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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.