Oral history or Ethnomedica helps us to understand the past, illuminates the continuity of traditions, and reflects the complex nature of an individual's experience. How do people understand the past? What are their values? Their priorities? Their experiences? How did they perceive these experiences?
The Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew, Surrey, has an active project to "Preserve our herbal heritage. Honour the knowledge and wisdom of older people. Help benefit our future generations - Forge links between them." - it is a large Ethnomedica project.
The project states, that one of the side-effects of globalisation and rapidly changing societies is the loss of local knowledge about plants or anything else. And at home, here in the UK, it has been long been industralised and ranks highly amoung the most developed of regions. However, 150 years ago Britain was still mainly a rural society, when lives were defined by the seasons and everyone knew the names and uses of several common wayside plants. As two generations passed and people developed an urban lifestyle they lost contact with the land and their practical herbal traditions. Recent studies have shown, however, that fragments of knowledge have been passed down through a long oral tradition that still exists among older people.
These projects, including the project designed at Kew, have limited funding and are constantly calling out for help, to preserve the herbal traditions of Great Britain.
Ethnomedica Collectors have to follow several interview techniques, which I will discuss in a minute, however ideally the following information needs to be recorded.
The Collector's: Name; Address; Date of Birth
Date of the Interview
The Contributor's: Name; Address; Date of Birth or Category (20-30, 30-40 etc.); Place of Birth
For each plant remedy mentioned:
- Name(s) by which plant is known to contributor;
- Part of plant used and time of year;
- Where the plant was obtained (wild, cultivated, dried from herbalist etc.);
- Manner in which plant was used (fresh, dried, infused, poultice etc.);
- Does the contributor have first-hand experience of the remedy;
- If so, do they remember the result;
- Where were they living at the time;
- What age were they, approximately, when the remedy was used;
- Where was the knowledge of the remedy obtained (from family, friends or from books etc.);
- Have they passed on knowledge of the remedy to anyone else.
The Collector is the person doing the interview. The Contributor is the narrator, the person being interviewed.
It is the experience and knowledge of the Contributor that is important in enthobotanical collection. Contributor's will remember things that are important to them, this must be remembered as it is not what the Collector thinks is important that is being collected. Therefore the information being collected stands out-with the knowlegde of the Collector, the information may not be what the Collector believes or knows to be true, it is what the Contributor believes that is important.
During the interview:
- It is important for the Collector to try to distinguish between the relation of a firsthand experience, and for example, what the Contributor will have read in books, or newspapers.
- The Collector should allow the interview to develop so as to draw upon the life experiences of the Contributor: for example, encouraging them to talk about their childhood on the croft.
- Remember not to exploit the power inherent in the role of Collector, either during the interview or subsequently when you are using the material.
- Explain the project clearly, and how the data will be used.
- Remember to obtain their consent for using the information, and consent to include (or exclude) their name on the information (some people will be happy to see their knowledge credited while others prefer to preserve their privacy).
- Remember to thank them for their time at the beginning, and to thank them at the end for their contribution.
- Ask open questions;
- Try to avoid leading questions - which can promt an answer that the Contributor thinks you want;
- Avoid double-barrelled questions - which are confusing and apt to lead the Contributor to answer only one part;
- At times the questions need to be precise - correct spellings of common names, especially Gaelic names etc.
- Use prompting questions when necessary - perhaps together with an object (a vegetable, a jar of jam or a photo etc.) which will mean something to the Contributor, can be used to elicit more information;
- Use positive encouragement;
- Don't interrupt your Contributor - allow them to finish their story at their own pace, pauses may mean only that the Contributor is gathering their thoughts;
- Remember to be adaptable in your interview technique - using a mixed of focused questions at the beginning of the session, or providing context to your question which allows your Contributor to understand why you are asking it. Put them at their ease - you want this to be enjoyable for them. Be patient and tolerant, don't give the impression that you are testing them on their knowledge.
- Be a good listener - insight matters as much as the information. Concentrate on the narrative; there may be much deep knowledge embedded in the story, which cannot simply be boiled down into data points. Be sensitive to the atmosphere conjured up by the narrative.