Anita Klingler and Lauren Hall-Lew
The Lothian Diary Project launched in May 2020 to investigate “how the COVID-19 lockdown is changing the lives of people in Edinburgh and the Lothians.” Led by sociolinguists, in collaboration with historians, data scientists, psychotherapists, public health researchers, and political scientists, the University of Edinburgh (UofE) project collected audio/video self-recordings and online surveys submitted remotely by people in lockdown. By July 2021, the project had collected nearly 200 unique contributions, with over 80 of the recordings publicly shareable.
Although not designed as a classic oral history project, these recordings and their transcripts were contributed to the City of Edinburgh’s Museums and Galleries division as an “oral history archive.” Many of those files are also available through the UofE’s open access DataShare service, and on YouTube. The entire project is available to interested researchers, with valid ethical permissions, via the UofE’s DataVault archive. In this post, we will describe how the data were collected, what sort of recordings the archive contains, and why it might be of interest to historians.
The project’s methods of data collection were purposely designed for lockdown and social distancing measures. The guiding question for the audio/video recordings was: “How has your life changed during lockdown?” Interested participants were instructed to record themselves using their own electronic device, and then to upload the file to an online survey that linked to the project’s Box.com account. Interview questions were posted in a list on the project website as suggested prompts, but participants did not need to adhere to them and indeed many did not. The focus on self-recordings, as opposed to virtual/remote interviews, was intentional, stemming from the Principal Investigator’s (PI) previous linguistic work on the stylistic variation found in self-recordings. In a sense, lockdown restrictions provided an opportunity to further this line of the research.
The team have now published several outputs, ranging from discussions of COVID-19 research methods (Hall-Lew, et al., 2022) to a report for Scottish Parliament (Liu, et al., 2021). The most recent output explores how different segments of Edinburgh’s community experienced dramatically different shifts in time and place as a result of the first COVID-19 lockdown (Cowie, et al., 2022).
While the data collection methods differ from most oral history projects, the methodological differences and the interdisciplinary approach have resulted in a unique collection of audio/visual recordings representing life at a particularly interesting point in history. The recordings vary in how retrospective they are. Recordings in May 2020 reflect on the weeks immediately prior, but also the speaker’s experience of lockdown at the time of the recording. These are often marked by raw commentary on immediate circumstances, and they reflect how people made sense of the period of the pandemic and the lockdowns, as they were still happening, in the moment. Recordings made later, especially towards July 2021, are much more reflective about the whole lockdown and COVID-19 experience up to that date, although they are nonetheless still produced in the context of the unfolding crisis. (For example, there is more of a focus on vaccines.) The range of styles that comprise the recordings potentially allows for a range of different insights and conclusions. At the same time, the centrality of the COVID-19 lockdown ‘moment’ uniting all the recordings together raises issues that will be familiar to oral historians.
A topic that has traditionally occupied oral historians is what their sources can tell them, and what they cannot. Though this question should of course occupy all historians, regardless of the types of sources they use, oral history in its early days in particular came in for severe criticism of the ‘unreliability’ of memory and the limitations of oral history as evidence. As the field developed, it became clear that oral history’s particular value lay not so much in recovering the facts, reconstructing history ‘as it really happened’, but rather in allowing historians to understand how contemporaries made sense of events, how they understood them, and how they composed their own life stories into a narrative that made sense to them.
This last element is a key feature of the Lothian Diaries. Since the recordings were not interviews, each individual had more freedom to choose what to talk about, and how. In terms of the ‘what’, not everyone chose to use the prompts suggested on our website, meaning that the content is not necessarily directly comparable across all recordings. However, what it does give us is an insight into what mattered most to people, what they felt was important to talk about, or what they most felt comfortable talking about. In terms of the ‘how’, sometimes the recordings seemed to be less self-conscious speech than what you might find in an interview. For example, the speaker might record their stream of consciousness while out on their daily walk, commenting on the natural environment around them, as they experience it. In other cases, the recording is marked by quite formal linguistic features, such as reading a written text out loud, or sign-posting moments throughout the recording with moral ‘takeaways’ or advice for future generations of listeners who might not have lived through COVID-19. Indeed, the framing of the project as an oral history (literally, “a video time capsule,” in one of the project’s advertisements), seems to have motivated many of the speakers to participate, in the first place. The serious, life-or-death realities of COVID-19 further add to a sombre and emotional mood across many of the contributions. However, it is also important to note that, because these were self-recordings, information about the recording context is limited. For audio-only recordings, for example, we lack facial expressions and body language, and the audio-quality itself varies quite a bit.
One concern about treating this collection as an oral history archive is the collection’s representativeness. Creating an audio/video diary and answering a survey takes time, and the sample is over-represented by people who had that time (e.g., the majority did not have caring responsibilities). The fact that participants self-selected also means that the demographics of the sample are not an exact match to the population. For example, it is widely known that women respond to research calls more often than men. The Lothian Diary Project used recruitment measures directly targeted at men, to try to mitigate this effect, but the overall sample is still only 38% male (or “masculine-dominant”). The “speaker sample is also unbalanced due to over-representing those groups that already distinguish Edinburgh from the rest of Scotland. For example, there are more participants with post-secondary education (54%) than in the population as a whole (41%), and more speakers aged between 25 and 44 (42%) than in the city population (34%)” (Hall-Lew, et al., 2022: 6).
We tried to counteract these expected results by establishing partnerships with a dozen local charities, who we compensated financially in exchange for their recruitment efforts. This included charities working with the chronically homeless, those with learning disabilities, and other vulnerable adults. Due in part to our personal connections, the sample does have an overrepresentation of people of colour (16%, twice the Edinburgh population) and immigrants (24%, versus 16% of Edinburgh), and nearly 20% of the sample identifies as LGBTQIA+. Furthermore, the length of a recording varies widely: some last only a minute or two, whereas a few are longer than an hour. Thus, while these recordings constitute a rich resource, we must also ask ourselves who or what we are missing in our archive. In the tradition of reading (or listening to) our sources ‘against the grain’, historians will need to pay close attention to voices and experiences which are only ‘present’ by absence and silence within these oral histories.
What makes oral history resources like the Lothian Diaries arguably a unique source type is of course the fact that it does not consist of inanimate papers, files, or objects, but of living human beings. This has always brought particular methodological and ethical implications for researchers. For example, informed consent had to be obtained from contributors and confidentiality was guaranteed, with participants being able to choose as much or as little anonymity as they wished. However, special care also needs to be taken in the process of interpreting such sources. As examples from the literature make clear, there is always a danger of the historian misrepresenting what a narrator intended, much to the narrator’s potential anger and disappointment. A solution has been offered in the shape of ‘sharing authority’ over the ultimate narrative and interpretive outcome of the oral history between historian and narrator, by consulting the narrator’s opinion on the historian’s interpretation and allowing for differences to be acknowledged in the final written output. This is something the Lothian Diary Project cannot currently offer to undertake, given the self-recorded nature of its contributions. We as researchers were not able to establish a personal relationship with the contributors, unlike in a traditional oral history interviewer-interviewee situation. Nevertheless, several of the contributors expressed an interest to record themselves again at a future date, and the research team is keen to apply for funding to enable this longitudinal project. Such an extension of the project will also allow for more research into how people will make sense of the pandemic years and experiences of lockdown when looking back on them from a further temporal distance, something which the immediacy of the current Lothian Diary Project recordings reveals less about.
As the contributors to the CSMCH’s roundtable event on “Pandemics Past and Present” (co-hosted with the Edinburgh Centre for Global History and History of Science, Medicine and Technology in November 2020) urged at the time, historians ought to participate more often and more confidently in the analysis and interpretation of pandemic times. With the COVID-19 pandemic tentatively beginning to recede into history, we hope that the Lothian Diary Project can provide historians with a valuable and varied primary source archive for research on local experiences of this period, grounded in the Edinburgh and Lothians community.
Borland, Katherine, ‘“That’s not what I said”: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research’, in S. Berger Gluck and D. Patai (eds), Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York and London, 1991), 63-75.
Cowie, Claire, Lauren Hall-Lew, Zuzana Elliott, Anita Klingler, Nina Markl, and Stephen Joseph McNulty. 2022. “Imagining the city in lockdown: Place in the COVID-19 self-recordings of the Lothian Diary Project.” Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence: Language & Computation 5, 945643. https://doi.org/10.3389/frai.2022.945643
Frisch, Michael, A Shared Authority. Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York, 1990).
Hall-Lew, Lauren, Claire Cowie, Catherine Lai, Nina Markl, Stephen Joseph McNulty, Shan-Jan Sarah Liu, Clare Llewellyn, Beatrice Alex, Zuzana Elliott, and Anita Klingler. 2022. “The Lothian Diary Project: Sociolinguistic Methods during the COVID-19 Lockdown.” Linguistics Vanguard 8(3): 321-330. https://doi.org/10.1515/lingvan-2021-0053
Liu, Shan-Jan Sarah, Lauren Hall-Lew, Stephen McNulty, Nina Markl, Catherine Lai, Beatrice Alex, Clare Llewellyn, & Karri Gillespie-Smith. 2021. “Lockdown in the Lothians: Insights from the Lothian Diary Project.” Executive Summary and Parliamentary Briefing. Sent to Members of Scottish Parliament on 6 October. https://lothianlockdown.org/parliamentreport/
Thomson, Alistair, Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend (Melbourne, 1994).
 Department of History, University of Sheffield.
 Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh.
 For the concept of ‘composure’, see Alistair Thomson, Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend (Melbourne, 1994).
 See for example the case detailed in Katherine Borland, ‘“That’s not what I said”: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research’, in S. Berger Gluck and D. Patai (eds), Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York and London, 1991), 63-75. See also Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority. Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York, 1990).