Volunteering for London Oral history Projects

British Library Sounds Archive webpage

For a while now I’ve been interested in oral history, wanting to learn more about its contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the past. Consequently last year I started volunteering on oral history projects.

Oral history was a practice that was first cultivated by the folklore and linguistic scholars. With the popularity of social history in the middle of the twentieth century, it began to talk to social historians. Oral history was initially seen as a way to discover ‘hidden histories’, to give a voice to the every-man (or woman) in industry or agricultural.

With the cultural turn came a new critical and literary understanding of the technique. Cultural history encouraged the use of oral history, especially as a way to research the everyday, but underlined that it’s value is best realised alongside other sources to help evaluate its reliability and factual content.

Advert for Female Telephonists, Museum of London

Today oral history is used to cover a breadth of people and topics, made all the easiesr by the growing British Library Sound Archive and other smaller archives. It is also extremely popular in museum exhibitions and in community projects, this may be because it is one of the simplest ways to get communities involved and engaged in history. I have been volunteering on such community two projects, based on opposites sides of London to try to learn more.

The first project is Britain at Work: 1945-1995, and focuses on the employment history of ordinary people in the West London area after the Second World War. The idea is to record how ordinary people helped rebuild the country after the War through their jobs as factory workers, teachers, bus conductors etc. It is run by the local history society, HistoryTalk and funded by the TUC, which also leans the project towards an interest in union history, but it is an overwhelming influence.

The other project is a bit different and mainly focuses on an area in East London called the Hackney Cut, part of the canal that cuts away from the River Lee, and now sits in the shadow of the new Olympic Park. This is an artist lead project, so we volunteers conduct the oral history interviews with locals who have memories/experience of the Cut and the artists use them as inspiration for art work. This is run by [SPACE], an arts organisation, based in Hackney that provides studio spaces for artists to work in and exhibit work, and is funded by the HLF.

Olympic Stadium from the Hackney Cut, Jonathan Eudall Nov 2010

Both projects, though quite different in style and focus have one main objective in common, to record a part of history that may otherwise be forgotten or at least not recorded in some way.

Many interviewees ask why their story is important, and it’s my job to explain that in years to come we’ll have the official record of how a company functioned, or where houses were built, but that isn’t the same as an account of the atmosphere of a factory, or why they enjoy living on the canal. The small human details.

Consequently through these projects I feel that I have learnt a lot about oral history, what it is and how it is used. I also feel that I have helped contribute to worthwhile historical projects and through my role as interviewer become a part of those histories.

Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to get involved with these projects, I’d be happy to forward the project coordinators details. It would also be great to hear about any other Oral History projects going on in London, or indeed the country or world!!