Highlights from our 'Working Lives' live chat

"Often when we think of our history, we think of kings and queens… We believe that the experiences of the people who helped build the country are just as important and should be recorded," says Jonathan Platt, Head of HLF East Midlands.

Last week we hosted a live chat to discuss the ins and outs of capturing and preserving people's stories about working life. Below, we've summarised some of the key points and top tips shared by chat participants.

Why capturing stories about working life is important:

  • Many aspects of the work we do, and the places we do that work, have changed dramatically within living memory - technology has transformed workplaces; some professions have disappeared completely; traditional working roles for men and women have changed; people from different backgrounds now form a larger part of the workforce than previously - the vast majority of people will not write autobiographies or have books written about them, so how will we know how working lives have changed unless we make an effort to record them? 
  • It's an important aspect of our socal, national and social cultural life. Understanding customs and practices from different industries and regions are a really valuable part of our national identity.
  • On an individual level, people's working and professional lives are often wrapped up in their own identity. Being able to recount an aspect of their life which is so fundamental to them, and of real social value.

How to get more people to share their stories of working life:

  • People are generally happy to share some aspects of their working lives. Our role is to reassure them that we really value their stories and to demonstrate that they provide us which a richness of information which is hard to find in the archives. Demonstrating this by making the stories widely available as core elements of exhibitions, research or public engagement events, will show the real benefits that can be derived from their memories.
  • Getting out into the community and making people aware of archives, museums, etc, is vital, because these individuals are not neccessarily aware that we can be of help.
  • Ideas for getting more people to share their stories:
    • An ‘Antiques Roadshow’ type event for the public about working lives, discussing heritage objects and requests for visitors to share a memory about that object, 
    • Or a roadshow with objects/memory triggers about a particular theme/organisation/past event,
    • Pop-up workshops,
    • Locating former staff from a former business/organisation and getting them back to the site of their workplace for a visit.

Challenges of capturing stories and memories of working life:

  • Time: to research, record and transcribe interviews; and pressure to ensure we are capturing these stories before they become lost forever.
  • Confidence: convincing people that their seemingly - to them - dull job is of historic interest can occasionally be an issue; getting the message out to lower socio-economic groups that they are welcome, and that their stories are important, is a challenge. 
  • Terminology: phrases like ‘oral history recording day’ can put people off.
  • Technology: digital files are notorious for degrading, so guidance on ensuring the longevity of archival collections is important.
  • Staff: lack of staff resource, and lack of diversity of staff and volunteers, to assist in interviewing.

Methods and tips for capturing stories of working lives:

  • A successful model is to present a temporary exhibition about a subject or industry and advertise it as a memorabilia and reminiscence tie-in event - ask people to bring their own objects to show (or donate) and once they begin to open up, ask if you can record their story.
  • Use good-quality sound recording equipment, such as a Zoom H5 recorder (or better, but they can cost more).
  • Prepare your questions in advance and introduce yourself to your interviewee in advance to brief him/her on the types of questions you intend to ask, and explain the value of the interview for the project and that what he/she can remember would be interesting.
  • Bring a photo or two, or an object, as an ‘icebreaker’ and to help trigger memories.
  • ‘Theme’ your questions: name/date of birth/place of birth; how they got the job; pay and conditions; what they did/how they did it/where they did it/who they did it with; what tools did they use; best and worst parts of the job; what they think about it looking back; was there a social side to the job; what happened if and when the business or job finished; how did people move on; etc.
  • Ask the interviewee to read and sign an 'Interviewee Permission Form’ that details the who/what/where/when/purpose of your interview as well as copyright and data protection.
  • Try to download/transfer the recording to a computer or memory stick the same day the interview is done to avoid losing or deleting it. 
  • Join the Oral History Society (UK) to hear about other fantastic oral history projects and the latest news, skills and techniques used by oral historians from around the world.

How to share the stories you collect:

  • Radio broadcasts.
  • Short films and documentaries.
  • Publications (leaflets and books).
  • Displays and touring exhibitions.
  • Artwork and craft creations.
  • Online archives and websites.
  • Community events and reunions.
  • School and further education workshops. 
  • Face-to-face sessions with a storyteller or historical interpreter.

We'd love to hear your thoughts – please share your experiences, tips - or indeed, stories - in the comments below.