THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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158 posts categorized "Oral history"

30 July 2018

Recording of the week: painting people blue in Hull

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This week's selection comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Husband and wife, Kārlis and Shirley, talk about the magical experience of being part of photographer Spencer Tunick's 'Sea of Hull' installation in which 3,200 people volunteered to take off their clothes, paint themselves blue and stand in front of Tunick’s camera in Hull city centre in the early hours of the morning one day in 2016. In this extract they describe how being part of this collaborative artwork changed the way that people interacted with each other in public space, how they dealt with the cold, the amazing sight of 3,000 neat little piles of clothes and the difficulty of showering off the blue paint in the changing rooms of Hull ice rink. Later in the conversation they discuss how Hull was the place where Kārlis first arrived in the UK as a child refugee from Latvia and that this made their ‘Sea of Hull’ experience particularly poignant.

The Listening Project_painting people blue in Hull (excerpt)

 

Karlis and Shirley

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Kārlis and Shirley can be found here.

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24 July 2018

Dangerous Oral Histories: Risks, Responsibilities and Rewards

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Riddel hall
Riddel Hall, Queens University Belfast

On 28 and 29 June this year, over 200 people gathered at Queens University, Belfast to discuss and debate Dangerous Oral Histories: Risks, Responsibilities and Rewards. This first joint conference hosted by the Oral History Society (OHS), the Oral History Network of Ireland (OHNI) and the QUOTE hub attracted academics, community group representatives and individuals with a personal passion for oral history from places as widely spread as Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Mexico and South Africa. The programme was bursting at the seams – plenary and dynamic presentation sessions, interactive workshops and 100+ speakers filling out 24 panel sessions held across the two days. This was the first time I had attended the Oral History Society’s annual conference and I was particularly struck by the professional organisation and delivery of the whole event. There were high levels of interest in, and support for, everyone’s contributions. A really inclusive environment for budding and expert oral historians alike.

It’s hard to summarise such a mammoth event in a couple of paragraphs, so this blog focuses on my takeaways from the conference. It includes references to sessions I attended and replays a number of quotes picked up from other attendees that I spoke to.

Contributors put forward diverse definitions of danger. Topics included physical, psychological and emotional danger that recalled genocide, abuse and conflict, across political, social and religious boundaries. Presentations on oral history methodologies and governance highlighted danger by identifying the risks associated with individuals’ privacy, the future use of recordings and their safe storage. Ethical dilemmas were aired, such as how to protect the vulnerable without ‘flattening out’ their testimonies from the historical record. Not unexpectedly, the new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) popped up everywhere; discussion and debate that will inform evolving guidance of the legislation and its implementation.

Risks of archiving
... the risks of archiving dangerous oral history for public access.

Over two days, in formal settings and during networking opportunities, we reveled in the excitement of oral history, the historical method that exposes us to illuminating and inspiring challenges. For example, when we are engaged in Recovering evidence, disrupting lives? The risky business of uniting archival evidence and oral history, or when a project participant on The Journey to Recovery: Narratives of Addiction asserts that they are being asked the wrong questions if the researcher really wants to get to the crux of the issue. We evaluated the value of oral history, ‘a powerful history’. Its ‘moral force’ enables us to ‘uncover hidden voices’ across nation states, in government institutions and within the home. Panel sessions such as Exploring Difficult Oral Histories of Families and Women, Trauma and Silence allowed access to historical sites not usually visited by empirical historical methods. Fluid memories in a fixed museum: Remember Bhopal Museum, India was just one example of how recording and airing individuals’ subjectivities challenges listeners to ‘re-evaluate dominant narratives’. We also considered the legacy of oral history; the rewards that can be reaped by future generations if researchers navigate their way through the wishes of interviewees, and the requirements of GDPR to manage the risks of archiving dangerous oral history for public access.

The unique and rich nature of oral history testimony was continuously and consistently reinforced during the conference. At the same time, all delegates were reminded of the methodological issues that surface on a regular basis. With social events before, during and after the conference, everyone went home with minds, eyes, vocal chords and limbs invigorated, but perhaps also desperate for a quiet weekend.

For more highlights of the conference, check out #DangerOH18

Sue Bishop is a student of the ARHC-funded Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. She is studying History with the University of Leicester’s School of History, Politics and International Relations.

26 June 2018

Fulton at 50: how civil service reform affected government scientists

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On 26 June 1968 Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced to the Commons the publication of the Fulton Report, the outcome of the first major inquiry into the civil service for more than 100 years.

Fulton front page

Fulton committeePhoto credit: Contemporary Record, 2 (2) 1988, p.49

The committee, appointed in 1966 to examine the service’s structure, recruitment, training and management, were a mixture of senior civil servants, MPs, academics and representatives from industry and the trade unions. Their task, according to Wilson, was to “ensure that the service is properly equipped for its role in the modern state”. One of the criticisms of its scope was that it did not look at the relationship between Ministers and their civil servants, the focus of a recent report from the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

Here Fulton committee member Norman Hunt describes the work of his team 1:

Norman Hunt (M5929)

Out of this intense scrutiny exercise came a list of 158 recommendations, the sheer volume of which hindered the report’s implementation. Some were promptly put into effect, such as the creation of a Civil Service Department and enhanced training provision through a Civil Service College, while others, for example the hiving-off of public services, took decades to filter through.

One of the report’s conclusions was that “many scientists, engineers and members of other specialist classes get neither the full responsibilities and corresponding authority, or the opportunities they ought to have.”2 The civil service was built around a framework of vertical classes which inhibited the movement of specialists into the upper tiers. Consequently, management of the civil service was concentrated in the hands of generalists who rose up through the administrative class.3

Lord Fulton (T5341)

One of the more immediate changes post-Fulton came with the introduction of a unified grading system aimed at bringing coherence across the classes. This created resentment among some civil servants who felt they had been downgraded. Anthony Kelly, a materials scientist working at that time at the National Physical Laboratory, is one example.

Fulton person 1Photo credit: The British Library

Anthony Kelly (C1379/54/12)

Nevertheless opportunities for career progression opened up as a result of the report. Roger Courtney, who was to become director of the Building Research Establishment, appreciated the changes that came out of it.

Fulton person 2Photo credit: The Building Research Establishment

Roger Courtney (C1802/01/09)

For him, the new Senior Professional Administrative Training Scheme (with its memorable acronym SPATS) led to a job at the heart of government in Cabinet Office.

However while the report’s aim of getting more specialists into management positions looked good on paper, in reality it was not so straightforward.

Sir John Charnley, an aeronautical engineer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment who went on to manage Ministry of Defence research programmes, explains the issue:

Fulton person 3Photo credit: The British Library

John Charnley (C1379/30/16)

This tallies with Roger Courtney’s assessment:

Roger Courntey (C1802/01/09)

Fifty years later, the challenge of getting more scientific expertise into the policy-making environment remains a question debated at a national level, while historians continue to evaluate the Fulton report's long-term impact on today's civil service.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005.


1  Crowther-Hunt, Norman, Government and the Civil Service [1], 16 October 1976. British Library catalogue reference M5929. Copyright BBC.

2 The Civil Service [Fulton report], (1968), Volume 1, para. 17, p. 12.

3 Fulton, John, Fulton Report on the Civil Service, 28 June 1968. British Library catalogue reference T5341. Copyright BBC.

25 June 2018

Recording of the week: "There was always the smell" - inter-generational memories of the steel industry

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archive & Administrative Assistant.

The last time I wrote a recording of the week post it was about the artist Michael Rothenstein’s memories of growing up in the Cotswolds (C466/02). For him, these were all mediated through sights and sounds. This week it’s another childhood memory but we’re heading north from Gloucestershire to Yorkshire, leaving rural life for industrial work, and swapping sounds for smells.

Frank Homer was interviewed by Alan Dein in 1992 as part of the Lives in Steel project. Frank grew up in Sheffield and spent his career in pre-privatisation British Steel. Like many, he followed his father into the industry, albeit against the desires of his parents. This recording specifically deals with how Frank remembers his father, how it seemed like he was always at work and how “you never got the chance to chat too much”. He says he has one memory but “it’s not visual”, it’s the smell of his father’s overalls in the house – “there was always the smell of the steel industry”. Decades on he describes how he can still smell that same smell.

Later on in the interview Frank tells us about another inter-generational relationship when he describes working in the same department as his son Michael. Frank says he now knows how his father felt, but at the same time he fears for the future and questions whether his children will be the last generation to work in the industry. Of course we now know he was right to be concerned; Sheffield currently produces more steel than any time in the past but the work is highly automated and only employs a fraction of what it once did.

Frank himself died in 2016 and we are left in the dark about whether Michael continued to work with steel. Likewise, we don’t have his memories of working with his father. What is it that sticks with him, what does he remember? Perhaps another smell? Well, that’s for a different interview.

Lives in steel cd front

Lives in Steel was a National Life Stories project that ran in the early 1990s and was the first national oral history of the British steel industry in the twentieth century. 88 life story interviews were recorded with interviewees from all levels of the industry including blastfurnacemen, rolling mill managers, fitters, crane drivers, stock takers, rollermen, melting shop managers, descaling inspectors and concast managers. You can access the full life story interview with Frank Homer online at British Library Sounds.

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

22 June 2018

Women, Engineering and British Politics

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June 23rd is International Women in Engineering Day 2018. To mark this and the 100th anniversary of (partial) women’s suffrage in the UK I decided to see what the British Library oral history collections could tell us about women whose careers involved both engineering and parliamentary politics. Neither of these areas was part of systematic oral history fieldwork until the 21st century, when An Oral History of British Science (2009) and The History of Parliament’s Oral History Project (2011) started to gather interviews.

Both projects began by targeting older interviewees and so have not yet captured the increase in participation of women in both fields since the 1970s. The History of Parliament collection concentrates on those who have left office, excluding current MPs such as Margaret Beckett (Labour, Lincoln 1974-79, South Derby 1983 – present), who worked as a metallurgist before moving into politics. She does appear in the recollections of others, including Kenneth Carlisle, interviewed in 2015 by John Barry. Carlisle recalls winning Lincoln for the Conservatives from Beckett in the 1979 general election.

In her interview Emma Nicholson, (Conservative then Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon, 1987-97,) suggests some of the difficulties of combining political ambitions with a technical career. She explains to Emme Ledgerwood why it was only after she stopped working as a computer programmer and systems analyst that she was able to start fulfilling her early political ambitions.

Emma Nicholson on early political ambition (C1503/62/02}

Nicholson joined the industry in 1962, and like other women programmers of her generation benefitted from its willingness to consider entrants from a range of educational backgrounds, in her case one in music.

Emma Nicholson (2)     Emma Nicholson   

Here she describes how she came to take the ‘entrance test’ for International Computers Ltd (ICL).

Emma Nicholson on ICL 'entrance  test' (C1503/62/01)

Once she had completed her training her gender proved decisive in selection for an assignment in Zambia involving setting up key IT infrastructure in the run up to independence in 1964.

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 1/2 (C1503/62/02)

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 2/2 (C1503/62/02)

After her election she found herself bombarded by requests from former colleagues eager for her to intervene on proposed legislation concerning software copyright.

Emma Nicholson on copyright legislation (C1503/62/02)

Nicholson now sits in the House of Lords, a chamber that only admitted women in 1958. Here her interests focus on human rights, education, international development and trade.

Perhaps the most vociferous voice for women in engineering to sit in the Lords was Beryl Platt, Baroness Platt of Writtle.

A wartime engineering graduate she joined Hawker Aircraft in 1943 and worked as an aeronautical engineer until her marriage in 1949. Her route into politics was at a local level and she served on Essex County Council for many years. Created a life peer in 1981, she became chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1983, an appointment recalled in her interview by her predecessor Betty Lockwood, interviewed by Margaret Faull in 2014 (C1727/01).

In this role she did much to champion opportunities for women in engineering. This included collaborating with the Engineering Council to launch 1984 as Women into Science and Engineering year and acting as a mentor for a new generation of women engineers, including Joanna Kennedy, interviewed in 2017 by Tom Lean (C1379/126).

Joanna Kennedy on Beryl Platt (C1379/126/04)

A more recent addition to the House of Lords is Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, created a life peer in 2015. Interviewed by An Oral History of British Science in 2011, when she was vice-chancellor of Aston University, she described herself as ‘not a very political animal’. ) (track 2 31:14, transcript p. 60) Perhaps unsurprisingly she sits on the cross benches from where her contributions have been primarily on issues relating to technology, the environment and higher education.

Here I have concentrated on the relatively few women who made the transition from engineering to parliamentary politics, but a broader definition of engagement with the political sphere and the processes of government would have allowed me to include many more women who have provided advice to government, worked in government research establishments and been involved in campaigning in different ways. As the Oral History collections at the British Library continue to expand we can expect significant new insights into how women have combined engineering and politics to emerge.

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

21 June 2018

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - The modern computer turns 70

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It's been 70 years since the first successful run of the Manchester Baby, arguably the worlds first modern computer. Built in a dreary laboratory at Manchester University, to designs by electronic engineers Freddy Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, the Baby was built primarily to test the world's first computer memory. At its heart was a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), the same component used in an old style television set to show a picture, but used in the Baby to store data and programs. Unlike any computing machine before it, Baby could be used for different purposes by simply changing the electronic instructions of its program, making it the first machine to share the basic architecture used most computers since.

In 2009-2010, Geoff Tootill, the last survivor of the original Baby team, was interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, and recounted the construction and first run of the machine in 1948:

Geoff Tootill: Building the Manchester Baby (C1379/02)

GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, circa 1950

For all its electronic complexity, logically Baby was a basic machine. Its circuitry could only do subtraction and its memory held a paltry 1 kilobit of data, about 1/32,000,000th of the memory of the computer I'm writing this on. However, “Baby demonstrated the fact that you could now make a programmable computer,” as Professor Dai Edwards, who joined the computing group a few months after Baby's first run, explains in this video.

This blog is by Tom Lean, National Life Stories Project Interviewer. Tom interviewed Geoff Tootill for An Oral History of British Science (reference C1379/02) in 2010.

06 June 2018

Make yourself at home! The BBC in a multi-cultural world

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David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History at the University of Sussex writes about an upcoming event at the British Library, Britain Reimagined: A New Oral History of the BBC.

The clue is in the name. The British Broadcasting Corporation. It’s a national broadcaster. When its motto proclaims that “Nation Shall Speak Peace unto Nation”, it doesn’t just mean different nations speaking to each other. It also means the nation – Britain - speaking to itself.

But who exactly gets to speak? When the BBC began in the 1920s, it all seemed straightforward – at least to that great Founding Father, John Reith. Christian, high-minded, infused with Victorian spirit of paternalism, Reith was adamant: only “the best” in thought or culture should be broadcast, “only those with a claim to be heard above their fellows” should talk at the microphone, only those with an “educated” southern English accent could be announcers, only programmes of devout Christianity could be aired on a Sunday.

Even at the time, this took little enough account of the richness of regional or working-class life. But after the Second World War - when Britain became home to thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean or Eastern Europe, and later from Kenya, Uganda, India and Pakistan – a dramatic change in attitude was surely inevitable. Like most who arrived at Tilbury on the Empire Windrush in 1948, many of the new immigrants were already British subjects: this was their Motherland. And there’d been a rich Black and immigrant presence here for centuries. Even so, for the BBC a new balancing act was required. Differences had to be acknowledged, yet new settlers needed to be integrated. Which was more important?

Una%20Marson%20in%201941%20hi000374838Una Marson during a BBC broadcast to the West Indies, 1941. Copyright: BBC.

The story of how the BBC navigated these tricky waters can be traced in vivid technicolour through the BBC’s own immensely rich archives, more and more of which are being opened-up to public view for the first time. They offer a lively gallery of programmes and pioneering individuals. Una Marson, pictured above, was born in Jamaica and joined the BBC’s staff during the Second World War. She was the first black producer on its payroll – and a pioneer in cultural programmes transmitted to the Caribbean.

Una Marson interviewing Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, 1940. Copyright: BBC.

That fragile recording of Marson interviewing the jazz band-leader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson in 1940, only a matter of months before he was killed in the London Blitz, is just one among many we’re making available online through a new project based at the University of Sussex, working in collaboration with the BBC.

At our workshop on 10 July, Britain Reimagined: A New Oral History of the BBC we’ll be listening to, watching - and talking about – Una Marson, the programmes she made, and her dramatic departure from the BBC in 1946. Through newly-released oral history recordings and programmes not seen since their first broadcast, we’ll also be encountering many other fascinating individuals who helped – and in some cases hindered – the BBC’s slow embrace of a multi-cultural world: the people behind the first TV programmes for British Asians in the 1960s, Make Yourself at Home; the creators of Open Door, a bold 1970s experiment in ‘access TV’; the broadcasters who first brought Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to the microphone.

The story these records tell isn’t straightforward: the BBC was brave in some areas, cautious in others. Nor is the story always reliable. There are gaps in the archive – including the testimonies of listeners and viewers themselves - and questions to be answered about who gets to tell the BBC’s own history now.

MikePH2Mike Phillips, former broadcaster, 2018. Copyright: Connected Histories of the BBC.

So, we’ll also be joined live on 10 July by a special guest – and a brand-new contributor to our ‘unofficial’ oral history of the BBC: the former journalist and crime-writer Mike Phillips, pictured above, who in 1998 wrote the ground-breaking book Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain. We hope you can join us.

21 May 2018

Recording of the week: "We regret to inform you" - bad news from the sound archives

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

An Oral History of the Post Office includes memories of telegram delivery boys who delivered telegrams by hand with news of war casualties during the Second World War, and their reflections on what it was like delivering the bad news. Delivery boys were always told what the news was. They were instructed to ask if there was a man in the house first. They also had to wait at the door in case a reply was requested.

Roger Osborn (C1007/16) discusses the wording of war telegrams which would always start with the words “We regret to inform you…” A friend of Roger’s in Tring, Hertfordshire, ignored his instructions when delivering news of the killing of a woman’s husband. He noticed the woman out shopping and gave her the telegram. Her first reaction was to hit him over the head with her loaf of bread.

Des Callaghan (C1007/38) remembers delivering three telegrams in Nottingham to one home: one with the news that the son was missing, the second the incorrect news that he was dead, and the third that he was actually in a prisoner of war camp - and Des got a £1 note in return!

These extracts come from An Oral History of the Post Office, a collection of life story interviews with a sample of Royal Mail and Post Office staff in the UK conducted between 2001 and 2005. Interviewees include, of course, postmasters and postmistresses, postmen and postwomen but also those involved with postal sorting and transportation (by road, air and train); stamp design, printing and marketing (the story of the stamp); legal, purchasing and property departments. The collection also includes interviews with staff who worked in lesser-known departments such as the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office Film Unit and the Lost Letter Centre.

There is an emphasis within the collection on change within living memory from the 1930s to the 1990s: the separation of post from telecommunications, computerisation and automation, new management practices and the diversification of new services offered by Royal Mail and the Post Office.

A CD of extracts from the collection entitled “Speeding the Mail: an oral history of the post from the 1930s to the 1990s” was published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive in 2005, and over forty extracts are available online at British Library Sounds.

Speeding the Mail CD

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