The History Safe toolkit: an oral history resource

The History Safe toolkit: an oral history resource

The seven tools in this oral history toolkit are based on the ‘PARCS Grows Everybody’: History and Legacy of the Portsmouth Abuse and Rape Counselling Service, 1981—2021’ oral history project.



Chapter 1


There’s lot of talk in the sector about ‘safe spaces’...I don’t think anything is ‘safe’ unless you feel safe in it, whoever you are. You can call something safe for someone, it doesn’t make it safe.

The seven tools in this toolkit are based on the ‘PARCS Grows Everybody’: History and Legacy of the Portsmouth Abuse and Rape Counselling Service,1981-2021’ oral history project.

This was a two-year project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, led by a partnership between the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR), former PARCS staff, volunteers, trustees and board members, a Young Feminist Collective, and the Portsmouth History Centre and Archives. The oral history collection created by this project is archived at the Portsmouth History Centre.

Oral history records the voices of the often marginalised and unheard.  Survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, and those who support them, are often rendered invisible in wider culture. Not least because they illuminate the persistently high levels of inter-personal violence and abuse committed daily in this country, and throughout the world.

We have two images you’ll see appear at various times:  an elephant, and a dandelion.

The elephant is a reminder of the ‘elephant in the room’ that is the high levels of rape and sexual abuse in our culture.  The dandelion is a reminder of the hope, courage and resilience of all those who work in healing and ending this violence in our culture.  The elephant and the dandelion are a reminder throughout our toolkit to not lose sight of survivors or front line workers and volunteers in your sector.

The PARCS oral history project’s intention was to be a ‘Dual purpose’ heritage project. Well, what does that mean?

Dual purpose

The dual purposes of the PARCS project were these:

The first was to record and create an oral history archive to be held in perpetuity at the Portsmouth History Centre.  This is for campaigners, students, researchers, practitioners, historians, and others from the local and wider community to listen and learn from the wealth of collective wisdom gained from decades establishing and running a front-line rape crisis service.  Our project also included various other outputs such as an exhibition, a ‘Collective Story’ booklet, and a short documentary , among other things.

The other purpose of our project was to understand more about the present-day impact of an oral history project in this sector, on the inter-generational team conducting interviews, the ‘long-memoried’ people being interviewed, and the wider team involved through a participatory and emergent evaluation layer.

Based on our experience of what we’ve learnt along the way we wanted to create an accessible resource for others working in this and related fields to support this dual purpose of a project.  We especially want to share our ideas with those who are planning oral history projects on topics that may be stigmatised, or considered sensitive, or even taboo, in wider culture.

A sustained relational approach

These days, many funding applications ask grantees to spell out how they intend to work towards environmental sustainability in their oral history projects.  As well as considering environmental sustainability, we’ve built on expertise gained from our project partnership to focus on ‘relational sustainability’.

It is this relational work that will make a difference, not only to the quality of the final outputs of your project, but often to whether the project even happens or not, and if it does happen, how safe or connecting it feels for those involved.

Each of the ‘tools’, outlined below are intended to support a sustained relational approach in an oral history project. In recent years several thoughtful documents have detailed other issues related to interviewer ‘wellbeing and oral history’.  You can explore these on the Oral History Society website.

Looking after yourself resources

Seven tools

These tools are simple, and effective, but not always easy to apply.  You will see that they are each inter-related, and work best in ‘concert’, rather than on their own.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to oral history projects, however we hope some of these ideas will be transferable and useful to yours.  While all important work – and relationship - involves some challenge, unforeseen circumstances, and risk, we hope that what we have learnt and share here may increase safety and connection on your project for all those involved and those impacted by it.


Written and compiled by Anna Cole, with Juliet Scott. Graphic design by Catherine Rowland (Young Feminist Collective). Copy-edit by Emily Kyte.

Supported by

Chapter 2

Regular reflective spaces (tool #1)

There are many preparation, and active stages, for your project (including the contracting of your core team, locating interviewers and interviewees, training session, audio-recording and ‘aftercare’, conferences, filming, exhibition and finally archiving and cataloguing - plus any additional ouputs, such as podcasts etc).

Know that in each of these stages of a project, hours and hours of often invisible ‘emotional’ work will have to be done to make the project workable.

Anyone who has ever worked caring for others, will know this is the kind of work that unfortunately doesn’t happen just during office hours.

This is the work that can happen unexpectedly at the end of an already long day, when listening, holding and reflecting back, re-establishes the trust that makes the whole project workable.

Give thought and attention to these ‘invisible’ hours and try and broadly calculate these in at application stage so your project can have some flex in it when time needs to be given for feelings and reflection.

If you’ve already begun your project and haven’t calculated in these ‘invisible’ hours, it’s worth thinking about how to you could make some space for them in your current project. Hold conversations and keep in regular touch with your funder who may be more open to changes than you think.

Urgency to meet outputs can create fear and communication glitches in the team. Ensure that along with formal meetings, where logistics, tasks, responsibilities and outputs are discussed, there are other regular meetings for your project team which have a focus on the relational, rather than being always procedural or task-oriented.

Here’s how it can work:

Members of the Young Feminist Collective reflected on this (younger generation interviewer group):

If this project has taught me anything it’s that PARCS was never a building or a number, it was the people, the councillors, the volunteers and the fundraisers that made it what it was. It was the fight, the almost ignorant will of a young Diana Warren-Holland (PARCS founder) who in the face of adversity saw what needed to be done and didn’t rest until she had made it…I think her struggle is reflected here in this project on a smaller scale, through our hard work, but also our commitment to reflection and making sure all parties involved are properly cared for.

The first time I met the astounding individuals that make up the Young Feminist Collective was on a zoom call, a safe and communicative space that I quickly grew very fond of. As a monthly occurrence, we have discussed a lot in this space from oral history technicalities, to venting about injustice, to congratulating each other on achievements, to offering netflix recommendations. 

To be surrounded by people that care so much about - not just the project – but each other, provided me a phenomenal source of solidarity, a space where we uplifted each other and glowed together.

Chapter 3

Time as a safe container (tool #2)

All oral history projects with under-represented communities, or with communities who may have experienced trauma, intend to do so in a sensitive and caring way.  The how of care in projects of this nature tends to be less well understood.

The how of care can include things many oral historians will be familiar with such as an extended lead-in period to the interviews beginning, which included information sharing and briefs being exchanged on the meaning and value of oral history, a detailed Information Letter being prepared and distributed to all potential interviewees, and thoughtful training sessions for interviewers, led by an Oral History Society experienced trainer.

What perhaps is less usual and we recommend it is built into the fabric of your project from the start, is thinking and planning around both pre and post ‘care’ related to the interviews, both for those who have been interviewed, and those doing the interviewing. What counts as ‘care’ may look and feel different for different participants, so find out from them what support is already in place, and what might add to that.

Time was also a crucial element for all our work and to a trauma informed approach: Time to have space for the emotions during and following interviews; time spent on group processes in particular the Young Feminist Collective; time to code and analyse the interviews and extending the overall time-period of the project to allow for all of this.

Here’s how it can work

We learnt quickly from the Young Feminist Collective interviewers that for many it might take a little while for the impact of the interview to ‘land in their system’.  Things might bubble up overnight or percolate through the next day.  The option to have a debrief, less focused on the interview but more on the emotions evoked, was made to each interviewer available to them in the day or days after interview.

Not everyone took this up but we’ve reflected recently that having it in place, and knowing this was there, helped create something like a giant elastic band of a container around the project, that could expand and contract as needed.

There were certain things she (the interviewee) said that reflected on my own experience…there are things that can happen that make a girl grow up more quickly than she wants to…it was so much better knowing that I had you (the de-brief ‘buddy’) at the end of the phone or zoom to talk to about it once the interview was completed.

Chapter 4

Clear contracting (tool #3)

Oral historians will be familiar with the Participation, Recording and Deposit Agreement interviewees are asked to sign before and after an interview. These spell out the expectations we have of the interviewer, and our responsibilities as oral historians and as a wider project, and are a contract between interviewer and interviewee. It’s helpful to remember there are two-sides to this process. If you are training and recruiting volunteer or paid-training placement interviewers, this will require a further contracting process. Establishing these expectations clearly and in dialogue from the start can keep things moving, further along the project.

Here’s how it can work

Our Young Feminist Collective (YFC) trained in oral history conducted the majority of the interviews. Right at the start of the project the YFC Lead took time in a number of the first regular meetings of this group to focus on the contracting process, from different aspects of it, and in dialogue, so everyone could have questions answered, be clear about what the expectations were, the responsibilities, and the renumeration, if any. Like consent, contracting in projects of this nature is not always a one-off process, and may need to be revisited, and given time and attention again later, along the track of the project.

Chapter 6

Specialist supervision (tool #5)

Counsellors and psychotherapists, working in the Violence Against Women and Girls sector, and in other sectors, private or public, are required to have clinical supervision.  This is usually a one-to-one session where the practitioner has an opportunity to reflect and receive support around challenges from their face-to-face client work.  Group supervision with peers sharing time, listening and providing reflective space are also part of the established support-structure in this sector.

While oral history is not therapy, there are, as we saw in our project, some important cross-overs. It’s important to think about what might surface for different people depending on lived experience. The process of telling their story can evoke memories and leave a residue.

Here’s how it can work

The skill and care brought to this oral history project by the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector partners, mirrored the clinical supervision and peer-support structures that supported the emotional and clinical work done in a front-line service provider over a 40 years period.

We made decisions as the interviews got underway about how to offer peer and one-on-one supervision.  Decisions were made that along with a buddy system for the interviews, one person backing up the interviewer, there would also be another team member tracking and backing that person.

So as far as possible we had a 3 way support process in place for each interview at the outset of the recording period to have debriefs immediately after interviews for interviewees and a process of aftercare, that included access to specialist supervision with a Snr practitioner in the sector or a reflexive space to digest and process the impact of telling their life-story or support post interview.

Chapter 7

Emergent evaluation (tool #6)

Sometimes formal evaluation surveys and forms don’t work so well, particularly at the start of a project or partnership when there may still be a wariness about the purposes and eventual audiences for evaluative data.  It may feel frustrating to begin with to provide ‘enough’ evaluation ‘data’ for funded projects.  It can also be hardest to measure the ‘invisible’ pieces that make the project work in terms of ‘wellbeing’ and building a sustained relational approach. So how to measure the immeasurable?

Here’s how it can work

One way we’ve been working to document some of the more invisible of the ‘dual purpose’ of the project, ie, the present day impact or resonances for the team involved - is to record debriefs with each of our Young Feminist Collective interviewers, after each interview.  These were loosely guided by a set of clear questions from an external evaluator, brought in right from the start of the project, who specialised in emergent, developmental evaluation in this sector.

This happened right after the interview, or as soon after as possible.  Most often these were recorded audio-debriefs, and in a smaller number of cases these were written down by the interviewer soon after completing the interview. The recorded conversational debriefs captured much of the richness and double-facetedness of this project.  As well as valuing the relational , with consent to use this material from the authors, they created a safe container for qualitative data.

  1. What worked well about the interview for them?
  2. What worked less well, if anything?
  3. What were the key learning points about their interviewee’s experience?
  4. What would they do differently next time?
Chapter 8

Awareness of the field (tool #7)

Organisational cultures can take on or ‘import’ behaviours from the field of the work they do. When this work involves sexual violence, with violations of consent and trust, it is important to pay close attention to processes that can support people to recognise how and why challenging characteristics from the settings they work in, can show up in themselves and others.   We recognised a similar context could apply to the ‘PARCS Grows Everybody’ project where we encountered our own organisational psycho-dynamics whilst working with stories of a rape counselling service. Things that presented difficulties were the boundaries between the project team and the Young Feminist Collective; processes which involved contracting, safeguarding concerns and consent; leadership in the project; and notable feelings of being in and out of the project expressed by many.

The PARCS organisation pioneered approaches (now known as ‘trauma informed’) where attention was paid to providing a contained, relational space to process what had been ‘imported’ into the organisation.  In the field of sexual violation, feelings such as numbness, anger, shame, and distrust can lead to individuals and teams closing down, at a time when openness is required to provide a supportive environment for those we are working with.

Here’s how it can work

Practically this meant giving time to checking in with our ‘whole selves’, not just in our work roles, at the beginning of meetings and supporting and modelling reflexivity at all levels of the project so that space was given to the different stories and experiences emerging.   To enable diverse and multiple perspectives we also built in a collective leadership approach with different members of the project team convening meetings.   A mid-project reflective day included some visual sense-making and enabled us to bring a wider view of the project’s purpose as an ‘in-between’ space.

From the outset we [The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, Lead Partner] decided to think of our partnership not as a ‘project team’ but as a ‘temporary organisation’, which comes together for a limited period of time and will be dismantled at the end. Thinking of yourselves as a project, rather than an organisation, can make it quite ‘transactional’, rather than a group of people with evolving relationships, hierarchies and power dynamics. 

This enabled us to give space to working not just with the project tasks but with an exploration of roles, relationships, emotions and endings. Relational working, ceremony and ritual supported former PARCS staff to acknowledge endings and provided support in moving on. An important aspect of moving on is taking a ‘successional’ or intergenerational  approach which happened through the learning from, training of, and development of the Young Feminist Collective as a new generation of VAWG consultants and activists.

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations | 63 Gee Street, London, EC1V 3RS
hello@tavinstitute.org | +44 20 7417 0407
Charity No.209706 | Design & build by Modern Activity