As a student of social history, I have for long been advocating the need for documentation and archiving, especially in the context of Indian businesses which have witnessed a complete transformation in their environment.
With nearly half a century of research experience, I am acutely aware of the paucity of archival materials that can be used as evidence for writing biographies and corporate histories. Hence, I take every opportunity to persuade business organisations, as well as NGOs, to preserve documents that would authenticate future historical writing.
Often, organisations and people unthinkingly discard correspondence, files and even photographs. This has become more rampant now as physical space (real estate) has become more expensive or because no one has the time to sift through and organise old stuff. History is not a priority; future planning is. Also, with changes in technology for communications having undergone a metamorphosis, much of the exchange of information and views is no longer by way of letters; it is being done on the telephone or on emails – media that can be easily obliterated. This aspect of technology had affected ‘collective memory’ negatively. And people have, so far, not started using digital technology as extensively as they should (or could), to preserve the past.
Hence, when I got an opportunity, in 2007, to initiate the process of creating oral history records for a family business, I took up the project eagerly – as much out of my belief in the need for building up such resources as for the demonstrative effect it might have on other corporates.
Forbes Marshall was a 61-year-old business, in 2007, and offered ‘ideal material’ for creation of oral history records (OHRs). The company began with trading, ventured into import-substitution manufacturing and now operates at the frontiers of technology. Fortunately, the promoters as well as many members of the old team were still available for being interviewed and their memories were not covered by the mists of time.
What Is an OHR
For those who may not be familiar, oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally comprises a well-prepared interviewer questioning the selected person and recording the exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarised, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatisation or other form of public presentation. An OHR does not include random taping, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.
The project commenced in October 2008. Over the next two years, I did 53 interviews; running into 2,687 minutes (nearly 45 hours) of audio recordings, that take up some 1,241MB of digital storage space. These were submitted on seven CDROMs along with printed copies of the transcripts as well as the soft copies (as Word files which were converted into pdf documents) for ease of access. These run into nearly 700 pages; organised chronologically by the date of the interview.
At the stage that I undertook this project, the technology for recording, transcribing, and even organising the ‘data’ with keywords and indexing it into searchable databases, was not what it is today. So the transcriptions were done manually! Today, software is available to do it all.
Anticipating the difficulty that future users might face in going through such voluminous data, at the beginning of each transcript, I provided keywords and concepts that could be searched on the Word/pdf files. I also gave the cross-reference details of the duration of audio recording and the transcript on each page of the printed document. This was to facilitate the user to go to the exact minute, or second, of the recorded interview for, say, an audio clip for a voice-over in a film, rather than having to listen to the entire recording. Users working towards creating publishable documents and wanting to pick up an entire quote from the ORH would not need to word-process from the recording; these could be just copy-pasted.
Objective of the Project
My concept note for the project mentioned: “The exercise could result in stories, anecdotes, case-studies and other kinds of documentation that can be then shared within the organisation as well as with the outside audiences, as the case may require or permit.”
How I Went about It
I began with recording the memories of some of the oldest ‘associates’ of FM – promoters, directors, employees, consultants, bankers, technologists, etc, to record their memories of the growth/development of the company from its earliest times. This involved the following activities:
- Identifying the persons to be interviewed and preparing their bio-sketch from HR records; this enabled me to contextualise the OHR and obtain focused information.
- Doing the audio-recorded interviews – sometimes multiple -- depending on the time available from the person and the ‘information-richness’ of the interviewee.
- Transcribing the recordings, extracting the knowledge content of the interview, and preparing a detailed index for each interview.
- Extracting embedded knowledge.
- Creating a separate database /catalogue of these tapes/CDs with detailed content index – which could be managed by the company’s library.
My responsibility ended with the penultimate point above. Since then, FM has created another series of OHRs which have also been used for writing the history of the company. The history has now been published as a book titled: A Different Business: The Forbes Marshall Story.
That the project achieved its objective – of “result(ing) in stories, anecdotes, case-studies and other kinds of documentation that can be then shared within the organisation as well as with the outside audiences” – is amply visible in the many, many quotes from the OHRs in the book.