, and rightly so. 


What are everyone's thoughts or experiences on this? 

Categories: Discussion


I used Skype a few times for oral histories for my dissertation. I interviewed people in Sri Lanka, Australia, England, and Canada. Some people were not able to meet with me in person when I was in their respective countries but still wanted to participate so we used Skype. As you mentioned, many people use Skype to connect with relatives abroad. I was interviewing people mostly in their 70s and they were all familiar with Skype. We had to contend with the problems of technology - drop off, delay, etc. - but they were comfortable using it. WhatsApp is another method many elderly people abroad are familiar with.

Hope this helps.

Hi, I am project manager on a large UK oral history project called NHS at 70. At the outset of lockdown we transferred to interviewing over the telephone using our normal recorders with an additional microphone. We have written about our positive experience of this transition here - https://oralhistoryreview.org/current-events/nhs-70-covid-19/
You may find it helpful. We have conducted about 500 interviews, both one off life story and more regular interviews focusing on experiences of the pandemic. Many of our previous interviewees, of all ages, were keen to contribute again and had no problem with the telephone etc.
Take care!

Thank you for asking. I offer much advice because I am an oral historian, am severely immunodeficient in disability (in treatment over a decade for a virulent blood cancer) and--if age 68 qualifies--a senior.

I read scientific journal articles. As I understand our global situation this week, I urge that no one should meet with any new acquaintance. Of any age. Not now, likely not soon, possibly not ever.

The good situation is that interpersonal communications systems have improved in proliferation over the past decade. Since this group last discussed what programswork best for oral history interviewing and recording, I suggest my two preferred working platforms.

For visual as well as audio interviews, thus far I have found nothing better than Zoom for both real time conversation and for recording. Whether or not Zoom is now HIPPA compliant, I am not yet aware. But Zoom recordings can be saved directly on to the interviewer's device so that no hacker could access them in Zoom storage. And, by now Zoom may have corrected its security deficiences, widely reported earlier

For audio-only interviews of anyone who is not able to operate any device, I rely on freeconferencecall.com. This platform requires the interviewee only to use their phone. I find that the platform's call recording feature work wells.

As to seniors' familiarities and abilities to use a computer or other device, I testify that over a decade's experience taught me that age has almost nothing to do with this. By the time I was 59, I was disabled from illness so much that I could not even power any of my laptops, much less operate them. At the same time, often I conversed with several older adults who conversed with me using their computers and devices. Not only were they familiar, but they ran circles around me in my race to learn and operate communications technologies. Then, they were in their mid to late 80s. Now, those who are still living are in their mid 90s--old enough to have been my parents.

Therefore, those whose mental and small motor physical skills are diminished cannot operate devices. No matter their age. I've learned that familiarity and ability depend only upon the interviewee individually. For instance, anyone of any age who undergoes a long recovery from hospitalization may be impaired, able only to us a phone. Later, that same individual may be able to use a computer or device.

Never before have I met any interviewee to refuse me because they do not feel well. But rightfully, they do refuse to have me interview them in physical presence.

These days, I find that some potential interviewees face another obstacle. They lack access to computers, devices, Internet access, and even ample telephone calling plans. This has nothing to do with age, but everything to do with income disparity. They cannot afford to purchase what I for one might otherwise might take for granted. They, of course, I interview by phone. Even so whether they have mobile phones and/or land lines, they may not be able to afford nationwide calling access or have available minutes for sufficient interviews. I've learned these are not isolated incidents. I'm obliged to find other ways to electronic access.

I join you with all of us who grieve that "remote meeting software cannot replace in-person communication." The majority of scientists whose articles I read predict that our present situation may be ongoing if not permanent. We humans, generally, may have to keep imagining and practicing new ways to communicate with one another. We oral historians, specifically, likely will have to do the same. --Ray Kibler III

Hi Jon,

Imagine you are in a warzone and you wish to ask the medical staff of a hospital treating the wounded, and the wounded their thoughts. In a crisis situation, connection depends on what your entrypoint into the conversation is, your reason for immediacy ( interviewing now as opposed to later) and what crucial need there is to 'intervene' in this pandemic with an oral history research interviewing objective.

The answers vary depending on whether you are connecting with the 'seniors' on historical events which may give them a restored sense of 'selfhood' and 'memory' guiding them away from the debilitating crisis conditions and isolation. Stressing that their experience matters, that it is going to be part of something bigger, that they matter, would be how I would go about it.

They may even be more resilient in this pandemic than we imagine.

It may be just an idea that dipping a toe in is the only way to find out. No one has answers as all humans especially seniors react differently depending on the subject of the interview and their particular frame of mind. Just trying out your preferred method with a few could perhaps give you a better picture.

Sorry if none of the above resonates with you. Again, even we as oral historians have particular sensitivities. But engaged in recording the memories of teachers, I am amazed at the resilience of the older generation and the willingness to connect with a younger person and feel 'useful' and 'a part of something out there'.

Dip your toe in and stay sensitive !

I have recently published a piece which includes a discussion of some of the issues that arose in doing online research about the pandemic with a survivor of the Holocaust (who is 93 years old). It is entitled "A Researcher and Survivor of the Holocaust Connect and Make Meaning during the COVID-19 Pandemic" and can be accessed at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15325024.2020.1765099

Thanks for this Carolyn.

Wrick Mitra


Thank you for opening this discussion - great things to talk and think about! I agree with Gaya's suggestion to dip your toe in. As Oral Historians, we bear witness to major moments in history, and by continuing our work, we give voice to lived experiences even now. I have been using Zoom and Google Meets since March to conduct oral histories on behalf of the South Phoenix Oral History Project. I also found myself typing and retyping email invitations at first, but like you I was troubled by the process. Have you considered calling your narrators first? Sometimes they prefer to talk through the logistics before agreeing, and email can be a bit impersonal.

If you are interested, the Southwest Oral History Association is planning a summer workshop this month on conducting remote oral histories. I'll be sharing that announcement here in HNET, but we hope anyone doing this work will join us to talk about these exact questions. If you'd like more info - feel free to email me. Summer.Cherland@southmountaincc.edu