|Writing for the Mass-Observation Project|
When I "surf the internet" I am immediately drawn to websites that are easy to navigate and visually stimulating. I particularly enjoy using sites that provide information in "digestible chunks" interspersed with relevant illustrations. My experience of using the internet has influenced the decisions I have made in creating my own website. I have tried to divide text into sections, provide images to compliment the writing, and keep the audiences participation in the site to a maximum by using plenty of links.
When I decided to use audio extracts of my oral interview with Bob Rust I wanted the extracts to fall in line with the ethic I had developed for the whole site. I wanted them to be short but informative- I wanted them to summarise Bob's thoughts on a particular subject but I wanted them to be concise and accessible. However, I found that merging the ethic I had developed for my website with the ethics surrounding oral history interviews resulted in some major moral dilemmas. Allowing the interviewees to shape history, giving them the opportunity to speak and be heard, giving primary importance to their subjective personal experience told in their own words are fundamental concepts to consider in the production and use of oral history. At the same time, the need to hold the audiences attention and interest, the development of short and concise extracts which are easy to listen to and decipher are vital to successful use of audio on the internet. I wanted my use of sound to be punchy, short , and easy to listen to, but I did not want to manipulate Bob's voice to the point where it could not be described as Bob's words.
Whilst grappling with these dilemmas I read Michael Frisch's chapter "Preparing Interview Transcripts for Documentary Publication" in his book A Shared Authority. The points he raises in this chapter provided me with some valuable insights. Firstly his comment:
We would miss much of the content, historical value and meaning in any extensive interview were we limited only to what is articulated in specific "soundbites" (Frisch, 1990, p.84)
This forced me to accept the limitations of what I was setting out to do. I would not be able to convey all the extent and detail of Bob's thoughts on all the varying topics the interview covered in a few short extracts. That would be impossible. Instead, I had to be selective. I had to choose a few key concepts and accept that I would be leaving a lot of potentially interesting material out.
Having realised the necessity of being selective I decided to devise some themed headings under which I could group together some extracts from my interview with Bob. After listening to the interview several times I devised six relevant headings:
on the Mass-Observation Project's Aims
By imposing this structure under which I would group my extracts I was immediately enforcing my own interests and biases on the interview. Initially this worried me, I wanted the extracts to reflect Bob's thoughts and feelings and not my own. However, I realised that a fundamental part of the whole process of oral history interviewing is collaboration. The fact that Bob was talking in response to my questions meant that my influence on Bob's expression were integral to the interview from the beginning and because I was part of that process I was actually in a good position to impose a structure on the interview.
However, choosing the actual extracts to go under these headings was problematic. I did not know whether it would be ethical for me to re-order parts of the interview, whether I should cut irrelevant chunks out of sentences or just how far I could go to create a succinct interview extract. I found Michael Frisch's comments a source of help on the subject:
The integrity of a transcript is best protected, in a documentary use, by an aggressive editorial approach that does not shrink from substantial manipulation of the text. One must respect the original enough to come to know it deeply, and this knowledge must be a benchmark for measuring the validity of any digest, excerpt, or editing. But on this basis, one must also be able to abandon the pretense of literal reproduction, in order to craft the document into a form that will answer to the needs of successful presentation and communication (Frisch, 1990, p.84)
Remaining true to Bob's expression does not mean literal word after word reproduction. As in any conversation, a particular theme or concept that the interviewee is expressing is interwoven with other points. Separating these points from one another to produce a coherent narrative is not unfair manipulation of the text. Instead it is a necessary editing tactic if the finished product is intended to communicate each concept effectively. In order to successfully edit Bob's writing I had to abandon any pretense of "literal reproduction" and accept that I may need to cut and re-order his words whilst being careful to remain faithful to the interview as a whole.
There were a few more general editorial policies that I needed to establish. I had to decide whether to include my questions within the extracts. This was a difficult decision. If I removed my voice altogether then I would not be allowing my audience to see how my questions had influenced Bob's replies. However, in the end I decided that leaving my voice in would make the extracts too lengthy and would also interrupt the flow of speech. I opted to remove my questions from the equation and concentrate on Bob's words.
I also had to
decide how to handle the bits of everyday speech which can be difficult
on the ear: false starts, stutters, 'ums' and 'ers', constant repetition
of phrases such as 'you know' or 'kind of'. I felt that editing them
out completely could leave me with a robotic inhuman voice bearing no resemblance
to Bob. I decided that I would use my discretion on each extract, removing
them only if they interfered with the "listenability" of the extract, and
leaving them in where I felt they may have some kind of meaning (i.e where
an 'er' may represent hesitancy or some other emotion).
· Be willing
to re-order or group together differing parts of the interview in order
to create a coherent narrative
The result was 10 extracts (grouped under my six headings) which varied in the degree of editing undertaken. Some of the extracts required minimal editing. For example, in the second extract grouped under "Purposes and Benefits" (see appendix A), I simply removed my questions from the narrative. The result was coherent and succinct enough to require no further interference.
Some of the extracts needed portions cut out of the text. For example, in the extract placed under "Aims of the Project" (See Appendix B), I removed a part of the sentence which I felt was ambiguous and difficult to understand (part edited out for website is underlined):
The aims of the project I still see as the original aims that I read about when I started reading about it. Telling it as it is rather than how people think it is. This idea of the people speaking with their own voice and not with the voice of Rupert Murdock or Halmsworth or the Berry Brothers (Interview extract)
I felt the "the original aims that I read about when I started reading about it" was a slightly awkward phrase and "Telling it as it is rather than how people think it is" would leave the audience wondering who the "people" Bob refers to are.
Some of the extracts involved substantial revision and re-organising. This is illustrated by the third extract grouped under "Audience" (see Appendix C). The first part of the paragraph "I'll get it down in black and white so that it's there on the records so one day somebody can say "Oh yeah, look he said that and he was right"-or wrong!" came 16 minutes into the interview in response to my question "So when you write you're not thinking about who will find this interesting in the future for example?". The second part "And I think that all that I'm doing is recording my own view on history as its happened to me…" came 30 minutes into the interview in response to my question "Do you think the Mass-Observation Project is historical?". The final part "You know we never think that what we are doing is making history…" came 31 minutes into the interview in response to my question "So do you see the Mass-Observation Project as having historical aims, i.e do you think it's aiming to record history in a certain way?" . I felt that although Bob's replies came at different stages in the interview in response to different prompts they all combine to provide a coherent narrative that reflects the general message he was giving in the interview.
However, I am aware that a high level of care and responsibility needs to be applied to re-ordering text in this way, because without a deep knowledge of the it is possible to re-order the narrative in a way that is unrepresentative. Worryingly, it is possible to completely alter the message given by the interviewee. In the course of my interview with Bob there is a point where he says "I've never thought about the future use of anything that I've written". This sentence put me into a dilemma because elsewhere in the interview he talks about wanting to get his writing into the public arena and seems aware of the future uses of his work. My reading of the interview is that he is aware that he is writing for future generations but this does not necessarily affect the way he writes for the project. His primary concern is simply to write about his experiences. Therefore I decided not to use the sentence "I've never thought about the future use of anything that I've written" because I felt that it was misleading when taken out of context. However, this is a very delicate and difficult editorial decision to have made and there is always the possibility that my reading may be wrong. There is no easy answer to this dilemma the only way around it is to make your editorial decisions accessible to your audience to allow them to decide the rights or wrongs of your decisions for themselves.
I think that my experience of editing has taught me that a high level of
care needs to be taken when undertaking extensive editing of an oral history
interview. The level of responsibility that is involved in making
editorial decisions means that such a task must not be undertaken without
thorough research into the messages and meanings that exist within the
interview itself. Technologically advanced software allows us to make extensive
(but undetectable) changes to the spoken word. This means that an editor
has an ethical responsibility to make his/her editing decisions public,
so that the audience can make informed judgements regarding the validity
of what they are listening to.
Extract from interview transcript used to shape 2nd website extract grouped under "Purpose and Benefits" (parts edited out for website are underlined)
have described writing to the archive in terms of it gives them a voice,
it gives them a way to express their opinions, would you agree with that?
Extract from interview transcript used to shape website extract grouped under "Aims of the Project" (parts edited out for website are underlined)
So what would
you describe as the aims of the Mass-Observation Project?
The aims of the
project I still see as this idea of the people speaking with their own
voice and not with the voice of Rupert Murdock or Halmsworth or the Berry
I'll get it down in black and white so that its there on the records so one day somebody can say "Oh yeah, look he said that and he was right" - or wrong! And I think that all that I'm doing is recording my view on history as its happened to me. I did think in the very beginning that it was rather daunting to write for history, and then I suddenly realised that today is now and yesterday is history. We never think that what we are doing is making history, you'll often hear commentators say this is a history making situation but I often wonder if the people involved are thinking it's a history making situation, or is it just another job of work that they should be getting on with and doing properly?
Frisch, M (1990) A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, Albany: NYP
Nethercott, S & Leighton, N (1990) "Out of the archives and onto the stage" in Perks, R & Thomson A (eds) The Oral History Reader, London: Routledge, pp.457-464
Read, Peter (1994) "Presenting voices in different media: print, radio and CD-ROM" in Perks, R & Thomson A (eds) The Oral History Reader, London: Routledge, pp.414-420
McMichael A, O'Malley, M & Rosenzweig, R (1999) "Historians and the Web: A Beginner's Guide" on AHA Perspectives Online, http://chmn.gmu.edu/chmn/beginner.html
Smith, C (1998)
"Can You Do Serious History on the Web?" on AHA Perspectives Online, http://chmn.gmu.edu/chnm/smith.html
Green, July 2000
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