What’s that sound? Oral History and Archives

Between 2014 and 2016 Royal Voluntary Service worked on its Voices of Volunteering project. Its aim was to collect up to 80 oral histories, which capture the memories and recollections of people who have volunteered and worked for the Royal Voluntary Service and make them accessible in a number of ways and introduce new volunteers known as heritage champions to Royal Voluntary Service and oral history. Throughout the project I don’t think we ever explained on the Heritage Bulletin Blog what oral history was and how it shapes archives and archivists.

What is Oral history?

The basic definition of oral history is that it is the collection of memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. However this includes many elements including preparation of interview questions, building an interviewer and interviewee relationship, recording the interview, archiving it, cataloguing, writing transcriptions, making it accessible and interpreting the information for other to use. In essence there is a whole project behind the words oral history.

How is an archive based oral history project run?

Talking from experience oral history projects based in archives is not just the collection and archiving of the interviews it is much more than that. Voices of Volunteering: 75 years of citizenship and service was a pioneering oral history project bringing the voices of WVS, WRVS and Royal Voluntary Service volunteers to life. Generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, over two years Royal Voluntary Service professionally gathered 80 oral histories from past and present volunteers from every part of Great Britain; stories told in their own voices and own words, of their contribution to the largest voluntary organisation in British history. Run by the Project Archivist this also involved training and collection of oral histories by volunteers called heritage champions, cataloguing and preserving oral histories, creating school resources and holding an end of project event in Devizes. You can find out more about the project here.

Archivists and oral history

In the past oral history would have been the preserve of the historian choosing who to interview for a specific research project and later depositing those interviews in an archive somewhere where they might be catalogued in the future. Today with the growing trend of archivists expanding their role in the heritage and information world many archives are taking on their own projects. Many of these archives seem to represent those whose histories are usually hidden or underrepresented in the public domain or to fill in gaps in the history of an organisation or to save current knowledge before it disappears forever.


While Jenkinson said that archives were not “collected” but “came together and reached their final arrangement by a natural process”. Schellenberg argued that the modern archivist “had a definite need to redefine archives in a manner more suited to his own requirements”. Schellenburg emphasised the historical relevance of keeping records, perhaps after the time of these two pioneers archivists have moved on to develop this aspect. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for archives in increasing access to archives and providing innovative outreach projects to take on the role of a historian or work on a project with one to create archives for their repository. It’s all part of the merge of the many roles in the heritage and history industry.

Oral history is just one of the many projects where archivists roles are expanded and their skill sets changed. This isn’t just in the collection of oral history and learning interview skills but also back in the more traditional role as preserver. Over the years sound has been recorded in many formats; archivists used to focus on preserving a physical format such as vinyl or cassette tape but now along with more “traditional” born digital archives oral history has moved on to the digital plying field and archivists must learn to preserve, migrate and make accessible these formats such as WAV and MP3. It’s an ever changing world which archivists must stay ahead of and oral history has had an effect on.

Conclusions
Oral history is not just a recorded interview it is a recorded interview with an entire project behind it archiving, making accessible and interpreting that recording. The project is run with many elements including heritage, community, education and preservation. They are planned out and celebrated as well as being funded either internally or externally. No longer just the preserve of historians they have developed into a trustworthy and reliable source of expanding our knowledge of historical events. Oral history is never simple it’s a complex and has many layers to it which is helping to develop the role of an archivist in the modern world.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 00:00 Monday, 02 July 2018.

Labels: Archives, Oral History, Voices of Volunteering, Theory, sound

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