Tales of oil for future reference

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Aberdeen teenagers are helping with a national oral history project, Judy Mackie reports

Fast-forward into the future. In the archive room, the elderly man's voice on audiotape describes how the burgeoning oil and gas industry lured him into a life of adventure. It rises with excitement as he remembers the pioneering spirit shared by the close-knit offshore community he was part of and it quivers as he recalls the dark days following the Piper Alpha disaster.

The listening researcher notes the sympathetic tone of the interviewer and is pleased the man and his memories have been treated with respect.

In future, when the North Sea oil and gas industry is as much part of history to our descendants as other great Scottish industries are to many of us today, this tape, and dozens like it, will hold strong social and historical significance to those researching the time when "black gold" lined the coffers of the UK economy.

This spring, 14 senior pupils from five Aberdeen secondary schools have taken time out from their exam preparations to participate in an oral history project which is turning out to be a perception-changing experience.

Lives in the Oil Industry is a five-year programme organised by Aberdeen University and the national sound archive of the British Library to create one of the country's most important collections of recordings for historians. Now in its third year, the memories of more than 100 people whose lives have been linked in some way with the North Sea oil and gas industry have been preserved already.

The teenagers, from Northfield Torry, Kincorth, and Harlaw academies and Albyn School for Girls, are taking part in a mini-project within the wider programme which Aberdeen City Council's cultural co-ordinator, Lorna Dey, organised as part of the city's storytelling festival held in the spring.

At a two-day workshop, led by Lives in the Oil Industry project manager Hugo Manson, of Aberdeen University's school of history and history of art, he gives them insight into the techniques and challenges of recording an original historical document. The first part, held at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum, which houses an exhibition dedicated to the oil and gas industry, sets the scene, introduces the theory and focuses on the technical aspects of using a tape recorder. The day-long session also provides the opportunity for the students to get to know each other and to prepare for their interviews, which they are to conduct in pairs.

Mr Manson emphasises the significance of what they are doing: these oral snapshots of individual lives will contribute to understanding the social impact of the industry. There are three standards required by any oral history project: technical competence, good interviewing skills and ethical responsibility.

"The ethical aspect underpins the others and involves showing respect and sensitivity towards your interviewee and ensuring the recorded document accurately reflects what the person wants to say. Remember, you are going to be walking away with part of someone's life and they will trust you to treat it responsibly," he explains.

The groundwork pays dividends during the second session, when the students meet their interviewees and record their memories. The mix of retired engineers, offshore installation managers, project managers and a married couple, all with a wealth of diverse experiences of the global oil and gas industry, are impressed by the professionalism of their interviewers.

"It ran smoothly; the questions were pertinent and my interviewers were very competent," says Alastair Ramsay, a retired international oil service company director.

As a bonus, the teenagers have gained a new perspective on an industry they have grown up with. Although many have relatives working in oil and gas, they are all surprised by the amount of travelling their interviewees have done and to learn that many of them have played such a key role in developing new technology and techniques.

"It's been very interesting hearing about how people in the industry have been at the forefront of things, making it up as they've gone along," says Sarah Milne, of Albyn School for Girls.

"They've also told us how it affected their family life.

"You really get the feelings of the people coming through on tape. This is a technique that should be more widely used in historical research," says her interview partner Celia Clapson, of Harlaw Academy.

Mr Manson is delighted at the quality of the interviews and says the tapes are a valuable contribution to the collection.

"The skills the students have learned will stand them in good stead when being interviewed for a job, and if they go on to become interviewers in a media, historical or any other context," he adds.

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