1. Introduction

Before preparing this booklet on the practice of oral history, I seriously considered whether there was any need which could justify my adding yet another such publication to the already substantial and rapidly growing body of literature on oral history. Whether it does meet any need will only become known after the circulation of the work. There did, however, seem justification for such a publication as this.

A major justification is that all comparable existing texts are of American provenance. Those publications - among which the works of Willa Baum and William Moss are perhaps the best known1 - reflect oral history's mode of development in North America. There, the main preoccupation has been 'to obtain, from the lips of living Americans who have led significant lives, a fuller record of their participation ... in political, economic and cultural life.'2 By contrast the oral historian in Britain has very largely been concerned with the social history of urban and rural working class groups and communities: 'He moves among the generality of the population, noting and recording prejudices and reactions ... to garner human experience in all its richness'. 3 Different principles have produced different practices and some of these will be reflected in the following pages.

Thus, this work is intended as a practical reference source for those to whom the British experience may be more appropriate than the American model and - for more general interest - simply as a counterpoint to the other comparable publications available in this field.

This manual has also been compiled as a step towards the codification of disciplines which are of particular relevance to museums, libraries, archives and other collecting centres. One feature of oral history in Britain is that much of the important early work and nearly all of the published literature has been produced by university historians whose main concern has been with their own research and publication. As a result the bulk of the published commentaries have focused on those aspects of oral history that most naturally interest academic historians such as, for example, research methodology and the evaluation of oral evidence. With the growing involvement of libraries and archives (whether through the establishment of creative recording programmes or by way of receiving recordings and transcripts which others have produced), it is opportune to provide a publication that may be of practical value to collecting institutions which have to come to terms with the specialised housekeeping problems which apply to oral history materials.

So An Archive Approach to Oral History provides a body of professional method for oral history librarians and archivists. The practices which have been developed in my Department during the past six years may help to set standards and provide conventions which can eventually be developed into a code of professional practice of the kind which has been long established for the administration of traditional records.

A third consideration, in addition to the national and institutional factors, contributed to the compilation of this work. The importance which my Department attaches to the medium of recorded sound has fundamentally influenced many of the methods we have developed. This emphasis is not typical. In North America methods are - with important exceptions4 - still generally orientated to the production of the oral history transcript, which is widely held to be the product to which recording programmes should be geared. In Britain, the domination of the transcript is not nearly so strong but technical standards and knowledge here are also generally and unnecessarily low. Many individual practitioners and collecting centres are conscious that well-recorded oral history interviews have particular qualities and applications which can be exploited in various interesting and valuable ways. For those, whose main concern is the creation and administration of oral history sound recordings, this publication may be more useful than other works whose emphases have been differently placed.

Several sections of this manual are based on papers originally drawn up as working procedures for my Department. When the Department began its oral history programme in 1972 there were very few established professional practices sufficiently well suited to our needs to warrant imitation. 5 In nearly all cases, therefore, we designed and developed our own procedures, frequently revising and refining them in the light of growing experience and not a few false starts. The methods described in the following pages have stood up fairly well to the test of ten major recording projects in such varied fields as military, naval, air, industrial, agricultural, medical, welfare and art history. They are consistently applied in an archive which now holds more than three thousand recorded hours of material.

The theory of oral history has not yet been formed into a generally accepted orthodoxy. Perhaps it never should. Most authors in the field, however, make some attempt at definition and evaluation of oral history, and the present writer is also unable to resist the same temptation. A simple and probably uncontroversial definition is that oral history is formed from the personal reminiscences of people who were participants in or witnesses of the events or experiences they recount and - by present conventions - information which is obtained by interviewing methods and recorded verbatim by one means or another (though in practice now almost invariably on magnetic tape). Beyond this functional definition there are a number of differences of emphasis. For some practitioners oral history must be research directed; for others it must be archivally focused, in the sense of collecting generally whatever information informants may have to offer; some oral historians see the value of the information recorded as directly related to its proximity in time to the events covered; while others hold to the belief that the oral tradition communicates accurate and valid data across decades or even centuries. Such differences illustrate the range of approach and account for varying definitions.

Having briefly considered the method, what of the material? What is the status of oral history records and wherein lies their value among the various other classes of historical source materials? It will be argued that oral history records provide three major categories of information, which can be described as sensory, complementary and original. The concept of sensory information may not be recognised or considered as a characteristic of historical documentation (except perhaps by the media), but the oral qualities contained in sound recordings have their own special value and it is one which is distinct from the communication capabilities of any other record form. In this respect the essence of the information is in the medium which carries it, as well as in the information itself. Oral history's ability to affect the feelings as well as the intellect, gives an essentially human underlining to the facts that the recording also conveys. The value of such sensory information may be measured in relation to the degree of additional understanding of historical experience that the oral history record imparts. Above and beyond what can be discovered from other sources about the same experience, recorded sound carries its own unique dimension of information.

Oral history records are also of value in that they can be created and used to complement other record sources. In the field of biographical research, for example, historical gaps of interest and importance are frequently found which can be filled by using oral history methods to create records which otherwise could not be made available. Similarly, when research otherwise might have to be confined to using administrative documents, the personal and anecdotal characteristics of recorded interviews can provide flesh for the sometimes arid bones of history. In this respect it is apposite to quote a former Keeper of the Public Records who, in a similar connection, identified as limitations of Cabinet Office records that they are 'deliberately prepared objectively and impersonally, and designed to record agreement and not promote controversy; [but] behind many of the decisions [lie] tensions and influences which are not reflected in the official records'.6 The value of personal testimony for amplifying such records has been assessed by one of the outstanding historical writers of the 20th century in the following terms: '[history should be] tested by the personal witness of those who took part in the crises and critical discussions ... The more that any writer of history has himself been ... in contact with the makers, the more does he come to see that a history based solely on formal documents is essentially superficial'. 7

The third contribution of oral history is that it can open fields which otherwise would be closed to historians and, in this respect, provide information which is original in character for distinct subject areas. For studying many social and occupational groups which do not leave written records of their lives and work, oral history is a fundamental and sometimes the only tool. In terms of historical research, it is in this area that oral history can make its most substantial contribution.

For further information an important assessment of the value of oral evidence is available in various books by George Ewart Evans 8 and a continuing dialogue on oral history research methods can be found in Oral History. 9 Further definitions of oral history, assessments or oral evidence and aspects of methodology can be found in the publications listed in Chapter 13.

  1. Baum, W. Oral history for the local historical society; Nashville, Tennessee: American Association for State and Local History; 1969.
    Moss, W. Oral history program manual; New York: Praeger Publishers; 1974.
  2. Nevins, A. The gateway to history; New York: D. Appleton-Century; 1938.
  3. Marshall, J. 'The sense of place, past society and the oral historian' in Oral history, Vol. 3, No. I; 1975, p. 23.
  4. The Public Archives of Canada and the Provincial Archives of British Columbia are among the important exceptions to this rule.
  5. The School of Scottish Studies (University of Edinburgh) and the Welsh Folk Museum were two centres which provided inspiration if not - by virtue of their subject fields - practices directly suitable for emulation.
  6. Wilson, S.S. The Cabinet Office to 1945; London: H.M. Stationery Office; 1975,p.4.
  7. Liddell Hart, B.H. The real war; London: Faber and Faber; 1930, p. 10.
  8. Evans,G. Where beards wag all; London: Faberand Faber; 1970.
    Evans, G. The days that we have seen; London: Faber and Faber; 1975.
  9. Oral History is the journal of the British Oral History Society; for subscription and membership details contact Mary Girling, Department of Sociology, University of Essex, Colchester, Essex, England.