Oral History Society welcomes new chair


The Oral History Society is delighted to announce that it has appointed a new chair: John Gabriel, professor of sociology at London Metropolitan University. Gabriel (left) will replace Graham Smith who has taken up a new role as professor of oral history at Newcastle University.

Smith, a long-standing member of the society and champion of oral history, will remain as a trustee. Gabriel was appointed at the society’s annual general meeting in July, when members voted to accept his appointment.

Gabriel, a sociologist by background, was working as a lecturer at Birmingham University about 20 years ago when he began to explore social identities in relationship to life experiences as a whole.

“I was conscious of the fact there was a tendency in my thinking, writing and teaching to work with objective categories of people and I felt frustrated that didn’t give me the whole picture. I began to become more interested in life history and life experiences,” he says.

It was on a sabbatical in Nicaragua that his eyes were opened to the possibilities of life stories. Gabriel volunteered for a number of non-governmental organisations in Nicaragua, which at the time was commemorating 500 years of resistance of the arrival of the first Europeans.

Indigenous groups came together in an ‘encuentra’ (a kind of conference) on which Gabriel worked as a volunteer. Whilst in Nicaragua he came across the book I Rigoberta, the personal testimony of Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatamalean Indian whose family suffered under the country’s military regime. Menchu, a Nobel peace prize-winner, came to the conference and gave her testimony.

Gabriel says, “I became hooked on the idea of life stories and what they communicate in terms of the history of communities. Getting stories from a personal perspective, rather than from more ‘authoritative’ sources was also powerful and a real eye opener.”

On his first day back at work after his sabbatical he was asked to run a six-week course starting the next day. Gabriel was free to choose whatever he wanted so he chose testimonial writing.

It went down well with students so he introduced it in other courses both at Birmingham and subsequently at London Guildhall University [which became London Met in 2002] and where he met Jenny Harding, now professor of cultural studies and communications and a trustee of the OHS.

“As soon as I heard that Jenny was teaching oral history I contacted her and we started talking. That was how I started to work on different community projects,” he says.

Between 2004 and 2008 they worked alongside Sarah Lowry, also an OHS trustee, on the refugee oral history project, which culminated in a major exhibition at the Museum of London. Gabriel describes this as one of the highlights of his career.

“We worked with 15 refugee communities and I contributed to Jenny’s postgraduate course on life history research which she developed to support the training. This ran alongside the collection of oral histories and artefacts to go into the exhibition. It brought together my research and teaching interests as well as my commitment to working with community groups,” he says.

Gabriel wrote some articles based on the oral history interviews and found that while the project provided an alternative history of London, giving a voice to those whose histories are not normally heard, it also provided another striking insight.

“What was interesting listening to the interviews and reading the transcripts was the extent to which a number of the subjects were happier talking about themselves not as refugees but as their role at work, or what they did within the family or their role in the community. They shied away from the label refugee,” he says. That is the beauty of oral history, he adds. “It allows people to represent themselves,” he says.

The MA in life histories did not survive a round of course closures, but Gabriel, alongside Harding, has taught oral history guerrilla-style, introducing it into other courses such as research methodology, communications, work placements, applied ethics and student projects.

The application of his university teaching and research has been an important part of his work – as a sociologist he worked with local authority officers, NGOs, the police and probation services on equality and diversity issues. He says chairing the OHS is a chance to combine his interest in research with his experience of working with local organisations.

So will members see a new direction for the society? “It’s a very successful organisation and whoever comes in as chair has to acknowledge and build on what is already there. In terms of my own style or vision I’m very interested in developing the relationship between research and teaching in higher education and community and public engagement. I’m interested in working across these boundaries,” he says.

Ensuring the continued financial sustainability of the society is also a priority, he adds as well as spending available funds creatively, “which is the fun part!”

Members should expect to see him at events such as the seminars at the Institute of Historical Research, the regional network annual meeting and he hopes to drop in on the odd oral history training course. “I’m very keen to talk to members and hear about their interests and listen and respond to their concerns, and I hope this will be another way I can contribute to the organisation” he says.

Oral history seminars kick off on October 12


We’re delighted to unveil our programme of seminars at the Institute of Historical Research for the next academic year.

The programmes start with a seminar by Rebecca Pearce from Exeter University who will be talking about her research of the historic drought oral history collection. Traditionally, scientists and historians have not collaborated to study the impact of extreme weather events on individuals, however this oral history collection provides an opportunity to look at how individuals interpret historic events and how this affects their views on future risk.

Rebecca’s talk is entitled Building resilience through shuttlework: the positive contribution oral testimony can make to climate risk assessments. It takes place at 6pm on October 12 in the John S Cohen room (203), Senate House (north block), Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.

The seminar is free, open to all and there is no need to book.

The programme for the coming year is as follows (all seminars take place in the same room and same time as above unless otherwise stated):

  • Revising The Voice of the Past: oral history’s role in a changing world
    Joanna Bornat, Open University, and Paul Thompson, Essex University
    November 9 in Senate House south block, room SH246
    Since Paul Thompson’s first edition in 1978, The Voice of the Past has been a classic in making the case for oral history. Nearly 40 years later, the fourth edition, expanded and revised jointly with Joanna Bornat, explores oral history’s worldwide development and activity, continues to argue and explain key principles, proposes reliable approaches and sets out ethical guidance for both new and experienced oral historians. This seminar will be chaired by Graham Smith, professor of oral history at Newcastle University.

    A discount offer for copies is available. We welcome you to this discussion and celebration.

  • The troubles with a lower case ‘t’: memory, deindustrialisation and urban redevelopment in Belfast
    Sean O’Connell, Queen’s University, Belfast,
    February 15
  • With care in the community everything goes: oral histories of people giving and receiving care in Nottingham mental hospitals
    Verusca Calabria, Nottingham University
    March 15

  • Social history without people: capturing the voices of Welsh Jewry
    Cai Parry-Jones, Royal Horticultural Society
    April 19

  • Carry on sergeant: exploring National Service in personal and popular memory
    Joel Morley, University of Essex
    June 14

Losing their religion and the backbone of the church: conference keynotes


In the grand tradition of oral history, the three keynote speakers at this year’s annual conference will be focusing on those whose voices are rarely heard in studies of religion, belief and faith – and, crucially, the lack of it.

Abby Day, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, will be talking about her studies of lay women in the Church of England. These women, born in the 1920s and 30s, were the backbone of their local churches with their roles including opening up the church, cleaning and preparing the altar.

“This generation has been left alone and are mute. In my work I try to get to know them and find out their stories,” she says. “The younger and later generation of women didn’t continue in their footsteps,” she says.

These “invisible and neglected” women have been crucial to the day-to-day running of the Church of England, says Day. During her ethnographic study of these laywomen she immersed herself in their world and observed how, as well as performing vital domestic type-work they offered a quasi-social work service, opening up the church to those who needed sanctuary. She published a book on the subject earlier this year, The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: The Last Active Anglican Generation.

“They kept the church open and kept it vibrant. When they die off their services will die off. Churches will become a lot more closed,” she says.

But while these stalwarts of church life may be noted for their crucial behind-the-scenes work there is a spiritual aspect to their lives, says Day.

“I heard stories of women feeling close to God. They felt they were being called and some had experiences that were spiritual,” she says.

Callum Brown, professor of late modern European history at the University of Glasgow and Tina Block, associate professor in the department of history at Thompson Rivers University in Canada will both focus on the oral histories of those who have lost their faith.

Brown says he is unusual as a historian of religion in that he has no faith and recently “came out” as humanist. He has been working on a project since 2009 investigating how the 1960s generation lost their religion, as secularisation became a more dominant force in Western cultures.

“No one has really looked at this before. A number of US scholars have looked at people who lose religion and find it again but no one had looked at people who lost religion,” he says.

“The classic pattern which affected probably two thirds of my interviewees was that they lost their religion any time between the ages of seven and 18 and then were indifferent to religion, often until later life. They wouldn’t use the term atheist or humanist, some would describe themselves as agnostic,” he says.

The term “atheist” carries negative connotations, says Brown, hence the reluctance of many interviewees to describe themselves as such. In the 1950s, particularly in the United States, atheists  was seen as Communists and traitors.

Humanism is an important part of the journey to losing faith, says Brown, who has recently published a book on the subject, Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West.

“I tell the story of how among the 85 people I interviewed there was a strong humanist end product to their journey from faith. People said to me ‘I discovered I was a humanist but I didn’t know there was a word to describe it,’” he says.

There was a strong element of “emotional equanimity” to the stories of losing faith, says Brown, and for some the “whole process of coming out as an atheist or humanist is a source of quiet satisfaction and in some cases joy.” However, for others, particularly women, the process of losing faith was more traumatic. Women recounted feeling oppressed by the church, particularly the Catholic church, and by the expectations of family. “One woman told how she was at the funeral of her daughter where the priest was talking about her daughter being in heaven and they would be reunited. She said, ‘I didn’t believe a word of it.’”

Tina Block’s research also focuses on those who lost their faith – she interviewed 94 people in four cities in Canada, the vast majority of whom were of white European descent, raised in nominally Christian households. A lot of interviewees talked about instances of hypocrisy in churches or among religious people in their lives.

“For a lot of women that patriarchy of organised religion was a problem. And people also talked of how as children and young people they had a lot of questions about religion and Christianity that weren’t answered,” she said.

However, she added that it was sometimes hard to grasp the journey to losing faith.

“I’m interested in this journey to unbelief. People can talk quite clearly about why they rejected the church but when it came to why they became unbelievers it tended to be a longer journey. For many it was a rejection of the church and then a longer period of not thinking about religion and not coming to an immediate atheist identity,” she says.

Block is interested in how ordinary people view their belief, or lack of it.

“Social and cultural history foregrounds the stories of ordinary people. As a social historian my focus is on ordinary unbelievers,” she says.

“How did unbelief figure in every day life, did it shape their family life, did it affect the raising of their children?” she says.

At the conference Block will also talk about the methodological challenges in studying something which she describes as nebulous. Some people who call themselves unbelievers talk about it in terms of rejecting organised religion but describe themselves as spiritual. However, the word spiritual is difficult to define, says Block.

However, she adds that her interviewees were keen to share their stories of losing their faith.

“They want people to know that atheism and non-believers are here and that they should be more vocal about their presence. There’s definitely that sense of wanting to share their stories,” she adds.

  • Remembering Beliefs – The Shifting Worlds of Religion and Faith in Secular Society takes place at Leeds Trinity University on July 14 and 15. For more information click here.

LGBTQ group announces conference


The OHS’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) special interest group is pleased to be programming the 15th annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference, hosted by the London Metropolitan Archives. The conference, called Talking Back! will take place on Saturday December 2 from 9.30am to 4.30pm.

The day will explore powerful histories expressed through oral recordings, ways of collecting and sharing heritage in community settings and how marginalised histories can be brought into sharp focus through effective oral history practice. The  conference costs £15 (£10 for concessions, including lunch. Please click here to book.

For more information please email ask.lma@cityoflondon.gov.uk or email the LGBTQ group here. 

The first six months of the LGBTQ group have been busy, with the SIG growing steadily both in terms of members and activity. February’s LGBTQ history month saw many group members touring the country to display their research, host talks and workshops and generally spread the world about LGBTQ oral history. 

That landscape is currently being mapped by the group and participation would be much appreciated to make this resource as comprehensive as possible. You can also keep up to date with the SIG via Facebook and Twitter

The dilemma of raising sensitive topics in oral history interviews

bff7a1fa-6ea3-413b-8bd3-1a581fe11e3dIn the latest oral history research seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, Marjolein van Bavel (left), a PhD student at University College London, outlined some of the ethical dilemmas thrown up by her interviews with women who posed as Playboy models.

Van Bavel, whose oral history research focuses on 10 British models, told the seminar that she wanted to avoid the binary narratives of liberation or exploitation so often applied to research on women in the glamour modelling industry. This approach constitutes them as either mere sexual objects and victims or, overly simplistically, as sexually liberated. Although the interviews showed that the interviewees had been exposed to problematic pressures, they also indicated that the women had strategies of navigating these pressures.

Some of Van Bavel’s interviewees recounted solely positive experiences but others dwelled on the negative. One interviewee told how at her first modelling session at the age of 17 she felt powerless to refuse the photographer’s request for her to do more explicit poses than she was comfortable with, an experience she still feels emotional recalling.

Hence, Van Bavel described several of the interviews as emotional and intense experiences for both herself and her interviewees. She said, “I didn’t want to transcribe these interviews. It caused me some emotional labour. It wasn’t about re-listening to difficult experiences – it was the sense of responsibility I had towards the interviewee that weighed on me. It made me wonder about the ethical consequences in asking my respondents to bring up experiences that were hard for them and how I should deal with what they had trusted me with.”

She discussed the difficulties of talking about “sensitive topics”, especially the problem of identifying such topics. She explained that due to their individual as well as relational character, any topic can be a sensitive one and its recounting can be potentially empowering or traumatic, depending on the context of its recounting. Van Bavel said, “I did not want to avoid sensitive topics or prevent the women from exploring more conflicting parts of their stories. But I wanted to avoid manipulating an individual into talking about certain topics.”

Van Bavel’s interviews touched on stories of “stigmatisation, violence and objectification” and one interviewee in particular was very negative about her past experiences as a model.

Nevertheless, Van Bavel said she also wanted to give space to the positive experiences the women had had. She quoted Margareta Hyden, who warned that focusing on the dark side may cause suffering and limit research.

After all, for many of the models Playboy gave these women access to a lifestyle that would otherwise not have been available to them and they had had experiences they still recounted with much joy.

At the end of the seminar it was clear that Van Bavel was grappling with many questions regarding her research. Some interviewees had said that they were happy for their full names to be used but Van Bavel has decided to anonymise them as she doesn’t want to “make them vulnerable to portrayals they’re not happy with”.

And, like so many oral history interviewers she struggled with the power dynamics between interviewee and interviewer. And what was Van Bavel’s role in this? She is a student at UCL, an elite institution by any standards, but as a Belgian does not carry the class baggage a UK researcher might have. She was conscious that she did not want to be another middle-class researcher being critical of working-class women’s choices. “I have come to think a lot about reflexivity: who I am, who are the respondents and what are the power dynamics?” she said.

  • The next seminar takes place on Thursday March 2 and will be led by Tom Harrison, retired psychiatrist and currently PhD student at Birmingham University. Tom’s research focuses on a therapeutic community in north east London and he will discuss how his clinical experience was more relevant than he expected when conducting oral history interviews. The seminar starts at 6pm and takes place at the Institute of Historical Research, in the John S Cohen Room (203), North Block, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU. The seminar is free and open to all.

Reminiscence work training launched


Applications are open for a new training course and apprenticeship scheme in reminiscence arts in dementia care.

The training and apprenticeship, in partnership with the University of Greenwich, will be of interest to arts practitioners, community arts workers, occupational and arts therapists, group workers, reminiscence practitioners and staff from health and social care services.

The course will be led by highly experienced reminiscence arts practitioners and trainers, with input from volunteers and former carers. It will be certificated by the European Reminiscence Network.

The two-day course will be held at the University of Greenwich on March 8 and 9.

There are also up to 10 places for trainees on the above course to join the new apprenticeship scheme to become an accredited facilitator of reminiscence groups.

The apprenticeship scheme involves attending, observing and participating in at least six out of 10 weekly group sessions of the Remembering Yesterday, Caring Today project in central London. These sessions will be held from March 13, on Monday afternoons from 15.30 to 17.30.

The training and apprenticeship scheme are part of a 10-country partnership, supported by the European Union, with a view to extending and sharing the European Reminiscence Network’s recent two-year project, Remembering Together: Reminiscence Training for people with dementia and their family carers.

The two-day training costs £120, and for those joining the apprenticeship scheme, there will be a further £120 fee. There is a small bursary fund so we can offer some places at a reduced rate.

For more information contact Pam Schweitzer at pam@pamschweitzer.com indicating your interest in the training course or both the training and apprenticeship, enclosing a CV.

Launch meeting of the migration special interest group


Inaugural meeting of the migration special interest group and tour of the Refugee Council Archive

Thursday, February 9: 3pm – 5pm

Refugee Council Archive, University of East London.

Oral historians are invited to come together and discuss the role of the migration special interest group and to make plans for the future.

We would especially welcome the opportunity to discuss the role of the group, consider funding opportunities and to seek thoughts and opinions on what our aims and directions should be.

We have an opportunity to apply for research funding and would welcome feedback on what colleagues view as important areas for research within this field.

The meeting will include a tour of the Refugee Council Archive, one of the largest collections of archival materials relating to refugee and forced migration studies .

The meeting will take place on the University of East London Docklands Campus on Thursday February 9 between 3pm and 5pm.  If you know of any colleagues that may be interested in attending this event, please do let us know.

Please contact Paul Dudman on 020 8223 7676 or by email on p.v.dudman@uel.ac.uk for further details.

Diversity, experiment and critical thinking: how oral history has changed over the years


As he steps down as chair of the Oral History Society, Graham Smith reflects on the changing face of oral history

gsmithWhen Graham Smith (left) first became chair of the Oral History Society he says that most of the oral historians in the UK would have known each other. He may be exaggerating somewhat but over his 12-year tenure the Society – and oral history – have changed and grown dramatically.

He first became involved with the Society in 1985 when its main activities were two conferences a year and the publication of the Oral History journal. Now, as well as an annual conference and the journal, the Society runs training courses in conjunction with the British Library, has an active higher education network and has recently launched special interest groups. The dynamic regional network also connects oral historians locally.

“I wanted to open up the Society when I became chair and that was the drive behind the development of the regional network and more recently the special interest groups. I wanted to change passive members into active members,” he says.

However, change is not always easy, he admits.

“We are a successful organisation. We have a large membership, over 900, compared to others in Britain and Northern Ireland. We run a highly-regarded journal – thanks to our excellent editorial team. We organise conferences and seminars. We train hundreds of people every year and provide advice and support through the website and regional network. All this means that we have a lot to juggle. But our success sometimes means we are conservative in development.

“Practically everything that has have ever been proposed to the committee of trustees has been challenged. And quite rightly so. Stuff we now take for granted often started off being controversial,” he says.

Now the Society is looking for a new chair to take on the role at a time when the practice of oral history is changing. When Smith first joined the Society sound archivists and researchers in folklore studies were influential. Now, archives, museums and libraries are facing the axe. Oral history that focuses on memory is much more dominant in academia. Community history projects provide invaluable contributions to Britain’s intangible heritage, especially through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

However, there are challenges to meet. “There is the ongoing casualisation of the oral history workforce in community settings and continuing lack of status afforded to oral history in academia.

“Oral historians who have been made redundant from the public sector have no other option but to go freelance. However, the precarious nature of their jobs means that it is difficult for them to organise,” he says.

“Freelancers need to start arguing for much more permanent money flows. It’s difficult but it’s necessary. But I fear the tide is going against us in terms of community oral history,” he says.

At the same time there is a big rise in demand in oral history from students, demand which has to be welcomed. However, Smith is concerned that universities – with some exceptions – have still to invest in teaching programmes.

“Most have yet to understand oral history as a subject area even when having an idea that it might be good for impact.”

He is delighted to see Newcastle University advertising for a professor of oral history – a key, strategic appointment. “Hopefully that won’t be a rarity,” he says. But too often universities think that oral history can be learned in a two-hour training session, says Smith.

“Where the demand for oral history is coming from is students and younger members of staff. We’re not seeing the OHS top downing on this, we’re seeing this come from the bottom up. What I hope to do after I’ve been chair is to think more about how I can support this development. What does oral history look like as a subject area or even a discipline? What skills, knowledge and attributes do you need to impart at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral level and how do we benchmark this?

“When I started as an oral historian we never claimed to be a discipline. It was based on the idea that this was a method and ‘anyone can do it’. We have to move away from this – oral history is a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult than that,” he says.

He believes the new chair has to have a vision for the society – a vision that may be very different to Smith’s. What’s exciting for Smith now is that despite all his “moaning about universities and freelancers” there are a lot more people engaged in oral history today than when he started out. “There is a lot more diversity, experiment and critical thinking.”

And, as the chair, he gets to see what’s going on, which is a great privilege.

“There’s an extraordinary range of stuff going on. That’s what’s really exciting – you get a scale of the thing as chair. But it’s also what concerns me – can we adequately represent that and represent what can be diverse and competing interests? But then that has been an enjoyable part of my role – balancing, or attempting to balance, the different wings the Society embodies.”

  • If you are interested in becoming the next chair of the Oral History Society click here for more information or email Rob Perks (rob.perks@bl.uk) for a full role description.

First meeting of environment and climate change group


The Oral History Society’s Special Interest Group on Environment and Climate Change (ECC- SIG) held its first meeting at the British Library on 17th November 2016.

The meeting, chaired by Allan Shepherd, who first proposed setting up the group, brought together nine members, including a participant via Skype from Alaska, to share information about their respective research interests and to discuss the way forward for the ECC-SIG.

Discussions ranged from members’ own oral history projects and educational initiatives to current global issues such as the impact of the Paris Agreement, US elections and lack of ice in the Arctic. Speaking via Skype from Alaska, Leslie McCartney, spoke of her work documenting the significant impact of global warming and climate change on the region’s communities that depend on ice for their survival. 

Leslie also emphasised how older archival oral histories were now being sought by scientists studying the current situation of receding ice. This highlighted the need to identify existing recordings that focus on or contain relevant information on environmental issues.

Members are keen to work together and use the ECC-SIG as a forum to share information, collaborate on joint projects and publications and develop innovative and engaging ways to disseminate audio recordings in an effort to raise awareness of the topic. Since the meeting, the group has shared a number of useful links that may be of interest to others:

We are keen to hear from OHS members about their projects and welcome new members to the ECC-SIG. For more information or to join the group, click here.

Beyond text in the digital age: conference report







More than 140 people gathered at Roehampton University on 8th and 9th July for the Oral History Society’s annual conference, this year titled Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral history, Images and the Written Word.

The conference explored innovative and exciting uses of oral history and how media such as images, film and digital technologies are interacting with text.

As ever, this was a truly multidisciplinary and international gathering with speakers coming from as far afield as Finland, India and the United States. The broad scope of the conference theme was also reflected in the range of sessions on topics including: social media; ethics; archiving; materiality; space and place; and the marriage of words and images.

For the first time the conference included a strand focusing on teaching and learning oral history in higher education, as well as sessions focusing on the society’s six new special interest groups. The society hopes to develop both of these in coming conferences.

Tour of old recording formats

The conference started with some disappointment when it was announced that oral history pioneer Alessandro Portelli was unable to deliver his keynote because of illness. Mary Larson (pictured left), associate dean for special collections at the Oklahoma State University Library, who was due to speak on the second day of the conference took over Portelli’s slot.mary_larson_002-283x300

Larson’s talk was an ideal introduction to a conference focusing on oral history in the digital age as she took the audience on what she described as a “tour of an old media warehouse, where we can see the old formats of our misspent youth”.

She began by discussing the dominance of the oral history interview transcript, which, she said, “may have been the most accepted medium in the early days of oral history because it was academically respectable.”

Some practitioners tried to make the transcript more connected to the spoken word by presenting it as poetry or a script but the expense of transcripts meant that by the 1970s and 1980s there was a return to the orality of oral history, with the advent of the more accessible cassette recorder and then, later, the video recorder.

Academic David Dunaway saw each oral history interview as a “specific situated performance”, said Larson. “This is the closest we have come to foretelling what people would start trying to do with digital media later on,” she said.

One of the problems with video and audio in the early days was access, with tapes gathering dust on the shelves of archives. Larson described a tension between context and access. The interview transcript is easy to access but provides little context. Audio and video interviews provide good context, but are hard to access.

However, the advent of mobile technology and the smartphone has signalled “a huge sea change from the academic to the public sphere”, said Larson. She cited the work of Toby Butler and his soundscape walks along the Thames path and that of Annie Valk and Holly Ewald, who worked on an oral history and arts project on a pond in Rhode Island in the United States. Work such as this are beginning to open up the oral history interview to the wider public and offer interesting new ways of interpretation and presentation.

Larson said that new technologies were making practitioners question how to present oral history. A transcript is an accurate record of words spoken; video is good for capturing the interplay between two people.

“But if we going to understand that oral history is an interactive thing which is specifically situated in a time and space, that’s another thing entirely. And it’s going to require us to think differently about how to portray oral histories,” she said.

To listen to a recording of Larson’s speech click on the ‘play’ button below.


Calais “Jungle” refugee camp

The first day of the conference closed with a special event hosted by Aura Lounasmaa of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London, alongside Jan Wheatley, an artist and Katrine Moller Hansen, a student at the centre.

The event focused on the life story course the centre is running in the Calais “Jungle” refugee camp. The course, which runs about once a month , focuses on writing, photography and the study of texts by a range of writers from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama to Plato. Staff from the film studies department have also run film workshops.

The course, which has official accreditation from the university, was the brainchild of Professor Corinne Squire, co-director of the Centre for Narrative Research.

Before going to the camp the course leaders try to get in touch with students to tell them a course is planned. They also contact other organisations in the camp to let them know they’re coming and hand out leaflets once in the camp to drum up interest for the day’s events.

The students are producing a book, published by Pluto Press, which will come out next year and will feature writing, art and photography.

Jan Wheatley, an artist from Margate, Kent, talked about how she became increasingly frustrated at the plight of refugees just 40 miles from her home. She visited the camp and took photographs of its residents which she then turned into artwork.

Ali Ahmed








Because EU law states that refugees must claim asylum in the first European country they arrive in residents in the camp are wary of being identified. Wheatley destroyed her photographs and her artwork focuses on details such as a hand or a pair of boots (see above).

Lounasmaa showed photographs by Gideon Mendel and excerpts from a film made by two asylum seekers, which is being shown at film festivals over the summer. Lounasmaa told the conference how the centre constantly questions the work it is doing in the camp.

“There’s this idea of poverty tourism or aid tourism where we go and rescue someone and it makes us feel better – but it further risks victimising the person we’re trying to rescue,” she said.

She said bearing witness to the situation was a positive motivation.

However, she added, “While we’re being a witness we’re also being a voyeur. What good is a university education when people have no roof, no identity, no shoes and have little future. This is a conversation we keep having. Why are we doing this? And should we do it?”

She added, “For me, one of the main motivations and the way we can struggle against the dehumanisation done by the media is by having a human contact. We look someone in the eye and have a conversation.”

Annual general meeting

On the second day of the conference the society held its annual general meeting. Two new trustees were welcomed to the OHS committee, Amy Tooth Murphy, organiser of this year’s conference, and Julian Simpson from Manchester University.

Delegates discussed freelance pay and OHS secretary Rob Perks highlighted the society’s suggested freelance rates. However, one unintended consequence of the rates is that “the lowest rate is the rate that gets paid”, said Perks.

The society refuses to advertise jobs where the rate is too low and it is in discussion with the Heritage Lottery Fund about freelance pay.

In conversation with…

The society wishes to give a huge thanks to Anne Heimo (pictured below left), chair of the Finnish Oral History Network, and Don Ritchie (below right), historian emeritus of the United States Senate, for stepping in at the last minute to take part in a discussion session on archives.

Anne Heimo, Rob Perks and Don RitchieRob Perks (centre), who chaired the discussion, lamented the sorry state of archives in the UK which he said had been “pretty poor” at looking after oral history material. But he also said that in the push to get new recordings online “we’re in danger of overlooking lots of analogue material that needs to be digitised. We have 10 to 15 years to digitise all the extant analogue recordings”.

Ritchie warned of an over-reliance on the web. “The internet is not an archive. If you’re relying on Google as your archive there’s a problem,” he said.

Ritchie revealed how in the early days oral history recordings in the US archivists would reuse the tape as soon as the transcript was finished so he only record was a written one.

Heimo talked about the Finnish tradition of life writing and how oral history in Finland also encompasses written records.

Closing remarks

At the end of the two days Amy Tooth Murphy, one of the conference organisers, thanked everyone who attended for the “energy and attention” they brought with them. And she summed up the joy of attending an oral history conference.

“They’re great because they’re full of people who like talking to other people,” she said

  • The Oral History Society would like to thank all conference attendees and speakers. A special thanks to: Mary Larson, Aura Lounasmaa, Jan Wheatley, Katrine Hansen Moller, Anne Heimo and Don Ritchie. Thanks also to Vanessa Yu and Julia Noyce from Roehampton University and the conference organisers, Amy Tooth Murphy, Hilary Young, Padmini Broomfield, Sarah Pyke, Emily Mercer, Daliany Kerch and Anne Gulland.

Editors reflect on changing face of oral history over 20 years

OH readerThe Oral History Reader was conceived in 1993 when Claire L’Enfant, then history editor at Routledge, spotted a gap in the market for an international anthology of oral history texts.

She approached Rob Perks, now director of National Life Stories at the British Library, who agreed to take on the challenge with Al Thomson, his co-editor on the Oral History journal. More than 20 years later, Perks and Thomson, now professor of history at Monash University, reflected on two decades of editing the Reader when they launched the third edition of this vital text at an oral history research seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London last month.

The third edition comprises 721 pages and 43 chapters, 27 of which are new. In the seminar Perks outlined the parameters and ground rules he and Thomson have worked to since the first edition.

All the articles must have been published elsewhere first; the chapters include a mix of classic and cutting-edge texts; and no author appears more than once.

Importantly for Perks: “All the pieces have to be readable, accessible and engaging. I’m heavily anti jargon. Theory is fine but it has to be contextualised and has to have grounded examples.”

Despite being keen that the Reader avoids being a “how-to” manual Perks and Thomson have bowed to pressure in this edition and included a piece on how to conduct an interview.

The editors were also keen for a broad geographical spread of voices, avoiding a preponderance of United States authors. The third edition is truly global, including four authors from Australasia, three from Africa, one from Asia and two from Latin America.

Thomson reflected on how much oral history has shifted over the last two decades, with less of a focus on recording unheard voices to more about looking at the meanings of the past and the meanings of the past in the present. There is also a sharper focus on the interviewer/interviewee relationship.

Other new areas include the “crisis” oral history that has emerged since events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Oral history has also been “mainstreamed” into new areas such as science and corporate history, said Thomson.

One of the biggest shifts in the last 20 years has been the growth in digital technologies – when Perks and Thomson began compiling the anthology in 1994 much of their correspondence was by letter.

Thomson also noted the growth in the number of large digital oral history projects, adding that digital technologies give listeners much easier access to the original interview. “Technology is enabling us to return to the aurality of the interview,” he said.

Technology has also enabled oral histories to be displayed and heard in new ways and the Reader reflects the move to place and space-based approaches to oral history via apps and QR codes.

However, Perks said that some interviewees are worried about how easily accessible their words will be.

“The internet has transformed the interview relationship and it’s still too early to understand what the impact will be,” he said.

The Oral History Reader, 3rd edition, edited by Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, Routledge, 2015. For a 20% discount click here and apply the code FLR40 at the checkout.

  • The next oral history research seminar takes place on Thursday January 7 at 6pm. Carmen Mangion of Birkbeck, University of London will be discussing her research in a seminar titled, Commemorative communities and ‘community scripts’: interviewing nuns about the changing dimensions of women’s religious life. The seminar takes place in the John S Cohen Room, 203, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street London WC1E 7HU. For more information click here.