The methodology which Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past uses in collecting personal memories is partially grounded in the basic methodological principles of the oral history method. It has been used since 1948, when the oral history method was accepted in the scientific community as a technique of documenting history and it enables Documenta, as a human rights organization working on the process of dealing with the past, to respond to unique request which are set before the organization.
As part of the wider process of dealing with the past, Documenta, through its activities related to collecting and recording personal memories, tries to provide an opportunity to people, who have neither been active in creating historical events nor have carried any political power during certain periods, to affirm themselves as social actors. On the other hand, by insisting on the principle of multiperspectivity, we try to present to the public plurality of different narratives. Our aim is to contribute to a deeper and all-encompassing understanding of certain historical processes which have significantly affected the lives of people from these areas. For this reason, the methodology we use in the oral history project, except for respecting scientific principles of documentation with the use of oral history method, necessarily includes in itself a move towards social engagement.
There are several facts we find crucial for understanding the concept of oral history:
- Oral history means collecting and preserving personal memories as historical documentation, which usually has not been documented, and is based on human experience
- Oral history is the best source of information on what a certain historical period and historical events meant to people who were their contemporaries and how they lived through these events.
- Oral history can help us understand the ways of life and a widely accepted system of beliefs which was present in a certain time period, and can help understand social factors which created conditions for certain historical events to happen.
- Oral history enables research of historical heritage which, on the level of a society, appears through the form of collective consciousness, and on personal level through the form of family heritage and trans-generational transfer.
- Oral history, through retrospective thinking and remembering, provides a possibility to better understand the current situation. Explaining the past, due to a need for coexistence in the present, is a particularly important goal for societies facing "the memory of evil".
- Oral history provides an opportunity of analysis of the space between remembering and forgetting. According to contemporary understanding, "forgetting" is the creative reflection of remembering, which depends on social/political circumstances, but also on individual capacities of people (regardless whether they try to suppress certain unwanted materials from their consciousness on purpose or there exists some other cause which helps the process of forgetting).
A significant part of efforts, strain and dedication is invested in finding potential interviewees willing to share with us, and in the end with a wider public, their often traumatic and painful personal memories.
The process of selecting potential interviewees included contacting local civil society organizations, local governments and the media, contacting potential interviewees through mail, e-mail and over phone, as well as through presentations of the project in the media.
Target groups of interviewees:
- People from the region who are interested in contemporary, local history, especially witnesses and actors of war events from the period 1941 – 1995, with a special emphasis on women and marginalized ethnic minorities, as well as on victims, particularly former inmates and family members of killed and missing persons.
- War veterans, members of the police and other military and paramilitary formations
- refugees and IDPs.
- Civilian victims of war (victims of mines and bombing...)
- Persons evicted from their apartments/houses and other persons who were left without their personal possessions.
- Human rights fighters, but also representatives of domestic institutions and organizations
- members of newspaper and publishing houses, as well as the media, particularly those who are informed about the region's countries' history.
- Members of religious communities.
Due to the circumstances and lack of human resources in the first phase of the project, from 2010 to 2012, we have included volunteers as interviewers to collect personal memories, mostly graduates of social sciences disciplines. In the second phase of the project, from 2012 to 2013, several former volunteers with the most experience were engaged professionally.
Including volunteers in this project meant finding professional, aware, motivated and interested young people, but also continuing to educate and train them.
Volunteer engagement in the project meant going to do filed work and conduct interviews with interviewees. Except for undergoing preparations for recording the interviews which included finding out information on particular areas and events to which the interviewees would refer, information about the interviewee himself/herself, as well as undergoing education and training about the methodology and subject area, volunteers conducted interviews with a person with whom the interview was scheduled and respected all guidelines and interview techniques.
Considering the fact that the project includes memories of the war from all over Croatia, volunteers travelled to various locations throughout Croatia and, if a need arose, also to the neighbouring countries where, for example, actors and witnesses of the war in Croatia currently live.
Recording personal memories
For the recording of personal memories, Documenta has developed Guidelines for conducting interviews, in which phases of preparation and research, recording of interviews, techniques of interviewing and usage of documentation are described.
The largest part of the interviews has been recorded in apartments and houses, while a smaller part was recorded at the premises of partner civil society organizations in towns where the interviewees live or at Documenta's premises.
As our aim was to include memories of the period from before the Second World War until today, interviews (depending on the age of interviewees) include life histories of interviewees: pre-war, war and post-war experiences, experiences from the time of post-war extra judicial executions, the years of socialism, political turmoil before the 1990s war, events from the 1990s conflict... Most of the interviews are between one and two hours of duration, but depending on experiences and memories of interviewees can last even longer.
Just before the recording, the interviewer fills a protocol which serves for gathering basic information on the interviewee, that can be used as guidelines when asking questions. Interviewees before the start of an interview sign an informed consent for recording and after the recording decide whether they want their interview to be made public, and then sign an agreement for making the interview publicly available or whether they want it to be only available for scientific research and sign an agreement for the use of interview in research. All interviewees were given or sent by mail a DVD with a video recording of their personal memories.
Personal memories which Documenta is collecting are based on a semi-structured interview. Questions which are listed follow a time chronology depending on the age of an interviewee and serve as a reminder to the interviewer. The list of questions can be, to some extent, modified so that it better suits the interviewee.
The biggest part of the recorded interviews has been transcribed and translated, and since the aim of transcripts is for them to be translated into English, catch phrases or partial sentences have not been translated, while some sentences have been shortened or summarized.
Interviews have been recorded by professional videographers.
Storing and editing of the recorded video materials include:
1. transfer of a video recording from camera (memory card) to external disk
2. coding of a video material into a desired format
3. transcribing (of sound material into text)
4. translating transcripts into English
5. creating sub-titles in Croatian and English
6. editing video materials based on transcripts
7. uploading of an edited material with sub-titles on a web site
8. filling in the meta-data (data on interviewees and the interview, based on protocol) into an internal data base