Audio Publications

Commercial audio publications based on spoken word recordings have not been particularly numerous or successful. The notable exceptions have mostly used recordings of eminent speakers dealing contemporarily with great events.1 This application for oral history recordings, like that of radio broadcasting, has not been much developed. There are, however, some reasons for believing that energetic pioneering by the collecting centres themselves may be justified, at least in the educational field.

A process which has been concurrent with developments in oral history, is the changing attitudes of educationists to the schools' history syllabus. Increasingly, the trend in modern history teaching has been to emphasise less the records of governments, international disputes and great leaders, and to concentrate more on social change and the history of people with whom most of us can more directly associate.

For many aspects of history teaching the traditional reliance on books will undoubtedly continue. In the Imperial War Museum's field of study, for example, there is no shortage of teaching materials relating to the politics, strategy and military tactics of the First World War. What is more difficult to obtain from and communicate through printed sources, is the way in which the war affected the day to day lives of ordinary people at that time. What did the soldier eat at the front and how was the food issued and prepared? What personal health and hygiene problems were created by the acute and persistent physical discomforts of life in the trenches? What was it really like to be weighed down by the enormous loads which footsoldiers had to carry on their backs and in their hands, and how did these burdens affect their ability to carry out the tasks which were set for them?

Answers to questions of this kind are basic components of history and it is this quality of information in which oral history recordings are particularly rich. For example:

'We had this BF wireless set No 1. This was about the size of a table sewing machine but very much heavier. It had a leather strap over the top for carrying. It was made of teak, ebonite and brass; it weighed a ton. To get the signals going we had to have a big accumulator. It was big, heavy and very awkward to carry. So that was two things that were terrible awkward to carry. There was a roll of brass mat or it might have been copper -that was an earth mat. That as 1 remember it was about thirty yards long. Then we had two sets of tubular masts. They were eighteen feet masts; six lengths of three feet. And aerial wire; 1 think that ran to about sixty yards -but where we were going to put sixty yards of aerial wire in the trenches, 1 don't know. Then we had stanchions. We had loads and loads of dry cells for operating the receiver. We had ropes. Mallet of course and pegs.

'I think that was the entire wireless equipment but our own personal equipment was terrible because we were in what was called "battle order". Which meant that we had our overcoats on; we had a blanket rolled and twisted over our shoulder; we wore bandoliers with sixty rounds; we had a rifle on our back; we had a gas mask on the front; we had iron rations in a pocket in the tunic and we had first-aid kit in our pockets.

'So one way and other it was terrible difficult to move with all the stuff, particularly when the officer assembled us and said "Now right, Neyland and Sellers you're the operators, you’ll take this and that". We had four infantry men and they were all clobbered up with similar battle order and they found it difficult to get a roll of wire or whatever it was under their arms.

'We started off as well as we could to giving an even share but during the trip across No Man's Land, into shell holes and out of them, down into trenches and up the other side, these infantry chaps - they were quite boys, they were only eighteen years of age and some of them were crying - they had to be relieved of their loads, you see. And it was hard going because in addition to carrying these loads through mud-filled shell holes and taking cover  -such as it was - whenever we could, because there was shrapnel falling above our heads all the time; so that although we started off with the best of good will in the world by the time we finished some of us were carrying more than our allotted weight of stuff while others could hardly carry themselves across'. 2

Not only is the subject content of many oral history recording projects relevant to current teaching needs but their medium of recorded sound offers practical teaching benefits. Through the immediate quality of the spoken word, the common experience is most effectively highlighted. With a short tape a wealth of experience and understanding can be conveyed, which the teacher himself would take longer to communicate second hand and very much less effectively.

Academic historians - for all their subject expertise - may not, however, be sufficiently sensitive to current curriculum needs and the practical problems of the classroom to produce the most relevant audio teaching aids from their archive collections. For its part the collecting centre is seldom equipped or qualified in the fields of marketing and distribution (or able to accept the financial risk involved in publishing) to make a success of this kind of venture. Audio-visual publications are, however, being increasingly carried by major educational publishers, and cooperation with such commercial organisations is probably the safest and most effective way to develop the use of oral history materials in this field. Recent experience suggests that educational publishers are alive to the teaching potential of archive collections and if current experiments3 prove to be commercially viable the way may be opened to substantial use of oral history in the classroom.

  1. An outstanding example of commercially published spoken word recordings is: Churchill, Sir W. His memoirs and his speeches; Decca (WSC 1-12); 1964.
  2. Neyland, B.: oral history interview: IWM Ref. 318/08/04; 1974.
  3. The first such studio publication in Britain to be based entirely upon oral history recordings is: Western front; compiled by Tony Howarth; London: Longman (in association with the Imperial War Museum); 1978.