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.