Since the 1970s oral history in Britain has grown from being a method in folklore studies to become a key component in community histories. Oral history continues to be an important means by which non-academics can actively participate in 'making history'. However, practitioners across a range of academic disciplines have also developed the method as a way of recording, understanding and archiving narrated memories.
Oral history has also emerged as an international movement. Globally oral historians have approached the collection, analysis and dissemination of oral history in different ways. In broad terms while oral historians in Western Europe and North America have often focused on issues of identity and cultural difference, oral historians in Latin America and Eastern Europe have tended to pursue more overtly political projects. Internationally oral historians are represented by the International Oral History Association (IOHA).
However, there are many ways of doing oral history even within single national contexts. In Britain the Oral History Society has played a key role in facilitating and developing the use of oral history.
Oral history was 'the first kind of history' according to Paul Thompson in The Voice of the Past,(1) a key publication in the re-emergence of oral history.
For centuries the use of oral sources in understanding the past was commonplace. Thucydides, the Greek historian writing in the 5th century BC, made much of the accounts of eye-witnesses of the Peloponnesian Wars, 'Whose reports', he claimed, 'I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible'.(2) By the time Bede came to write his History of the English Church and People, completed in 731 AD, he simply noted his thanks to 'countless faithful witnesses who either know or remember the facts'.(3) Even as late as 1773 Samuel Johnson expressed a keen interest in oral histories and oral tradition in his study of Scottish beliefs and customs
There then followed a long period when written sources seemed to dominate the practices of professional historians in the west. The weakening of oracy, with the rise and spread of the printed word, combined with the adoption of reductionist and empirically based methods in academic study, meant that the significance of oral testimonies was poorly understood. As a result, while oral sources often played a significant part in the writing of histories, these were just as often downplayed in comparison with evidence drawn from documents. The lack of acknowledgement of oral sources was compounded by a failure to assess their value in any meaningful way.
It is perhaps historians and archivists interested in local histories that can make the claim of taking the earliest initiatives in oral history in the 20th century. It was noted in an edition of the Amateur Historian in 1957, for example, that 'the collection of information from old people does not feature in the textbooks, yet it is an essential process in compiling local history'.(4)
Another important influence in re-establishing oral history came from those with an interest in capturing the disappearing traditions of the countryside. In the 1950s the School of Scottish Studies (now the Celtic & Scottish Studies) at Edinburgh University and the Welsh Folk Museum at St. Fagans established collecting programmes. A common feature of these early 'folk life' collections was the recording of minority groups, such as Gaelic speakers. While Eric Cregeen proved an inspirational figure in Scotland, in England it was the work of George Ewart Evans that provided an important and lasting contribution.In addition to folklore studies, there were a number of initiatives that were interested in dialect and linguistic aspects of the spoken word, including the School of English at the University of Leeds and the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition at Sheffield.
Parallels were often drawn in this work with oral tradition in other societies, especially in Africa. The products of these archives feature among the early issues of the Oral History journal (first produced in 1971). And oral history remains an important means of researching 'tradition', as exemplified by researchers such as Doc Rowe and Ruth Finnegan.
This was set to change in the second half of the 20th century. And in 1969 an informal day conference at the British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS) led to the formation of a committee that would in turn establish in 1973 the Oral History Society.(5)
In the 1960s the newly emerging discipline of labour history was also finding value in oral sources. Given that information was difficult to find about the past domestic and working lives of the majority of the population, it is unsurprising that labour historians working within living memory were increasingly using oral histories to supplement inadequate archives. There were large parts of British working class history that were simply absent from surviving documentary evidence. Although deeply frustrating for those who were researching beyond the reach of living memory, the realisation that written records were deficient proved an inspiration to record the recollections of older members of the 'labouring classes'. Leading labour historians from this period who would leave their mark on oral history included Asa Briggs and John Saville ( who was elected Chair of the Oral History Society).
As well as labour historians and collectors of oral tradition, the development of the 'new' oral history in the late 1960s was attracting a range of practitioners from different disciplinary backgrounds and professions. Social scientists, archivists and broadcasters, as well as museum and librarians, were becoming interested in the potential uses of oral history. This diversity was reflected in the development of the Oral History Society in the early 1970s.
Within two decades this growing number of practitioners were developing a new range of topics that would include oral histories of art, science, land rights, business and even garden design. Influenced by developments in women's history, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, oral historians in Britain also began to explore the historical construction of identities. So, by the 1990s oral historians were engaged in black and ethnic minority histories, lesbian, gay, bisexual trans and queer (LGBTQ) histories and the history of medicine.
The Oral History Society, through its activities, continues to involve a wide spectrum of individuals. While this has resulted at points in tensions between academic and community oral historians, the Society maintains a commitment to inclusiveness and a rejection of a narrow professionalisation. Above all else the Society also continues to encourage people to engage in making histories through the use of oral history. It does this through training and supporting teaching oral history in Higher Education and in schools, an advice team (the Regional Network), online advice, conferences and the Oral History journal. Since 2015 the Society has also introduced Special Interest Groups (SIGs).
In its early development oral history was influenced by wider debates that were occurring at the time within social history, women's history and labour history. In the 1970s and 1980s many oral historians were combining 'history from below' with the aim of providing a voice for those who would otherwise be 'hidden from history'.
Both 'history from below' and 'uncovering hidden histories' have increasingly been critiqued by oral historians themselves as inadequate in democratising history production. However, the twin commitments have remained significant to practitioners and questions of who might be missing from projects or archives continue to be asked by oral historians.
Oral historians, especially in the early years, tended to prioritise collecting older people's memories. During this period, insights into the way people remember and the value of remembering were being gained from members of the reminiscence movement. Here emerging gerontological work on memory and studies on ageing more broadly proved influential.
Oral historians have also been inspired by criticisms made by academic historians. This resulted in a number of different responses. The first rejoinder was to continue to popularise oral history through community-based initiatives and the media. In this phase oral historians began to think of ways in which remembering the past and collecting memories could be empowering for those they researched. Furthermore, the relationship between oral historians and the people they interviewed became an important consideration in the collection and subsequent analyses of testimonies. Such considerations of empowerment and intersubjectivity led in turn to the concept of 'shared authority'.
The second response was to develop how oral historians understood narrative and memory. For some, including Al Thompson,(6) this has been the most significant change in oral history. It is worth noting that this phase coincided with the increasing exchange of ideas internationally.
As well as the major journals, which include the Oral History Review (in the United States) and Oral History (in Britain), the development of oral history has been well served by the Perks and Thomson edited Oral History Reader, now in its third edition.(7) Lynn Abrams Oral History Theory provides the best introduction and overview to date.
Making 'history from below' for oral historians has a number of significant meanings.
By 1976 Harold Perkin, the leading social historian, was claiming that, 'Oral history ... has become one of the growth areas of social history ... [with] at least seventy research projects currently being pursued'(8) And most of these were 'history from below' projects.
While most history was, and some might argue continues to be, written from elite points of view, an early aim of oral historians was to collect memories that would bring new perspectives to understandings of the past.
In Britain the History Workshop movement, which explicitly championed feminist and labour history, was important in sustaining the development of an oral history that was interested in recording the voices of the less powerful. That is the majority. Thus from the first issues of Oral History the recorded memories under discussion were collected from a wide variety of individuals and groups not normally found in history journals at the time. In the mid 1970s there were articles on 'Women's work in the Yorkshire inshore fishing industry';(9) 'The rural publican and his business in East Kent before 1914';(10) and 'Jazz bands of North East England'.(11) Such an eclectic mix can still be found within the pages of the journal.
The idea of creating 'history from below' (which can be traced to the Annales School) meant thinking in part about who was 'hidden from history'. But oral historians were also considering the different ways historical consciousness developed as a result of life history experiences. So, for example, early issues of Oral History carried articles on families and childhood in which children were portrayed as active actors in history (an idea that would take another 30 years to be discovered by mainstream sociology).
Oral historians did not simply want to chart the lives of non-elites and their disempowerment, they also wanted to record instances of resistance and acquiescence. They wanted to record successful and unsuccessful attempts to make change by the less powerful in society. To understand how historical change from below might be possible.
And 'history from below' also meant encouraging a wider participation in the production of history. In addition to 'shifting the focus and opening new areas of inquiry... by bringing recognition to substantial groups of people who had been ignored', oral historians were encouraged to break down 'boundaries between the educational institution and the world, between the [history] profession and ordinary people'.(12)
The aspiration of producing history from below was combined with the aim of uncovering the lives of people who were 'hidden from history'. Sheila Rowbotham's memorable phrase (13) was taken up by oral historians and has proved to be an important and enduring influence. Although Rowbotham did not use oral history she was a major inspiration for those who did, including Jill Liddington and Jill Norris.(14) This influence can also be seen in the second themed Oral History journal published in 1977. It featured 'Women's history' and included contributions from Joanna Bornat, Diana Gittins, Catherine Hall and Elizabeth Roberts.(15)
As well as women's lives, the lives of working-class men were also explored, including shipbuilders, miners and farm labourers. Although associated with labour history, oral historians were much more likely to reach beyond the trade union organiser and into areas that included the unorganised and even as far as conservative and deferent members of the working class.
The diverse contributions that can be found in the journal were also present in the Society's public events. Early conference themes included oral tradition and dialect, the First World War, work, local history, street culture, oral history on radio (in partnership with the BBC) and in the classroom, the International Brigade and women's history. Community, museum and county record office initiatives were also in evidence. Through its annual conferences and a seminar series the Society continues explicitly to explore new areas and engage new audiences.
In the 1970s and 1980s similar projects were being undertaken across Europe, including in Italy, Australia, Israel and across Latin America as well as North America. And this was also reflected in contributions in Oral History, which at the time included articles from or about Eire, Sweden, Canada and parts of Africa. And here again the focus was on the lives of those people who were either under-represented or missing from traditional historiography. The 'News from abroad' and 'Current British work' sections remain important parts of the journal reporting on community-based as well as academic research.
While History Workshop identified itself as 'a journal of socialist historians' and later for socialist and feminist historians, Oral History never did. Nonetheless the influences of both socialist and feminist writings are evident in the making of oral history.
In the 1960s a number of labour historians were using oral history to uncover the otherwise undocumented lives of working-class people. This included Asa Briggs, Elizabeth Roberts, Raphael Samuel and John Saville.
In addition, the ideas of other socialist historians who were not undertaking oral history work also proved important. So, for example, the writings of C. L. R. James, E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, Dorothy Thompson and others, shaped the thinking of many oral historians in the 1970s and 1980s.
From the mid 1970s and into the 1980s an affinity grew up between individuals associated with History Workshop and Oral History. Leading members of both movements often shared activities, including working in local projects and activities aimed at enabling working-class people to investigate their histories.
One obvious and significant difference between oral historians and labour historians was that oral historians never exclusively limited their attention to the working class.
'People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them'(16)
In Spring 1980 the Oral History journal in a 'Black history' edition featured articles on West Indian migration by Elizabeth Thomas-Hope, West Indian communities in Brixton by Donald Hinds, Pakistani life histories in Manchester by Pnina Werbner and an overview of 'Black labour' by Harry Goulbourne.(17) Since then Oral History has continued regularly to publish oral histories of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people both in Britain as well as elsewhere in the world. This includes, as well as a special edition on ethnicity and identity in 1993,(18) Shaheeda Hosein on marriage and divorce among West Indian women in Trinidad, (19) Susan Burton on cross-cultural interviewing of Japanese women in Britain,(20) and Jelena Cvorovic on gypsy oral history in Serbia.(21)
There are numerous fine examples of BME oral history projects. This includes projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, such as the Black and Ethnic Minority Experience based in Wolverhampton, the Chinese Oral History Project in London, and members of the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre who have recorded 150 interviews with people from the Indian sub-continent. Then there are longer established initiatives – some have sound archives going back to the 1980s – including the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, The Birmingham Black Oral History Project Archive and the Leicester Oral History Archive.
In contrast to BME oral history, gay and lesbian lives have been less well represented in the Oral History However, articles have included Gavin Brown's 'Listening to queer maps of the city: gay men's narratives of pleasure and danger in London's East End' (22) and Clare Lomas (2007) 'Men don't wear velvet you know! Fashionable gay masculinity and the shopping experience, London, 1950–early 1970s'.(23)
From 1985 to 1988 The Hall-Carpenter Archives (HCA) employed Margot Farnham, a schoolteacher in Waltham Forest, to co-ordinate a voluntary group of six women and four men to collect oral histories. The project culminated in two books.(24) The archive, at the British Library Sound Archive, has also provided the basis for further research, including Jennings's study of lesbian identities in Britain, 1945–70.(25)
By the 1990s the number of queer oral histories was increasing. These tended to be centred on community-based projects. Brighton OurStory, for example, produced Daring Hearts: Lesbian and Gay lives of 50s and 60s Brighton.(26)
By 2002, inspired by the example in Brighton, OurStory Scotland had begun to collect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) testimonies. The National Museums of Scotland have agreed to take these recordings along with other material to form a National Archive of LGBT Lives as part of the Scottish Life Archive.
In 2006 the Museum of London organised an exhibition to coincide with Lesbian, Gay and Transgendered Month. Queer is Here included oral history recordings from the Hall Carpenter Archive.
'All history depends ultimately upon its social purpose'(27)
Enthusiasm for oral history was not shared by most historians who were working in universities in the 1970s and 1980s. Even those researching topics mainly involving elites that were within living memory were loath to admit to using oral sources.
Oral historians responded in a number of ways. Some argued for combining oral testimonies with other historical sources, often testing memories for reliability and validity. Others argued for the uniqueness of memory and in doing so furthered oral historians' critical understanding of memory and narrative.
Many of those engaged in community oral history in the mid 1980s continued to point out the biases inherent in most documentary materials that survived for historians to use. This meant that regardless of the reliability or otherwise of memory, oral history was often an important means of investigating the majority of lives.
In addition, oral history was not just about describing a dead past. It was about using that past to shape the present. In doing so, oral historians were not only recognising their relationships with the subjects of their studies, but were frequently arguing that oral history should empower people who had been doubly marginalised in history and then in historiography. This was in part a rejection of the 'objectivity' so prized by university-based historians that it would still be a subject of debate for historians more than two decades later.(29)
That oral history was not closely associated with mainstream academic history departments perhaps in part accounts for the eclectic variety of approaches taken by oral historians. Thus in the 1980s insights were being drawn from across the disciplinary spectrum. This included history, from which oral historians adopted methods of testing the reliability and consistency of testimonies, as well as combining oral testimonies with other sources. But it also included:
The work of Luisa Passerini still inspires researchers concerned about the relationship of the disciplines of oral history and history. Her powerful criticism of oral historians' 'tendency to transform the writing of history into a form of populism' continues to be appreciated as a warning. As does her argument for recognition of 'a subjective reality which enables us to write history from a novel dimension undiscovered by traditional historiography'.(30)
There has been a long and creative relationship between oral history and women's history.(31) By 2002 there had been four issues of Oral History that focused explicitly on women's lives.(32) And female oral historians have been especially influential in 'history from below'. Although not all of women's oral history was being conducted by feminists, feminist theory has made an important contribution to the ways in which many oral historians design their studies, work with those they research, and analyse the narrated memories they collect.
Most of the challenges raised in women's oral history can be applied more broadly. For example, Susan Armitage's (33) and Sherna Berger Gluck's (34) dilemma as expressed in their question, 'How do we simultaneously understand and document women's subordination and resistance?' is applicable to all oral history research. And indeed the question can become even more interesting when we consider how race, ethnicity and class might combine with gender.
As oral historians of women's history have highlighted, there is a dialectical relationship between people as actors and subjects of their own histories. How people talk about this can be thought of as historical consciousness and has provided an important approach in women's oral history, including in the work of Penny Summerfield.(35)
Oral history and feminist history have proved reciprocally supportive at points, especially in understanding the significance of women's biographies in history. This includes exploring the gendering of memory and the past-present dialogic. This in itself has led to a number of significant debates about the nature of collective and individual memory.(36)
At the heart of oral history is the interview. Oral historians have argued that in interviewing living witnesses they established a different relationship with the past in contrast to other historians. However, the Popular Memory Group (38) were to raise concerns that insufficient attention was being paid to the unequal relationship between professional historians and other participants in oral history projects. This led in part to greater consideration being given to intersubjectivity and the power relations between interviewers and interviewees, researchers and researched.
And from the United States came 'shared authority'. Although subject to differing interpretations, 'shared authority' has provided the basis for approaches to working with individuals and groups.
For Michael Frisch:
what is most compelling about oral and public history is a capacity to redefine and redistribute intellectual authority, so that this might be shared more broadly in historical research and communication rather than continuing to serve as an instrument of power and hierarchy.(39)
While there have been a number of critiques of 'shared authority' it remains an ideal that most oral historians aim at. It also provided a means of exploring the impact of the interview relationship on testimonies.(40)
From the very beginning Oral History included articles that addressed the challenges of oral history. Raphael Samuel wrote about the 'Perils of the transcript' in the second issue of the journal.(41) And by the fourth issue (published 1976) Paul Thompson was addressing the 'Problems of method'(42) while George Ewart Evans was describing 'Approaches to interviewing'.(43) There was a great deal of discussion about the accuracy of memory as an historical source, but there were also broader issues being addressed at the meetings of the Society. For example, reflecting on the 1972 conference, Tony Green, the folklorist, argued for a greater understanding of the subjectivity of memory. And for oral historians
to concentrate much more on history as what people think happened, including the presentation of radically different accounts, in order to demonstrate ... that different individuals and groups experience the same event in totally different ways, and to analyse why this is so.(44)
In the same year Michael Frisch argued that memory should become the object of study for oral historians and not simply a methodological concern. This marked the beginning of a radical departure from debates about the historical truthfulness of recall and a turn towards addressing subjectivities. In doing so, oral historians would point out that the very 'unreliability' of memory was a strength of oral history. Alessandro Portelli in 'What makes oral history different'(45), first published in 1979, argued that oral histories could provide historians with new ways of understanding the past, not just in what was recalled, but also with regard to continuity and change in the meaning given to events.
For members of the Popular Memory Group at the Centre for Contemporary Studies in Birmingham key questions lay in the relationship between individual and social remembering. For Luisa Passerini, Daniel Bertaux and Al Thompson this meant highlighting how memories are shaped by ideologies, social relations and culture over time. For Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson it was the 'myths we live by' that was drawing their attention. Across the oral history movement greater attention began to be paid to the processes of remembering. This included the dialogical relationship between recollections of the past that were narrated in the present.
Developments in narrative and memory were in part inspired by international collaborations between oral historians in the 1980s. There were a number of edited collections of essays bringing the work of practitioners from around the world together. And there were two journals, Life Histories/Récits de Vie (France/Britain) and the International Journal of Oral History (North America), published in that decade. These were to join together and become the International Yearbook of Oral History and Life Stories (1993–6). In 1996 the International Oral History Association (IOHA) was established and a year later the Association published Words and Silences/Palabras y Silencios.
The concerns of oral historians tend to reflect the situation they find themselves in. The radicalism of South American oral history and its contrast with issues of identity in North America and Britain has been commented on by a number of oral historians. In addition, the oral history work emerging from former Soviet bloc countries has involved recovering difficult pasts, often denied in earlier, state-sponsored Stalinist histories.