Historical Urbanism uses oral history as research tool. Oral history is the process of recording, sharing and conserving face-to-face interviews for the purposes of historical research. Capturing how people feel, use and understand changes to the built environment can unlock deeper meaning, and expose hidden power dynamics indiscernible in other historical sources.
Oral history has developed into a professionalised research practice in recent decades. Initial scepticism about the reliability of the spoken word has given way to widespread acceptance of oral interviews as legitimate historical sources. Oral history now stands on an equal footing with traditional methodologies such as archival research. Like written records, oral testimonies are open to debate, analysis and interpretation. Critical reflection of the circumstances in which the source was created, and an awareness of the complexity of the remembering process, is key to the effective application of oral history in academic research.
Oral histories are co-created sources and reflect the interplay between the interviewer and interviewee. Interviews can be influenced by factors such as mutual perceptions of class, ethnic background, gender and sexuality. The context and location in which the interview was conducted can also influence how the narrative ‘is actively created in the moment’. Oral history interviews are, therefore, ‘an interactive communication’ between the interviewer and narrator, a creative discussion rather than a one-way monologue.
Working-class communities tend not to leave substantial written records. Oral history interviews are uniquely well-placed to capture working-class perspectives of historical change and events. Memory – like written archives – can be selective in nature. A large sample size allows for the identification of dominant narratives – what Alistair Thomson terms the ‘cultural circuit’. Memories captured through interviews can reveal tensions ‘between the self and society, between past and present’. Oral historian Alessandro Portelli has argued that ‘the importance of oral testimony may not lie in its adherence to fact, but rather its departure from it’. In this sense, ‘errors, inventions, and myths’ evident in oral testimony can ‘lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings’. Understanding how narratives are formed can be as important as the factual information discussed by the interviewee.
Although many researchers use oral history as a research tool, accessing this data remains a problem. Many thousands of interviews languish on private computers or office shelves. Technological obsolesce has rendered many interviews recorded on tape cassette and CD inaccessible and vulnerable to decay. Digitising, conserving and sharing oral history interviews is a benchmark of good practice and allows recordings to be used for wider research purposes.
Oral history’s ‘deep, dark secret’ is that orality is often lost. Transforming the spoken word into transcripts can create a ‘flattening of meaning’ and extract emotional depth. Historical Urbanism’s oral history archive allows users to both read and listen to conversations to help guard against this loss. Where possible, the transcript should be read in conjunction with listening to the digital audio recording.
Around half of the interviews were conducted remotely owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. This unexpected development proved technologically challenging. Wi-Fi unreliability, connection lagging and difficulties of establishing rapport over the phone impacted the quality and duration of the Covid interviews. Poor audio quality has resulted in some transcripts being uploaded without the accompanying audio file. Walking interviews designed to ‘harness the power of place’ by using the built environment as a memory prompt were suspended as a result of the pandemic. We hope to complete these walking interviews in early 2021 and upload them to this archive soon after.
Historical Urbanism’s oral history research is underpinned by stringent GDPR safeguards and has been approved by Ulster University’s Research Ethics Filter Committee. Each interview was conducted on the basis of informed consent. Prior to commencement of the interview each narrator signed an ‘Informed Consent Form’ which determined how their interview should be archived, made publicly available and potentially used to create publications, exhibitions, and other outputs. Interviewees were provided with a full transcript and invited, if desired, to redact sections of the interview that they wished to remain confidential. This is of particular importance in Northern Ireland given the recent conflict. Some transcripts and audio files uploaded to this website reflect changes indicated by interviewees.
The oral histories on this website have been used to inform ongoing placemaking and urban design projects in Derry-Londonderry. This work is taking place as part of the Urban Villages Initiative, which is a headline action within the Northern Ireland Executive’s community relations strategy, known as ‘Together: Building a United Community’ (T:BUC). The programme aims, in part, to tackle segregation and division in society through making improvements to the physical environment in a number of urban areas suffering from high levels of deprivation.
The transcripts and audio files are an informative resource and can be employed for a variety of purposes beyond the research aims of Historical Urbanism. They provide a rich snapshot of working-class life prior to, during, and after large-scale urban redevelopment, and offer an alternative view of everyday life in Northern Ireland during the conflict. While focused mainly on human interaction with a changing built environment, they also provide rich insights into the social history of a city and region at a time of major political and civil upheaval.
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Listen to the audio recordings or read the interview transcripts here
 Lynn Abrams, Oral history theory (Abingdon, 2010), p. 23.
 Alexander Freund, ‘Towards an ethics of silence? Negotiating off-the-record events and identity in oral history’ in Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki (eds), Oral history off the record: toward an ethnography of practice (Basingstoke, 2013), p. 236.
 Alistair Thomson, Anzac memories: living with the legend (Oxford, 1994).
 Abrams, Oral history theory, p. 81.
 Alessandro Portelli, The death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories: form and meaning in oral history (New York, 1991), p. 51.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 Michael Frisch, ‘Three dimensions and more: oral history beyond the paradoxes of method’ in Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy (eds), Handbook of emergent methods (London, 2008), p. 222.
 Michael Frisch, ‘Oral history and the digital revolution: toward a post-documentary sensibility’ in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds), The oral history reader (2nd edn., London, 2006), p. 102.
 Steven High, ‘Mapping memories of displacement: oral history, memoryscapes, and mobile methodologies’ in Shelly Trower (eds), Place, writing and voice in oral history (New York, 2011), p. 218.