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.