Inside The Oral History Archive At The British Library

By Ed Sexton | 12 January 2009
picture of a man listening to some headphones

'Fashion Lives' oral history exhibition at the British Library, featuring listening points. Pic courtesy of The British Library

The National Centre for Oral History at the British Library took off in 1989 with Dr Robert Perks as its first curator.

He started with strong collections in drama and literature on which to develop the oral history model, and also had possession of two pioneering archives.

The first was from Paul Thompson, who was based at Essex University in the 1960s and 1970s and carried out one of the first major oral history projects in the UK.

The second was by George Ewart Evans, who took oral histories from a rural community in Suffolk in the 1950s. It offers a rare insight into the community, recording a number of people who were born in the 1880s who were still alive, representing the end of a particular way of rural life.

The British Library now boasts 300 collections with the smallest containing just one interview and the largest, The Millennium Memory Bank, containing 5500 which was a project carried out with BBC local radio.

“We estimate that we have between 55 and 60,000 interviews in the archive. The oldest recording is a wax cylinder from 1888 and we go right through to the digital recordings of today. The majority of the archive comes from interviews carried out in the last 20 years and we also provide access to the BBC Sound Archive,” says Robert.

The size of the collection makes it the biggest in Europe and one of the biggest in the world and it is constantly growing with Robert and the team planning projects years in advance.

picture of a CD cover

Pic courtesy of The British Library

Plans are also afoot to fill gaps in education, childcare and social policy and new technology in the wake of a recent audit.

The Library has a number of major projects in the pipeline, according to Robert.

“Our next big project will look at British Science, and this will be a five or six year project that we already have half of the funding we need for the project," he reveals.

"We will be carrying out live interviews with living British scientists across four broad subject areas - cognology, astronomy, physics and maths." Medication, engineering, computer sciences, climate change and meteorology will be covered within these fields.

“We also have a number of smaller projects starting," adds Robert, whose projects include one exploring the collapse of Barings Bank.

“We are looking at the water industry in the UK and have been sponsored by a dozen UK water companies to carry out this research. It is the most important utility and the least well documented in terms of what goes on, who works for them, what they do and what has changed over the last 50 years.

picture of two people next to an oil rig model

'Lives in the Oil Industry'. Pic courtesy of The British Library

“A further future project will focus on interviewing authors and writer, as interviews of this nature are actually quite sparse. We still need more funding for the project and one of my aims this year is to promote that."

The British Library wants to make this archive available for web research and as a CD. It is hoped that the archive will encourage young people to think about reading and writing.

Oral history enlivens many exhibitions, offering another way for the public to interact with and share history, and the British Library team offers support to projects across the country.

“There has been a growing interest in local and community history, which we have been able to tap into," says Robert. "We offer accredited trainers running courses for drop in sessions as well as targeted training for specific Heritage Lottery Fund projects.

“However, Oral History is still one of the last things that curators think about. They are now becoming more aware of it and are coming up with new more inventive ways of displaying it rather than just in block text in panels or sitting down to listen through headphones – there is now personal digital assistance that allows you to link to various resources."

picture of a CD cover

Pic courtesy of The British Library

New technology has made collecting and recording oral history more accessible, and has helped to make it a popular way of recoding personal histories that otherwise may have been lost.

“When I started you needed a certain amount of money to get a tape recorder which may have been open reel and it was not terribly easy to do very much. Now you can get hold of a recorder easily and the revolution has meant that people can upload the results of their research,” says Robert.

“There is also greater ease of access to the editing tools than was previously available, so they are not just recording the history but are able to record their own material.”

“I hope that Oral History is important – I know we are a small cog in a large institution but we seem to be getting good recognition and good resources. We are obviously popular amongst online users as much of our content is born digital or we have been able to provide digital access.”

For more information on the Oral History Collection visit

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