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.

Now online – National Directory of UK Sound Collections

The National Directory of UK Sound Collections and the accompanying Report on the National Audit of UK Sound Collections have now been published online at

Over a period of 20 weeks (from January to May 2015), this survey collected information on 3,015 collections, from 488 collection holders, containing 1.9 million items.

The resulting Directory of UK Sound Collections is now available to download (661pp) and contains details of all collections whose holders agreed to share information on their holdings.

A Report on the National Audit of UK Sound Collections describing the approach and methodology used, and analysing the results of the information gathered is now available to download.

IHR/OHS seminar. Approaching gendered reading through two archives. Amy Tooth Murphy, Shelley Trower

The first oral history research seminar of this academic year will take place this Thursday, November 5.

Shelley Trower and Amy Tooth Murphy of the University of Roehampton will be leading the seminar titled, “She used to get lost in a book”: approaching gendered reading through two archives (Memories of Fiction and 100 Families).

The seminar starts at 6pm in the John S Cohen Room (203) at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU.

Seminars are free and open to all and afterwards there is opportunity for discussion over a glass of wine.

Click here for more information.