Sound and vision blog

119 posts categorized "Oral history"

20 September 2017

Reflections on the clip bank: oral history interview highlights

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Camille Johnston is a Masters student from University College London who recently completed a summer placement working with the British Library’s oral history collections.

When I began my placement with the Oral History section I couldn’t have predicted what I would discover over the summer months. I’ve been granted access to a vast collection of extracts taken from life story recordings which, while providing an amazing insight into the many different collections developed by the department, are also fascinating as items in themselves.

These extracts have been described as the 'best bits' of interviews, and often give the listener a real sense of the interviewee in just a few minutes. However, what is included in the extract – and what doesn't 'make the cut' – is inevitably a very subjective process. These extracts are products of the decisions made by the individuals involved in their creation.

In the following clip there are enough details to give the listener an idea of the context of the interview. We learn about the interviewee's job, his attitude to his work, norms in his profession, and his working relationships. Taken from the collection, 'An Oral History of British Fashion', Michael Southgate (C1046/08) describes the process of choosing models for mannequins and comments on the success of the Twiggy mannequin.

Michael Southgate - mannequins

A lot of work has gone into creating the clips but, because they were seen as ephemeral at the time of their creation, they are not as well documented as the full interviews they were clipped from. The bank is potentially a very useful resource for web and social media promotion but the clips in it need first to be organised, renamed consistently and permission to use each one checked and documented.

The process of taking extracts from recordings for use in exhibitions, public presentations, promotion, teaching, and internal events requires some consideration of not only the intended audience for the clip, and associated concerns relating to access conditions and copyright ownership, but also the implications of sharing only a small section of a life story recording. How can the integrity of the full interview be preserved when all that is presented is a short clip? Can a clip convey the subtleties of mood and expression present in a full length interview? What is lost or gained?

These questions have accompanied me throughout the summer as I’ve explored and audited the Oral History Clip Bank. The clip bank is a folder stored on a shared drive containing over 3,000 extracts from life story recordings. Clips vary from personal reflections, observations, and amusing anecdotes to potentially sensitive sections extracted for review by the department's advisory board.

The following clip is an example of a short anecdote, taken from the collection: 'Food: From Source to Salespoint'. Robert Johnson (C821/10) tells a story about Bill Knapman taking merchant banker visitors into the cold store.

Bob Johnson - the cold store

As part of my placement I’ve produced recommendations for managing and arranging the clip bank, adding extracts to the clip bank, and reusing existing content. This has included recommendations for file naming, the development of a spreadsheet to document information about clips, and guidelines to assist internal clip bank users. To make these recommendations relevant and useful they have been tailored to suit the needs of interviewers working within the department.

Clip bank picThe clip bank and its metadata spreadsheet

Over the three summer months I've met most of the oral history team and have learnt about the different processes involved in producing a life story recording. These processes include the initial research stage and development of interview questions, arranging and carrying out interviews over multiple meetings with interviewees, the process of summarising content in between meetings (and how this helps the interviewer to further tailor questions), ingesting recordings into the digital library system, and cataloguing these recordings. I've also practised editing clips using WaveLab, and explored how clips are shared online and within exhibitions.

Websites that host British Library oral history clips include: British Library Sounds, Voices of Science, Sisterhood and After, the Sound and Vision blog, and the British Library SoundCloud channel. Exhibitions which have hosted clips in summer 2017 include: Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty at the British Library, Artists’ Lives & Chelsea College of Arts: An Audio Exhibition at Chelsea College of Arts, Sephardi Voices at the London Jewish Museum, Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage at the Library of Birmingham and In Their Own Words: Artists’ Voices from the Ingram Collection at the Lightbox in Woking.

There is great potential for existing clips to be shared again and if clips are well documented this process will be much more efficient. The new system for managing clips therefore encourages and supports future access to clips. There are checks in place to make sure clips are not used inappropriately, and the spreadsheet documents all uses of a particular clip to make sure clips are not repeatedly used for similar events. The spreadsheet includes a 'Keywords' field to encourage users to log the different themes covered in clips, promoting more diverse use.

For example, the following clip could inspire ideas for set production, interior design, and the sourcing of materials as well as provide information relating specifically to Derek Jarman's film 'Caravaggio', Andrew Logan's working environment, and the closing of Biba. Taken from the collection 'Crafts Lives', Andrew Logan (C960/87) describes the Butler's Wharf studio space.

Andrew Logan - Butler's Wharf studio

More Clip Bank highlights will be added to the new Oral History Clip Bank playlist as they are discovered. For more oral history news join the team on Twitter.

18 September 2017

Recording of the week: Oldbury – a tour of a decommissioned nuclear power station

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

For nearly 60 years much of Britain’s electricity was supplied by a fleet of eleven Magnox nuclear power stations, built between the 1950s and the 1970s. They were the first series of full-scale nuclear power stations in the world, each built with a pair of nuclear reactors supplying hot steam to a set of turbines to generate electricity for homes and workplaces. While they became the workhorses of the nuclear industry, gradually their numbers dwindled as they reached the end of their design lives and one by one they were decommissioned. North of Bristol, amongst the last to be built was Oldbury, which first went critical on the 18th of September 1967. Switched off in 2012, it now stands silent awaiting the start of a decades-long process that will gradually demolish the station and decontaminate the site. Yet today Oldbury remains much as it was when the station was operational, even if its control rooms and reactor halls seem eerily empty, as Peter Webster, station manager in the 1990s, explains in this video tour of Oldbury recorded last year for An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry

In-depth oral history interviews documenting the lives and careers of those who worked in the electricity industry can be found in the Industry: water, steel and energy collection on British Library Sounds.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

15 September 2017

Open House 2017: Architect Neave Brown on the Alexandra Road estate

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Open House is a great opportunity to explore some of London's architectural gems.  It opens up the city’s architectural heritage and encourages people to interact and explore these great buildings. Architects’ Lives offers another way to explore some of the highlights of Open House.  It offers unique recordings with the creators of these buildings and gives a chance to explore the genesis of some of London’s landmarks.  It also charts the trajectory of some of Britain’s most eminent architects.

CoverAlexandra Road Estate by James O. Davies (copyright English Heritage)

One of the highlights of Open House 2017 is the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate designed by Neave Brown.  It was built during the golden age of Camden Council’s architects department in the 1970s under the leadership of Sidney Cook.  Architect Neave Brown eschewed high-rise for high density using a horizontal street pattern.

Concrete was used for both the structure and the form. A talented group of young architects were working as part of the team: Benson and Forsyth, Eldred Evans and David Shalev and engineers Tony Hunt and Max Fordham.  It was awarded Grade II* listed status in 1993.  Neave Brown received the commission as a young architect after having designed small residential blocks in Camden, in his recording he recalls ‘it was the most astonishing brief ever’. You can listen to his full life story recording at British Library Sounds (C467/113).

Neave Brown on the Alexandra Estate

Working in a similar time period, but in a different London context, Sir Denys Lasdun was also exploring the use of concrete for the Royal College of Physicians in Regents Park. You can listen to his account at British Library Sounds (C467/32).

Royal college of Physicians by Denys Lasdun photo Niamh DillonRoyal College of Physicians by Denys Lasdun (photo Niamh Dillon)

Blog by Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer

13 September 2017

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 1: Oil

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1987 seems like a long time ago. Margaret Thatcher was re-elected for a third term in government, Everton topped the first division of the football league and Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ became the first UK Number 1 available on CD format. In that year Paul Thompson and Asa Briggs launched the National Life Stories Collection.

From its modest beginnings National Life Stories has grown significantly and helped to create one of the largest oral history collections in the world – the British Library holds some 70,000 oral history recordings of which nearly 3,000 are long, in-depth biographical interviews created by National Life Stories. This year we celebrated our 30th birthday by highlighting in our annual review interviews from each of our main fieldwork projects, introduced by someone connected to that project.

SoundArchive_22Feb08-000449Jennifer Wingate, Paul Thompson & Rob Perks, 2008 (Jonathan Jackson, British Library)

We’re using these articles as a jumping-off point for the newest National Life Stories venture, our podcast. Each pod will bring you a conversation between your hosts Charlie Morgan or David Govier and someone else associated with National Life Stories – from interviewers, to curators, to listening service staff, to technical staff who digitize and care for the analogue recordings. We’ll be using our new medium to surface great interview extracts and try to get to the bottom of what we think is special about the life story approach to oral history.

National Life Stories podcast episode 1 - Oil

Our first episode takes us back to 1988 when National Life Stories was only a year old. Piper Alpha was an oil rig in the North Sea, north east of Aberdeen. It suffered a huge explosion on the 6th of July 1988 killing 167 people. National Life Stories worked with the University of Aberdeen on the oral history project Lives in the Oil Industry to document the oil industry. In the course of the project we interviewed survivors of the Piper Alpha disaster and other people who were affected by it. Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator, chatted to Dave about the project.

11 September 2017

Recording of the week: Allan Horsfall and Gay UK

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The other day I stumbled across an interview with Allan Horsfall in our collections. His story means a lot to me. The Wolfenden Report, published in 1957, opened the ground for legal reform but was not implemented by the Conservative government. Allan Horsfall, then a coal board clerk based in Atherton, Lancashire, decided to do something about it.

Allan was recorded in 2009 for the Millthorpe Project (C1405/05) which set out to interview LGBT trade unionists. Allan recalls that in 1966 the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee, of which he was a co-founder, produced and distributed 10,000 copies of a leaflet entitled ‘Something you should know about’ using Allan’s home address for the committee. Allan was then able to use the lack of reaction, revealing ordinary working people’s tacit support, to reassure members of Parliament representing mining constituencies.

Allan Horsfall - There's something you need to know

Sylvia Kölling and I interviewed Allan at his home in Farnworth couple few years later in 2011. The version of the story Allan told that day (Manchester Central Library GB124.G.HOR/4) was slightly different:

Well, I never got any serious opposition. The fact was that Anthony Grey had an office in Shaftesbury Avenue on the third and fourth floor which was locked up when he went home. I, in contrast, was working from home. I was living in a house at that time which belonged to the Coal Board. And when we put out the AGM announcement the local paper did a front page spread with an eight-column headline, which they'd never done before, 'Homosexuals and the Law' and of course everybody thought we'd get our windows put through and all sorts of harassment but we didn't get anything like that at all. No trouble. I was in what was, what had been, a little mining community. All the ... two or three blocks of houses all belonged to the Coal Board. When the mining industry ran down they sold them to the council so they were in fact council houses. My immediate boss [was] the Estates Manager (I worked in the estates department of the Coal Board). Not my immediate boss but the ultimate boss after this big headline appeared giving the address said that since I was doing this thing in Coal Board property wouldn't I have thought it right to consult him first? And I sent him a message back to say that if I had consulted him first he would have said no! He didn't dispute that, and I never had any trouble after that. There was no harassment. It wasn't attacked until it was attacked by some journalist who did a column in the local paper but he didn't get round to it for three weeks after they ran this big headline. I think they thought that there would have been a range of letters from readers objecting to it but there was nothing at all. So they had to put up their tame journalist to attack it in a regular column, which he did, and that didn't bring any response either. So it was a learning curve, really, for everybody, because there were obviously people in the local paper and no doubt in the local council who thought all hell would break loose. But there was nothing at that time at all.

But then what you get depends on what you ask, and how you ask it. And Allan's memories were by that time over forty years old, so it's not surprising if he rehearsed the mechanics of the coal board story differently depending on his audience. However he tells the story, Allan's local experiences serve as a useful counterpoint to the voices you can hear in the Gay UK exhibition talking about the mechanics of lobbying in Westminster in the long fight towards the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

GayUKWhatsOnGay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, free exhibition at the British Library (Images © LSE Library and Peter Tatchell)

It's your last chance to see the free Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty exhibition at the British Library which closes on Tuesday 12 September. The exhibition tells the story of love, legislative change and the battles for equality experienced by gay men and women in the UK 50 years after the Sexual Offences Act.

You can find out more about the Millthorpe Project and many other oral history collections relating to sexuality in our collection guide.

21 August 2017

Recording of the week: being the prize guinea pig

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Jonathan Blake was one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV. An activist for LGBT rights and HIV and AIDS awareness, Blake remembers the circumstances around being diagnosed in the 1980s, what it was like being on of the first people to be diagnosed, his experience of losing friends, and the impact of diagnosis on his outlook on life.

Jonathan Blake on his HIV diagnosis

The interview was conducted by Margot Farnham for the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project in 1991, when Jonathan was forty years old. His full interview (C456/104) is available on British Library Sounds in the Observing the 1980s package, alongside three other Hall-Carpenter interviews: the Greenham Common campaigners Cheryl Slack and Sue King and the feminist Roberta Henderson.

Walking after Midnight - Gay Men's Life StoriesWalking After Midnight - Gay Men's Life Stories by the Hall Carpenter Archives Oral History Group

In the four and a half hour life story interview, Jonathan discusses (among many other things) his family history, upbringing, school experiences, coming out to his parents, Kings Road in the 1960s, his involvement in Gay Pride politics in New York in the 1970s, his acting career in theatre and film, his diagnosis with HIV in 1983 and his decision to live a 'healthy' life.

Funnily enough, he doesn't talk much about his time campaigning for Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners in the years following his diagnosis. But then you can watch the film Pride to find out about that - and read Pride - The Book, just out this month. And you catch up with Jonathan's latest campaigning work over on Twitter.

Come to the British Library's free exhibition Gay UK (hurry - it's only open until 19 September) to listen to many more oral history extracts from the Hall-Carpenter oral history collection.

07 August 2017

Recording of the week: Gay UK - falling in love with peace

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This week's selection comes from David Govier, Oral History Archivist.

The Second World War saw women take on roles that they had not been expected to undertake before. Women moved from the home into factories, ship yards and pivotal roles in war administration. In one of the earliest recordings used in the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition, Mary Wilkins (born 1909) remembers her war experience and reflects on how it informed her identity.

Mary describes how her emotional feelings towards women developed during her childhood. She remembers making a promise to herself, while working as an ambulance driver during the Second World War, to join a peace organisation. She also describes listening to the pacifist and suffragist Sybil Morrison give a speech in Coventry and falling for her ‘hook, line and sinker’.

Mary Wilkins on falling in love_C456/066

This interview extract is part of the Hall Carpenter Oral History Archive which is part of the British Library's Sound Archive. It is a collection of 113 oral history interviews relating to lesbian and gay experience in Britain, and, together with the Hall Carpenter physical archives held at London School of Economics, is one of the largest resources for studying gay activism in the UK. The British Library’s current Gay UK exhibition uses over a dozen oral history extracts from the Hall Carpenter collection to tell the varied stories of a broad range of gay people throughout the twentieth century.


The Hall Carpenter Memorial Archive was established in 1982 and grew out of the Gay Monitoring & Archive Project, which collected evidence of discrimination and police arrests in the UK. The archives were named after lesbian author Marguerite Radclyffe Hall and writer and early gay rights activist Edward Carpenter. In 1985 the archives employed Margot Farnham to coordinate an oral history project documenting the life experiences of lesbians and gay men in Britain. Farnham worked with volunteers who located interviewees, carried out interviews, and helped produce documentation such as summaries and transcripts. In 1989, an anthology called ‘Inventing Ourselves – Lesbian Life Stories’ was published based on the interviews with lesbians.


You can find out more about the Hall Carpenter Oral History Archive and our other oral histories of sexuality in our collection guide.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty is a free exhibition in the entrance hall at the British Library until 19 September 2017.

Follow @BL_OralHistory  and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

03 August 2017

Tesco: an Oral History

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Tesco: An Oral History provides a historical overview of how a company which started from a barrow in the East End of London became one of the most dominant retailers in the world. Over 200 hours of oral history from the National Life Stories project are now available on British Library Sounds.

TIN_composite1Front cover of The Tesco Story: From Barrow to Beijing CD, 2008 © Tesco plc

Thirty-nine in-depth interviews with employees from checkout to Chairman were collected between 2005 and 2007. In this first extract from the CD produced to celebrate the project in 2008, Shirley Porter remembers going to Petticoat Lane where her father Sir John Cohen (who was always known as Jack) had the stall that started it all.

These interviews are life-story recordings, covering all aspects of an individual’s life but with a focus on working life. The oldest interviewee was 82, the youngest 39; and some like Kevin Doherty had spent over forty years with Tesco.  The full 400 hours of recordings were archived with the British Library Sound Archive in 2007 and the archived recordings were used extensively in the book The Making of Tesco by Sarah Ryle. In this extract Mike Darnell remembers a tussle between Jack Cohen and Leslie Porter over a pair of underpants – which proved how well they were made!

Recordings were conducted by Niamh Dillon and Deborah Agulnik either at the interviewee's home, or often at their workplace. While several of those included were retired, the majority were still working and so had to manage the pressure of time against the interview process.  Each interviewee was selected collaboratively by National Life Stories staff and Tesco to cover the chronology of the company from its origins, and for their insights into particular developments.

1960s storeTesco store, 1960s, © Tesco plc

Special thanks must be given to each of the thirty-nine people who took part; often thinking it would take a few hours at most, only to find the tape recorder still running after 10 hours. In these extracts, David Malpas describes the changes in society which led to the growth of out-of-town stores, while Sir Terry Leahy explains the more recent shift towards the company stocking non-food ranges in these big stores.

This was a fascinating time to be recording a history of Tesco and we are fortunate to have had access to those who shaped that process.  Much has been written about Tesco, and many opinions expressed, particularly in the last twenty years, but this is the story told in the words of those who experienced it on the inside. These last two extracts show how Tesco worked at the store level. Lynda Walford remembers how she felt towards her manager when she started out as a cashier in Wales, while Joe Doody recounts how he became a manager thanks to some quick thinking and a very kind head cashier called Flo.

The extracts from the CD provide a quick introduction to the Tesco project and are now available in the Oral History Curator's Choice package while the full-length interviews can be found in the wider Food package. You can find out more about food oral histories more generally in our food industry collection guide.

Tesco: an Oral History forms part of the wider Food: From Source to Salespoint project, which charts the history of the food industry in Britain from the perspective of producers, manufacturers and retailers.  Over the last twenty years, this unique project has gathered life story recordings with people working at every level of the sector. Interviewees include those in the ready-meal, poultry, sugar, meat and fish sectors, employees of Northern Foods, Nestle, Unilever, Sainsbury and Safeway and key cookery writers and restaurateurs.