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.


Launch of the third edition of The Oral History Reader

Rob Perks, director of National Life Stories at the British Library, and Al Thomson, professor of history at Monash University, will be celebrating the publication of the third edition of The Oral History Reader, an essential text for both scholars and practitioners, at the next oral history research seminar.

OH readerThis international anthology combines major, ‘classic’ articles such as Alessandro Portelli’s What makes oral history different, with new chapters by oral historians such as Doug Boyd, an expert in digital histories, and Orlando Figes, author of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. The book, whose first edition was published in 1998, has 27 new chapters and includes new pieces on emotions and the senses, crisis oral history, current thinking around traumatic memory, the impact of digital mobile technologies, and how oral history is being used in public contexts, such as in museums and exhibitions.

The Reader also has more international examples than the previous editions, drawing in work from North and South America, Britain and Europe, Australasia, Asia and Africa.

Dr Perks and Prof Thomson will be discussing the editing process, the selection of texts and the changing face of oral history over the last 20 years in a seminar titled Transformations in oral history theory and practice: editing The Oral History Reader over two decades.

The seminar takes place on Monday December 14 at 6pm in Wolfson Room NB01, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU. Afterwards there will be opportunity for a glass of wine and further discussion. The seminar is free and all are welcome. Those who wish to purchase the book at the seminar will get a 20% discount.

For more information about the oral history research seminar series click here.

Hidden Now Heard

The learning disability charity Mencap is halfway through Hidden Now Heard, a three-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. We are collecting oral testimonies from former patients, their relatives, and staff from the long-stay hospitals for people with a learning disability in Wales. We use these stories, and any artefacts, to create temporary exhibitions that are shown across Wales (with the help of an army of volunteers). As a non-heritage organisation we continue to learn a great deal as we go along.

13 copyConsent is always a minefield for oral history projects, especially one that could uncover disturbing memories, contentious accounts and potential cases of historical abuse. We separated the issue of consent from assigning copyright, as there will be question marks over former patients’ capacity to consent. We have an easy-read form that gives people as much chance to customise their experience as possible. Interviewees can choose to be recorded on video or audio, they choose the location of the interview, they can bring a friend to support them and decide how their interview will be used.

We are still wrestling with how to communicate that our project doesn’t have a particular agenda; we don’t want to uncover abuse or pretend that the hospitals were all happy places. We want the truth, and we don’t know what that is. We have conducted interviews with nine former patients to date (November 2015), and 22 members of staff. Whilst life expectancy is undoubtedly a factor we often feel that information about our project is either being ignored or not passed on. Former patients may not want to take part but we would prefer to hear that from patients themselves.

Former staff are also cautious. They are interested in our exhibitions and interviews, but not about speaking about their own past experiences or involvement. They may be worried about present public perceptions of past practice. What our exhibitions always try to communicate is that it is the system that should be judged, not the individuals.

One clear example of this is with how tea was served: from one pot that contained milk and sugar, regardless of personal preference. This shows how patients were robbed of the chance to make even basic decisions for themselves. However, staff tell us that they were under great pressure, with often just a couple of staff having to change 20 beds then feed and bath 20 patients.

18 copyDespite the challenges our exhibitions and oral histories have been well received. They uncover stories of dedicated staff working to change a flawed system from within, often by making small change, like serving tea to someone’s personal preference. But they also show an impersonal system, exemplified by the minutes from a meeting in 1971 where staff debated the merits of patients having ‘personal identities’.

Whilst we only have few patients’ stories they are the most eye-opening. They detail friends, romances, work and the times they would run away to the pub. Whilst they never wish to return to institutionalised care, patients had happy recollections of staff or individual moments. In some respects they had more freedom, especially to roam large grounds, that they don’t have today in the community.

Our exhibitions try to be inclusive and we have tried to come up with new ways of displaying oral histories. We embedded stories in a toilet cubicle (pull the flush to hear more). We put a teapot on display which, when it was lifted, played recollections of tea time. Our best received idea was the ward bed; a pressure sensor is fitted under the sheets which plays recollections about privacy and bedtime through a pillow in the speaker.

Sadly, due to issues around capacity and the age of former patients none are able to consent to their interviews being available online or via social media, but from 2017 they will be in St Fagan’s National History Archive in Cardiff. You can listen to full interviews with former staff on our podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes (search for ‘Hidden Now Heard’), you can also access them at

To keep up to date with developments from the project you can follow us on twitter @hiddennowheard or at

Paul Hunt

Celebrating disability history


This month (November 22 to December 22) is UK Disability History Month and the Oral History Society would like to raise awareness of the many rich collections and projects recording the life stories of disabled people.

Some examples are given below, but we are aware that this is only a tiny proportion of the work going on. Please send details of your work to include on the member projects section of our website. To submit your project click here.

We will also be featuring extracts of interviews with disabled people on our Facebook page throughout the month and would be delighted to include any sound clips. We will, of course, link these back to your own website. If you have ideas for how the OHS can do more to support projects focusing on disability history then email Sarah Lowry:

Hidden Now Heard is a three-year project run by Mencap Cymru, recording the memories of residents and staff of six long stay hospitals in Wales, the last of which closed in 2006. The exhibition will tour to six museums, and there will be a permanent display of the project’s research at The National Museum of Wales. To read more about the project and some of the issues the leaders are grappling with click here.

The Disability Voices Collection at the British Library is a collection of recordings including, Speaking for Ourselves, an oral history of people with cerebral palsy, Unheard Voices, interviews with deafened people, and interviews with Paralympians, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and Danny Crates.

Share – The Deaf Visual Archive developed by the British Deaf Association, features hundreds of fascinating short films showing a range of activities activities organised by the deaf community. A recently created feature length documentary, Power in Our Hands, drawing on both archive footage and new interviews, will be touring the UK in 2016.

One Door Closes Another Door Opens is a publication by Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop about the life of Tom Atkins, who contracted polio at three and spent the next seven years isolated from his family.

The Open University’s Social History of Learning Disability Research Group researches and disseminates learning disability history. Its website includes information on their fascinating projects, many of which include the recording of oral histories. It also lists books and articles published by group members, recent news, and details of upcoming conferences.

How was School? is an Alliance for Inclusive Education project, designed and delivered by disabled people, that highlights disabled people’s experiences of education over the past 100 years. The project’s website includes multiple extracts from interviews, a school pack and worksheets. The full interviews can be accessed at the British Library.

100 Years, 100 Voices celebrates the centenary in 2015 of the charity Blind Veterans in the UK. The website includes readings of historical material as well as extracts from new recordings.

She used to get lost in a book: oral history seminar write up

Shelley Trower and Amy Tooth Murphy of the University of Roehampton led a fascinating seminar at the Institute of Historical Research last month where they discussed Memories of Fiction, an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on oral histories of reading.

Dr Trower said the project, which is conducting oral histories of reading groups, will provide a new kind of resource, differing from the many interviews with authors.

“The project ties in with a growing interest among scholars of literature from the 1970s onwards, when there was a shift in interest in the author as creator of a book to the reader creating meaning,” she said.

Dr Tooth Murphy has carried out most of the 50 interviews, with members of reading groups affiliated to libraries in the London borough of Wandsworth. The project team has been comparing these findings with discussion of reading in the 100 Families oral history project. This project was conducted in the 1970s and interviewees were asked a whole range of questions about their family lives and growing up – reading formed only a very small part of the interview.

The team has been using NVivo software to analyse the transcripts of the older interviews. NVivo enables researchers to conduct qualitative analysis of large datasets by entering keywords or “nodes”. The software has been described as enabling “perfect objectivity” – a view that Dr Tooth Murphy disputed.

“You can very often see what you want to see if you are hellbent on finding certain information,” she said.

The archive revealed that reading was a “gendered” act, said Dr Trower, with women most often said to read fiction and men to read non-fiction. Interviewees discussed their mothers’ reading habits, which were described as indiscriminate, escapist and compulsive – often getting in the way of domestic duties. One interviewee described his mother neglecting to make his tea because she was “lost in a book”. Fathers’ reading, on the other hand, was said to be much more directed and purposeful – they would read newspapers or gardening and car manuals.

Questions after the seminar focused on the contemporary interviews. Most members were middle class women, whose main motivation for joining was the lure of free books. Sarah Waters and Jodi Picoult were popular authors, with Waters bridging the gap between the “mainstream and ‘proper’ fiction”, said Dr Tooth Murphy.

There was another trend among the interviews. “We come from a university to talk about books so they tend to reel off the classics. But then they fill in the gaps later,” she added.

Interestingly, few of the readers mentioned books as being life-changing or providing moments of epiphany. Dr Tooth Murphy surmised that this may be because of the socio-economic background of their interviewees.

“When people talk about transformative fiction it’s often because they have needed to find something in fiction, for fiction to explain something about the world,” she said.

  • The next seminar is a celebration of the third edition of the Oral History Reader – a seminal work in the oral history canon – led by its editors Rob Perks and Al Thomson. This will take place on Monday December 14 at 6pm in Wolfson Room NB01, Basement, Institute of Historical Research, North Block, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU. Afterwards there will be opportunity for a glass of wine and further discussion. The seminar is free and all are welcome. Please note that this takes place on a Monday, rather than the usual Thursday. For more information click here.

Insurance offer for OHS members

The Oral History Society has teamed up with Bluefin Insurance Group to offer a special rate to members for both professional indemnity and public liability insurance.

The society strongly advises all freelance and self-employed oral historians to take out indemnity insurance to protect them at work.

The special deal gives OHS members access to premiums from as little as £16.25 per month for £100,000 professional indemnity cover and £1,000,000 public liability cover.

Bluefin have also arranged an interest-free payment facility for members to spread costs over a 12-month period.

All Bluefin clients gain access to a number of telephone advice lines as standard. These helplines offer tax and legal advice along with counselling and medical advice.

Bluefin is a national top 10 insurance broker with more than 50 offices throughout the UK offering businesses and individuals insurance and risk management advice.

For more information please contact Bluefin directly on 0345 8944684, download the quote pack here or email Please mention the OHS in the email to get the special rate.