Singapore, 30 October 2020 – A nurse, a businessman and a kind-hearted woman who started an initiative to thank healthcare workers. These stories have been shared with the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) as part of a two-year oral history component of the “Documenting COVID-19 in Singapore” project launched by the National Library Board (NLB) on 22 May 2020 to encourage citizens to contribute videos, photographs and even journals on their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oral history provides new and different dimensions in our documentation efforts of this period. From frontline workers to volunteers and employers, their experiences capture the diverse stories of people in Singapore during this unprecedented crisis. Since August this year, NAS has conducted 10 in-depth interviews and aims to record at least 120 interviews from now till 2022.
People who have been interviewed come from diverse occupations and have shared their experiences, which has enabled NAS to build a rich collection of stories and voices for current and future generations to learn about this unprecedented time in the recent history of Singapore. The interviews were conducted in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil so that the experiences could be told in vivid details in the interviewees’ most comfortable language (see Annex A for details of the interviewees).
Why oral history?
Oral history is a powerful means to help society make sense of historical events such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Through in-depth interviews from first-person perspectives, we can better understand how the pandemic unfolded, our responses, motivations and reactions, and how we make meaning of and process these experiences.
While there have been large amounts of media coverage on COVID-19, oral history differs in its interviewing methodology. Oral history strives to preserve entire interviews as archival “raw material” which become a rich primary resource that historians, researchers and even the general public can consult and revisit over the long term.
Oral history is uniquely suited to archiving human experience during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It lends a patient, empathetic ear to what is a dramatic historical period with great emotional impact on individuals. When the interview is conducted during or relatively soon after a crisis when emotions are still relatively fresh, we have a unique opportunity to document emotional responses and psychological states during crisis, before emotions dull over time.
Oral history interviewees
The Documenting COVID-19 in Singapore oral history project aims to record, through oral history methodology, the behind-the-scenes details, experiences, emotions and reflections of a wide array of respondents, including:
Working with volunteer community interviewers
Owing to the scale and scope of the project, oral history interviews will be conducted by NAS staff and trained volunteers. A total of 84 volunteers have been trained in oral history methodology and how to conduct such interviews over Zoom, through two sessions in August and October 2020. This is the first time that NAS is using a video conferencing software to conduct oral history interviews, and this approach is in itself a reflection of the impact of COVID-19 on the change in work processes. Having a diverse pool of volunteers is also helpful in bringing to the project varied experiences, expertise and networks of contacts. Collectively, the volunteers came up with a list of potential interviewees and are working with NAS staff to conduct the oral history interviews.
The Documenting COVID-19 in Singapore oral history interviews will be made available progressively on NAS’ Archives Online website (https://go.gov.sg/c-19-oral-history) over the next two years.
About National Library Board
The National Library Board (NLB) nurtures Readers for Life, Learning Communities and a Knowledgeable Nation by promoting reading, learning and history through its network of 27 public libraries, the National Library and the National Archives of Singapore. NLB also forges strategic partnerships that encourage awareness, appreciation and greater discovery of Singapore’s history through its rich collections on Singapore and the region.
NLB achieves excellence through innovation, focusing on citizen engagement and co-creation, resource and digital innovation. This creates learning opportunities, greater access to library resources, services and archival collections, as well as a continual development of innovative library spaces. Established on 1 September 1995 as a statutory board, NLB is under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).
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