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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
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.
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.
the Heritage Bulletin Blog comes to you in the form of our second podcast. As
it’s Explore Your Archive Week
we thought we would treat you to a clip from one
of our oral histories. We're exploring the ideas behind why people volunteer and Mary Gibbons a volunteer in South Wales told the project why girls taking part in volunteering for Duke of Edinburgh got involved and the impact that had.
Hopefully you will then be inspired to visit Archive
Online and explore the Voices of Volunteering
collection for yourself. Clips
and resources based on oral histories are also available on the Voices of Volunteering School Resources page.
who can't listen to the podcast, which I whole heartedly recommend, the
transcript is below.
The Duke of Edinburgh
Award. There was a school in, in Swansea, a girl’s school, and one of the
Masters at the girl’s school had always been interested in Duke of Edinburgh
Award, and he persuaded the Head Mistress there to let him use some of his
pupils for Duke of Edinburgh. Now he was using girls who were challenged. They
seldom went to school, they had got very little home support, they really were
not bright. And he had said to them would they like to do this, you see,
because in Duke of Edinburgh you have to do a certain amount of service. And so
the service was our service, helping out at WRVS Luncheon Clubs for the
elderly, which the girls thought was wonderful. So he sort of said to us ‘Will
you do the rest of it’? Because they obviously had to know all about WRVS and
they had to do a certain amount of, of work with it, so we had said ‘Yes’, and
the girls were good. But the girl, he said to the girls ‘You only go to the
Luncheon Club if you go to school’.
Now truancy was the
thing. So in fact, for the year that we
were doing it there, or for the two years, they went to school every day
because they wanted to go to the Luncheon Club. And we used to go and we would
do lessons with them, but we knew that they couldn't really take things down
because possibly they couldn't write, they couldn't read and it was just very
unfortunate for them. But we, even when it came to the test or, or sort of
making sure they'd got it all, we had an oral rather than a written. Now for
other schools we would do written things whereas with them it was… And we
didn't do the testing at the end, but other people did, and that was quite
amazing because they all got through.
And I can see it now,
we had the Head Mistress was there the last, they, they had to have the
certificates given to them and the badges. And they had got, he had organised a
very special coffee morning. All the girls had been in the day before to help
make cakes and things. And their parents had been invited. And it, she had sort
of introduced the girls, and how superb they had been, and the WRVS had been
doing this and that, and then I had to say something about them because I was
Emergency Services, I had to say something about what we’d done with them. And
then, you know, sort of say, we had given them their things and praise and
And afterwards I was
going round talking to the parents who were there. And I can remember going up
to this dad and his daughter was there as proud as punch, and I said to him
‘Well, what did you think’? He said ‘Oh’, he said ‘how I didn't cry’, he said,
‘I had to take time off work because I never ever thought she would get
anything’. And I thought that was lovely. He’d, he was so chuffed that she’d
got something, you know. you know. Out of all of this, so different, so
different. So it did do very well, and actually he [the Duke of Edinburgh] came
to Swansea on one occasion and we were there, there were two of us, somebody,
Julie, another girl, and the two of us were there with some of our, with some
of us, the school girls. And, and he had talked to them, which was, he thought,
they thought was wonderful. But, no, that was good.
Mary Gibbons Volunteer
Part of an archivist role is to allow access to the archives
they care for, one way of doing this is through outreach work. As many of you
will know here we run a remote enquiry service and cannot allow the public
physical access to our records however we still manage to provide outreach
through online educational resources. Over the years I have found that a lot of
archive outreach programmes focus on history but if in theory we don’t keep
archives for historical purposes why should we only promote them in teaching
that subject? Last year we launched the Voices of Volunteering School Resources; they aim to provide learning materials for educators teaching a
variety of subjects and skills.
Using our resources can actively help pupils to take part in
volunteering and learn how to be good citizens and improve society. Firstly
pupils learn about the role of Royal Voluntary Service today caring for older
people through the memories of volunteers recorded in oral histories. The other
resource discusses how in the 1990s WRVS moved from a Crown Service to a
Charity and how volunteers started to fundraise in their local areas. They aim
to encourage pupils to raise money for the charity in schools. It also uses
some recipes from the Bulletin, volunteers and Civil Defence Cards to inspire
ideas. Both resources focus on Citizenship, English and volunteering using
archives and teaches skills such as planning, collaboration,
problem solving, advocacy, campaigning and evaluation.
The second set of lesson plans encourages students to get involved in debates surrounding
volunteering and citizenship by using oral histories to highlight volunteers
opinions and experiences. The debates include:
- Why do people volunteer?
- What are the benefits of volunteering?
- How has it evolved in over 75 years?
You might be thinking these resources just give students
basic comprehension skills listen to a few short clips and then answer some
questions. However they are more exciting than that; they allow pupils to interpret,
discuss and debate helping them to form their own opinions on how we can
For example we have one resource titled “How does volunteering enhance your life as a volunteer?” This uses volunteers'experiences of working in different WRVS services including Meals on Wheels and Hospital Canteens. Using
these archives pupils on the roles of different types of active or potential volunteers:
They then debate the following topic:
Afterwards pupils reflect on the different interpretations
of the situation and come to a conclusion about how volunteering can enhance people's lives. Using oral histories in this way teaches:
KS3:To describe the roles played by voluntary groups in society, and the ways in which citizens work together to improve their communities
KS4: To describe the different ways in which a citizen can contribute to the improvement of his or her community
GCSE AQA English
To respond to the questions and views of others, adapting talk appropriately to context and audience.
As you can see Archives can be used in
different ways in outreach programmes in a verity of subjects and not just to
answer set questions.
You can see how we’ve used archives to teach secondary
school and further education students about a other topics including: PHSE,
drama, volunteering and history on our Voices of Volunteering resource site.
Well it has been a very busy and exciting few months collecting oral histories for the Voices of Volunteering: 75 Years of Citizenship and Service. It’s been nearly six months since I last added material to our online catalogue so another 20 volunteers’ voices have now been uploaded to the 14 I told you about in the blog post ‘Voices of Volunteering goes online’. We have also added the text transcripts of 15 of the oral histories which are downloadable as Pdfs.
You can now listen to all 35 oral histories on our online catalogue, here is a flavour of what to expect:
Find out from Jill Walden-Jones how the Social Transport Scheme was started in Dyfed in 1974.
Mary Gibbons will tell you what it was like to go on a Children’s Holiday at Atlantic College.
Winifred Simpson talks about her time as a WVS member from 1940-1964 in Coventry when she helped at the Police Station Tea Bar.
What was it like to volunteer in a WRVS Hospital Shop in Scotland? Moira Trotter has the answers.
Sandra Taylor has had many different roles as a volunteer including delivering Meals on Wheels and being a District Organiser.
Sheila Lamont discusses what it was like to be a Services Welfare Officer on the Falkland Islands.
Cyril Barnes talks about helping with Meals on Wheels and Books on Wheels in Melton Mowbray.
Want to know more about WRVS’ Emergency Services work in Cumbria? Pat Gill is the one to listen to.
Setting up a rest centre was all in a day’s work for volunteer of 20 years Jill Fawcett.
Find out what it was like to be a Services Welfare Officer in Fleet, the Falklands, Germany, Cyprus, Blandford, Litchfield, Canada and Abourfield from Jean Crosley-Ingham.
Listen to why Mary Smalley said ‘that started me on what I consider to be, in a way, the most important thing I have done outside my home and family ever’.
Also hear one of our Heritage Champions talk to Peterborough volunteer Diana Setchfield about the Gloucester Centre and the Senior Stop Café.
In other news I now have some company while on my travels around Great Britain in the form of Stella our Royal Voluntary Service knitted doll and you can follow her adventures on Twitter @RVSarchives.