Working with Oral Sources in media history: A personal view

Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California (USC)

15 July 2019


The IAMHIST Blog to date has considered issues around study in specific archives and particular kinds of media evidence.  This post concerns a different kind of evidence which I’ve found to be simultaneously the most rewarding even as it is also the most fragile and fallible: oral sources.  This post is not offered as a how-to manual but rather as a frank other-view of my experience, allowing me to reflect on my own practice and share some of the things I’ve learned since first including the method in my research work in 1985.  I do not restrict myself to oral sources.  My research in media history has used oral sources together with written archives and the usual audio visual materials of our field as part of a multifaceted approach.

For me, as I expect for most people, oral sources were my first source.  As a child I was drawn to history through long conversations about the past with my parents and grandparents which often revealed a fascinating divergence from the received wisdom of mainstream media.  At secondary school I did a short media history project on the social history of cinema going in the locality where I grew up, mixing material from documents with interviews.  As an undergraduate in International History at University of Leeds it seemed logical to use a similar approach for my bachelor’s dissertation, which examined the career of Lord Halifax as the Churchill government’s wartime ambassador to Washington DC.  My undergraduate supervisor – diplomatic historian David Dilks – was a particular enthusiast for the value and ‘fun’ of engaging directly with survivors of Whitehall.  I started by comparing Who’s Who and the old diplomatic list and mailing the remaining diplomats from the embassy, forty years on from their service.  To my surprise found a number of people still alive and both willing and able to speak about their services.  The experience was wholly positive.  I found the cross generational dynamic between a much older person and a young scholar to be a natural once which was conducive not only to a frank recollection and helpful direction but also to further study.  My interviewees always recommended further people or further written sources to help.  Memorable witnesses at this stage included the great philosopher (and wartime opinion analyst) Sir Isaiah Berlin and the retired head of the British Foreign Office, Lord Inchyra.  That experience established oral sources as part of my standard way of operating.  It was central to my PhD thesis, first book, and all subsequent projects.  Over the years I’ve done interviews with a rich galaxy of sources including diplomats, filmmakers, journalists, politicians, soldiers and spies, in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa and points between to build up a picture of what would now be called public diplomacy in action.

Even when the center of gravity of a project is archival I have learned that it is worth pursuing contact with survivors of the period or events.  The different kinds of sources support each other.  The archives direct me to interesting people and some of my most helpful written sources were obtained as a result of interviews.  Every now and again an interviewee pulled out a dusty old suitcase and produced their late husband’s diary or a sheaf of photographs; regularly an interviewee alluded to a newspaper story, film or other source they considered influential and worth examining.  The process of repeating my ideas about the story in question and running them multiple survivors becomes an almost imperceptible process of honing and polishing, with each idea becoming like a pebble rubbed smooth through circulation in wave upon wave, hour upon hour of conversation.

I found that it is important not to prejudge who will be useful and who will not.  One of my most important witnesses for my PhD work was Janet Murrow, widow of the legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow who was introduced to me by the veteran BBC broadcaster Leonard Miall.  Some historians would have considered her perspective on media coverage of the London Blitz to be a low priority but not only did she offer a unique view of journalists’ living conditions during the Blitz, and the day to day stresses of that time, she proved to be a person of undiminished authority within the network of surviving Murrow-era journalists who was happy to allow me to use her name in writing to some half dozen of her husband’s colleagues including such legends in their own right as Walter Cronkite, who all proved happy to help too.  I owe her much.

In the process of integrating oral sources into my work I have certainly had to learn the limits of oral testimony. It was of greatest value not as a substitute for written or audio visual sources but as a supplement to it.  It provided an added dimension: adding color to a picture or perhaps flesh to a skeleton.  When researching a workplace like the British Information Services office in New York or the National Film Board of Canada it certainly helped to have insight into the relationships within that environment.  Who was hated; who was loved; what morale was (or recalled as being) at a particular moment or during the creation of a particular media text.   It was always especially fascinating to learn of the humdrum realities behind a choice in a propaganda documentary that I’d assumed to be aesthetic or artistic.  Sometimes the United States Information Agency (USIA) shot a documentary film in black and white because they didn’t have a budget for color.

I discovered sometimes the oral source up-turned the meaning of a document or audio-visual text.  I was fascinated, for example, by a story I’d seen in the March of Time newsreel about an apparently anti-war organization launched in 1936 by Princeton University students called ‘Veterans of Future Wars’.  When based on campus as a visiting fellow in 1989 I managed to track down a founder member, but his account of the organization was not what I expected.  I had understood that the group members were motivated by pacifism, ironically demanding war bonuses while they were still alive to enjoy them.  His account – in contrast — emphasized the way in which the group was not so much protesting the next war from a position of its future victims as much as mocking the survivors of the former war (who had in 1935 demanded early payment of the promised war bonus scheduled for 1945) as representatives of a privileged elite who were stuck with the bill.  The student’s salute was an ‘itchy palm’ outstretched in the direction of DC appealing for taxpayer money.  Even more cynically the prompt for creating the movement was not simply a prank or satire but to create a story on campus so that the stringer for the New York Times could earn a few extra bucks after a slow semester.  The same newsreel clip – and student politics in the ‘ivy league’ — suddenly looked very different.

My interviews have tended to follow a fairly lose format.  A lot of work is done in the letter requesting the interview.  This letter (or in recent years email) should succinctly communicate the nature of the project, one’s home institution and clearly reference either the person who suggested contacting them or the mechanism by which you obtained their name.  It is a little creepy for a recipient to be guessing how you came to contact them or what your purpose might be.

My next stage is then to prepare by reading or viewing as much as I can about the interviewee so I am familiar at a minimum with any memoir they might have written, with their artistic output or with major interviews about the subject.  This helps me to ensure that I am informed and am steering the interviewee to fresh territory rather than just dropping a coin in the slot to hear a much rehearsed story told one more time.  It can be a nerve-racking process.  I have a recurring nightmare in which I realize I forgot that Sir Winston Churchill was still alive and am due to meet him without having prepared properly.  I wake in a cold sweat from that one!  If something comes up which you don’t understand or recognize, perhaps a technical term or a name, it is fine to stop or double back to that point to clarify.  It can help the interviewee to match their account to your understanding of the event or the place or process in which they were involved.  I am a great believer in the power of a follow up request for detail to help the interviewee unlock further levels of recollection.  I once asked the deputy director of USIA what he was eating for breakfast when a journalist friend leaked news to him of the up-coming Bay of Pigs invasion.  I wish I’d asked the African-American public diplomat John Twitty exact which spirituals he’d sung in Nigeria when an audience demanded a musical prelude to his planned lecture on the Apollo space program.

I have found that it is helpful to agree at the outset how long the interview will be, so I don’t feel compelled to hurry towards a soundbite to justify the train fare.  I also think it helps to establish whether or not you hope to quote the person, which is to say, are they ‘on the record,’ ‘on background’ or on ‘deep background’.   If ‘on the record’ everything can be quoted, if ‘on background’ the substance can be quoted but not attributed and on ‘deep background’ neither quoted or attributed but it can be acted on in looking for further sources.  A good off the record tip can guide future research and sometimes be proven by archive material without any mention of the help that go the scholar to that point.

My first step is always to explain exactly what my project is as succinctly as possible.  If someone has agreed to be interviewed they generally want to help you and explaining the nature of your interest will promote efficient communication and avoid a practiced or generic response.  I find it helpful to have a skeleton script of what I want to know, sometimes asking about broad issues like turning points, sometimes specific people, places or events.  Like many interviewers I sometimes find that it helps to ask about something commonplace, like a work place or location rather than jumping in with a big historical conundrum or controversy.

Some of my interlocutors have been more comfortable talking over food.  A number have smoked throughout our conversation.  Trust me – if the likes of Pik Botha asks you if you mind if they smoke, the answer is ‘feel free…’ Drinks have most often come at the end and are doubtless a seal on the feeling of ‘being on the same page’ with the events in question.

My style as an interviewer is to create a space for testimony rather than badger my interlocutors.  I would ask ‘help me understand how…’ rather than ‘how can you justify…’  An interviewer dealing with controversial matters like crime or prejudice will have to come to their own position on allowing their own judgement to be known.  For my part I have looked for areas of shared experience or outlook to build rapport with a subject early on and held back issues likely to be divisive or controversial till later in the interview lest they prematurely end things.  I have found it useful to guide witnesses away from stories that they have told a hundred times before.  Interviewing Alger Hiss, convicted of perjury for denying that he spied for the Soviet Union, I got very interesting material by asking him his opinion on cases OTHER than his own.  I began that conversation by saying quite honestly I was convinced of his innocence, but by the end of our talk he had told me enough to convince me that that if he hadn’t actually spied for Moscow he certainly believed that that would be the morally justifiable course to take.  I have found it rare that interviewees ask me point blank what I think of an incident or personality to which they were connected and have never felt it wise or necessary to lie.  That said, I have sometimes chosen my words carefully.   When an old anti-Communist witch-hunter asked me point blank what I thought about Senator Joseph McCarthy I thought it wise to answer tactfully that anti-Communism was too important an issue to be trusted to a person like that.

When I began interviewing in 1985 an early witness asked me not to bring a recording device and so I for some years I only took notes in long-hand, pausing and drawing attention to my writing from time to time to confirm a thought or statement.  I’ve found that the best interviews develop as a kind of co-creation where the interviewer is checking back that they have understood correctly, sometimes agreeing at that moment what a final quote or sound bite might be.   I would type up an account of the interview at the end of each day, which extra impressions about manner or environment or exact words used were fresh in my mind.   From 1995 or so I would bring a tape recorder to all interviews with senior figures.  Now I bring a digital recorder to everything.  I never use only a recorder just in case the device fails.  I have never attempted to film an interview as I think this adds another level of concern or self-consciousness for the interviewee.  I have found that sometimes in mid-interview a subject might ask me to turn off the recorder for a particularly sensitive part of the interview or conversely ask me to stop taking notes.  I am happy to oblige.  Strangely perhaps, I have never been asked to cease both.

I have found that using the same skeleton structure of questions with multiple witnesses can bring interesting results, allowing directly comparative answers that can clearly point up the ways in which individual perspective is subjective and memory is partial.  I’ve found asking witnesses to identify a turning point in a historical process to be an especially fertile avenue.  It can be fascinating to note the informal methods used to fix a date in a stream of recollections: ‘that would be around the time that X happened’ or ‘soon after Y happened.’  In fact, the use of a particular event in fixing the date has served as an excellent indicator of the salience of the event, which is of its own value.

Thinking about media history specifically I’ve found it helpful to speak to technicians ‘in the trenches’ as well as star ‘auteurs’.  Documentary film makers and radio journalists have proven especially helpful in part because they haven’t had the same exposure to scholars as fiction film makers or TV journalists.  Interviews with fiction film makers have been some of the most jaded and least revealing.  They have been asked it all before.  It is, however, an amazing experience to ask a question of an artist which is wholly new and unexpected to them and which triggers a moment of self-revelation or a new insight on their part.    Sometimes showing a filmmaker one of the documents you’ve found can be a revelation to them.  The great American government filmmaker Bruce Herschensohn was stunned when I showed him a letter Jackie Kennedy had written in the days following her husband’s murder in which she mentioned that she and the President’s father had viewed Herschensohn’s films in order to feel close to JFK once more.  It seemed all the more appropriate that Herschensohn had been commissioned by USIA to create the president’s official obituary film.

My dealings with sources are not always limited to an hour.  The experience of sharing an interest in a historical moment or experience can be powerful and some witnesses have initiated multiple visits and many conversations and become genuine friends.  To be honest, I have sometimes been criticized for becoming too friendly with my sources.  The criticism has some merit.  One can easily take on the prejudice or institutional perspective of ones sources, written or oral, even without realizing it.  When working on the history of Voice of America radio I was introduced to a succession of veterans of the service who styled themselves the ROMEOs (an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out).  I found an easy rapport with them and knew my interest in their careers provided a welcome external validation.   In this process I missed the extent to which the network was essentially masculine and skewed my account of VOA away from a female experience.  This was a significant omission given that the Voice was cited in a massive anti-discrimination class action law suit called the Hartman case.  My ultimate take-away from this is that a researcher must consider how exhilarating the process of being passed from one interviewee to another can skew perspective, and maybe seek additional witnesses as a corrective.  Yet the most carefully constructed interview program can be skewed.  Ultimately we will always need others to identify our biases for us and the corrective may not come from a supervisor or a peer reviewer but from a critic of the published text.  Ouch.  Despite the danger of human contact skewing the work, I feel that can happen with any set of sources.  As with the stock market it pays to have a diverse portfolio!  I have found my emphasis on oral work has helped me to remain aware of the subjective nature of my research and the way in which scholars are, like the oral sources, mortal prisoners of a flow of time.  Knowing that my sources will not last forever has at some points given my work an urgency that an exclusively archive-based project would not have had.  Needless to say the eventual loss of witnesses is a sad reality of the work – some deaths have been considerable blows — but one feels a sense of pride when one was part of their leaving something more of their story behind.

If you are going to bring oral sources into your work it is important to check your institution’s ground rules.  Some regard oral sources as a form of ‘human subject’ work and require formal preparations and legal disclaimers for participants.  Others have no formal requirements.  It is important to ensure you are in compliance.  Some publishers – including one of my own, Palgrave – will only allow an oral source to be quoted if they have a waiver signed by that source.  This can cause problems if the source has died since the interview, which is not uncommon when one is interviewing people because of their historical value who necessarily are much nearer their end than their beginning.  In one case I was able to get round the problem only by using the quote in a blog post and then citing the blog as my source rather than the interview.

One final rule I have is always to make a point of writing to thank my interlocutors.  It helps for them to know that their time has been appreciated and I would hate to think that my neglect closed them off as a source for future historians.


Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is president of IAMHIST.  His archive-based study of Meader’s First Family  and the White House reaction appeared as ‘No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy Administration and Presidential Impersonation on the radio’ The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 3, August 1997, pp. 383-400


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 


 

Technology in the Archives: Some Principles

Nash Sibanda

22 February 2019


Archival research is, as anyone likely to be reading this blog will know, a finicky business.

It requires a certain discipline, and a certain flexibility. It requires an ability to dip and dive, and swim amongst the records. To know what is of use, and what is not. To know when you are attempting to convince the data to lead places it has no intention to go. The researcher must be both navigator and follower; often by turns though sometimes in concurrence. One must be organised, and must bring order to data that often refuses to be tamed. One must marshal all faculties at one’s disposal yet stop short of being overwhelmed. A researcher is at times a juggler, and at others a tasseographer. A researcher knows the heart of their work is not in bowling strikes, but in setting up the pins.

Last year, I completed my PhD. I had spent the previous three and a half examining the coming of sound to Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. I’d been fortunate to work alongside excellent academics, who showed me the ropes and made it easy for me to rig the sails of my own project. My dissertation’s structure was also its thesis – a funnel, from the wide to the narrow. I wanted to see how sound came to Britain by taking the broad national picture and narrowing down through a series of case studies to a single cinema. To individual screenings and an individual audience.

As such, my archival sources were varied. All historical research involves varied archival sources. This is not an attempt to claim superior scope or ambition. I don’t believe any of my methods were so unique as to revolutionise the field. Rather, I believe my work was a useful way to explore a range of ways of interacting with archives using technology. You may ask why I presented them as a set of principles, especially coming from a super-duper early career researcher such as myself. The answer is that the submission guidelines didn’t specifically say that I couldn’t.

 1. Archives are mines. Take as much as you can.

Archival material, for the historian, is almost always visual, if not purely textual. Archival research is the process of filtering through to find words written in times when people knew first-hand what has since been lost. To know what was thought, often we can only try to learn what was written. The words and images are immutable, imprinted on sacred, primary objects. The care with which archivists store and provide them is vital.

Yet the medium by which we the researchers must spend our time with them is fungible.
I have worked with researchers who take copious, meticulous notes in the archives. They transcribe pertinent quotes. They summarise and paraphrase and chronicle their journeys through the records with great care and detail. They pore over the material before them, picking away and collecting in their notebooks any precious gems that may come loose. They spend hours and hours and hours in there.

I have opted instead to exchange the pick-axe for dynamite. I want to take as much from the archives as I can, in as few trips as possible. Others may find the archives a stimulating or serene environment. I would much rather languish at home in my slippers. My tools are a digital camera – always my mobile phone – and a photography pass, usually acquired for a small fee from the front desk. Some archives are content to give the intrepid photographer free reign. Others are more stingy, ascribing quotas to how much one can photograph in any given visit. I photograph everything that might look useful, or relevant. Or not especially useful or relevant, but interesting enough for me to want to have a second look later. I make a small note for each photograph I take – more on these in the second principle – and move onwards. I take hundreds and hundreds of photographs. Along with subsequent archive trips, these number into the thousands.

In this way, one leaves the archives without the rich notes and ideas that might come from a slower and more deliberate communion with the material. This work must still be done. Rather than leaving the mine with a handful of diamonds, you leave with a truck full of rocks. You have yet to extract the gems, but you’ve seen their faint glimmer. At least you can do so now at your own pace, at home or in your office. You have a facsimile of the original material, rather than having to rely on notes made at the time of your visit. For the researcher unsure what will end up actually being useful, nothing provides peace of mind like having one’s own, personal archive

2. Format will save your life. Ensure stable digital footing.

Before you embark on any endeavour involving technology, you must inform your technology of what it is you hope to achieve. A diary is a book of blank pages, yet you happily – gratefully – pay extra for the dates written in the corners. You could do it yourself every day, quite easily, but it feels better that it’s there for you. Data and information love format. The digitally inclined researcher must also wield it as a crucial tool.

Fundamentals are key. If you use a standalone camera, rather than your camera-phone, you must ensure that its time and date settings are as accurate as you can make them. This will ensure that you know on which trips any photographs were taken. It will save you when automatic naming conventions break down (did I take IMG_2033.jpg from my phone before or after IMG_8949.jpg from my camera?). File names are changeable; file sizes are unpredictable; and the file types are all the same. Time is constant. Pay no mind to what the physicists may say about such a statement; this is none of their business. By all means make use of whatever cameras and scanners may be available to you in the archives. Entrust the business of formatting to no-one but yourself.

Choose the home for your archive notes, and understand their function. These are not the notes you will make when you build arguments, test theoretical frameworks, or challenge knowledge. These notes are your new catalogue. You have gone to the archives to build your own, digital archive. Decide how best to organise these materials to suit your own purposes. I’ll provide an example:

I spent a lot of time looking at The Bioscope, a trade journal from the silent and early sound period of British cinema. I wanted to trace the coming of sound through its pages. As expected, sound was a concern for vast sections of the journal for many, many issues. At times, entire issues seemed potentially useful. The journal had yet to be professionally digitised.[i] Complete runs only exist in a small handful of institutions around the country, including the British Library. My method was to flick through issues, scan for anything that seemed relevant, and photograph those pages.

Always photograph entire pages. Never photograph individual segments. You want page numbers, you want issue dates. More so, you want the opportunity to find the nearby contextualising material that you didn’t notice in the archive.

If I saw something useful, I made a note in an Excel spreadsheet. My sheet had the following columns:

  • DATE: The date of the issue for the item.
  • PAGE: The page in the issue for the item.
  • ARTICLE TITLE/DESCRIPTION: The title of the item, along with a short description in [square brackets] as needed.
  • CATEGORIES: From a pre-defined master list, a comma-separate list of categories that apply to the item
  • NOTES: Any relevant meta-information (such as whether the issue is a special edition, or a supplement; or changes in the magazine’s layout).
  • ID: A unique numerical ID for each item.

Everything in its place, and everything accounted for. In this way, I created a sheet of over three thousand Bioscope entries.

3. Keywords are everything. Make everything a keyword.

Why is something useful? What makes something worth keeping? That’s a question only the researcher can answer about their own work. If you pull a document from a folder and lay it flat, skim its title and feel that familiar small electric thrill of discovery, you will likely know why. A record that provides proof to a small theory or upsets earlier assumptions; it tells part of a story. Be sure to track these parts, shepherd them well.

A research project is rarely one thing. It is a collection of things. It is not a single reed; it is a woven basket. Since the weaving takes years, it is important to keep track of the reeds.

In The Bioscope I came across a series of entries related to projectionists, operators and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU). Some of these articles were broad and wide-ranging; some were intensely local. Regardless, I added “ETU” in the Description field of each. If I ever came across an article related to a key city I was tracking, I would add that city’s name. Same for companies, individuals, themes, whatever. Any reed worth keeping track of.

These become keywords. Excel lets you filter entries based on the presence (or absence) of specified words or phrases. A filter for “ETU” returns all 68 items related to that theme, in chronological order. An added filter for “Liverpool” narrows focus further to seven entries, between October and December 1930. They track the introduction of new local policy, the threat of industrial action and an actual operators’ strike. This fell outside of the final remit for my dissertation; until the writing of this article I had not even noticed this story. There are several hundred other items between each of these entries. It is easily missed. Yet the keywords allow a question to be asked of the data, and the data to easily answer. I have no doubt that a worthwhile piece of research can be written about the regional ETU. I have no doubt that I already have enough material to make a strong start. Keywords are everything.

4. This is the information age. Omit needless work.

A research project is a unique undertaking, but many projects use common resources. Hundreds of writers can use the same inkwell. Data is a raw material and can be refined in myriad ways. It is also infinitely reproducible. Use these qualities to your advantage.

As part of my research project, I wanted to digitise the programming records of the Tudor cinema in Leicester during the transition years. A wonderful set of programming records exist for the cinema. They show the daily takings, programming, and even weather reports for each day. It’s a huge amount of information. The numerical data was easy enough to deal with. I created another Excel spreadsheet, and entered the numbers in a sheet entitled “Attendance and Takings”. In a trance-like fashion, I made entries for each of the 3,765 screenings between 1925 and 1932. It was slow work, but the march of progress was clearly visible and thus satisfying. Leveraging the power of the computer to analyse these figures – to make sense of the pounds, shillings and pence – was more satisfying still.

Digitising the qualitative material was a different task. Week by week, the cinema’s programmes had been entered in the ledger. The information was patchy, and inconsistently noted. Handwriting quality ranged from the precise to the sloppy. Several entries bordered on illegible. The most pervasive issue was the frequent mismatch of titles between the ledger and the trade press. Detective work was constantly necessary. Fortunately, I had collected digital images of the relevant trade journal pages I’d need in my personal digital archive. Every week at the Tudor saw two different programmes. The first ran from Monday to Wednesday, another from Thursday to Saturday. Some notable films played the whole week. For the 3,765 screenings in the database, this meant over 800 different programmes. I only completed 460, which served the immediate needs of my project. Each programme required entries into any number of forty different fields.

This provided a lot of information, sortable and ready for analysis, yet it felt incomplete. I had film titles, but no genres, no personnel or studio information. Filling in this information would have been prohibitively cumbersome. Thankfully, the internet is full of otherwise cumbersome information. As I compiled the spreadsheet, I found and added each film to a list on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). It is a testament to human ambition that the database listed almost every single film. This included features, supporting material and even many of the news and magazine reels. There were cast and crew lists, studio and company information, even filming locations and technical details. The database is full of good stuff like this. Some information on the database is inaccurate, and some is incomplete. If I had better information than is currently available on IMDB, I thought it polite to update the entry.

The watchlist made reference easy. IMDB goes further, however. You can export a list as a CSV (comma-separated values) file and import it into yet another Excel spreadsheet. In this way you can redeploy of much of this useful information offline. The work had already been done, it was now a case of taking it and using it.

5. Spreadsheets aren’t the project. Relationships are the project.

It is easy to run the risk of creating spreadsheet upon spreadsheet until one is buried in data with no way out. Yes, one should go into the archives and collect as much useful data as possible. However, it is important to have some sense of what these data have to say to each other, and about each other. You need a relational database.

Excel can do this, but it is complicated. Enough that I felt I wouldn’t be able to do everything I wanted without needing to learn a complex new language. I found the program excelled (as promised) in the structuring and formatting of data. I needed another tool that would take these spreadsheets and make them communicate. Thankfully, I found Tableau. Tableau is a data visualisation program. It allows the user to import different datasets in a variety of formats, and assign relationships between them. For example:

I can tell Tableau to link the date field from the “Attendance and Takings” sheet to the date field of the “Programmes” sheet. Now, the money taken by the box office is directly linked to specific films, and all the other information contained in both sheets. If I link the film title fields in the “Programmes” sheet to the titles in the IMDB sheet, I have further enriched the data. I can ask Tableau, “Who were the supporting female actors in the supporting feature playing on Wednesday August 15th, 1929?” Tableau will tell me there weren’t really any. MGM’s silent western The Rock of Friendship (aka Wyoming, 1928) had a female lead played by Dorothy Sebastian, but the cast was otherwise male. I could then ask how much money was made during the matinee performance on that day. Tableau would tell me £2, 9s./3d. All this information is in the archival records.

The bulk of this kind of research project is the collection and organisation of data. Analysis and writing up were culminating steps of a much longer process. I don’t mean to suggest that this process lacks analytical rigour. Rather, the effort to organise information makes analysing it faster, and more insightful. Have a look at the Entity Relationship Diagram for my Tudor project. It looks like a complicated mess. Every field is a wealth of data. Some I needed (in the case of the “Attendance” and “Programmes” sheets) to enter manually. Others I extracted from online resources. It is time consuming to collate data, and flaws in organisation can cause huge delays if spotted too late. As principle two above suggests, format is paramount.

When the database and its relationships are complete, it can better answer those probing questions. I built an entire chapter of my thesis on the answers to questions posed to two cinema databases I created. Arranging the data into a personal digital archive was a time-consuming effort. Analysing the data and writing the chapters was a pleasant breeze. Further investigation will be equally pleasant and breezy. The digital archive is already there, waiting to answer more questions.

Final Thoughts

There are surely more, and better, principles for archival research. There are likely more useful and straightforward ways to begin using technology with primary sources. Methodology is important, and informs much of the direction of a project. What I did for mine will not work identically for yours. I hope that the specifics above are used to illustrate the general. We might read the leaves differently, but we both understand the importance of brewing a good cup of tea.

Find more information about my Tudor research here. Thank you for reading!


[i] In a cruel cosmic joke, much of The Bioscope has now been digitised, fully searchable. It can be found at the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) website. I’d link directly, but I’m still upset that I took all those photos. My Excel spreadsheet is much more useful for my purposes than the BNA’s search function.


Nash Sibanda is a cinema historian. He received his PhD in Cinema History from De Montfort University in 2018. His research has focused on the coming of sound to British Cinemas. He currently lives and works in Japan, teaching English and writing when he can (though not as much as he should). His most recent publication is an article titled “The Silent Film Shortage”, found in the December 2018 issue of Music, Sound and the Moving Image.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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