Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

04 July 2022

Recording of the week: The NHS turns 74

This week’s post comes from Hannah Tame, Oral History Cataloguer for the Voices of Our National Health Service collection.

On 5 July 2022, the NHS celebrates its 74th anniversary. It seems appropriate then, that this week’s selection is taken from the Voices of our National Health Service oral history collection. I am currently cataloguing this at the British Library. The collection of interviews is one of the largest collections of oral histories to ever be deposited at the British Library, with interviews captured from over 1200 different interviewees.

The collection consists of interviews from the University of Manchester’s 'NHS at 70' and 'NHS Voices of Covid-19' projects combined. NHS at 70 was initially set up in 2017 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the formation of the NHS (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund). It recorded first-hand experiences, memories and reflections of the NHS from staff, patients and members of the public. Then, with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council - part of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Covid-19 Urgency call - interviews continued remotely during the pandemic for ‘NHS Voices of Covid-19’.

This week’s clip is taken from one of the pre-Covid interviews in the collection. Interviewee Margaret was born in 1935 and was interviewed in March 2019. Sadly Margaret passed away last year. Her interview captures her career as a dressmaker for the NHS, as well as her childhood reminiscences of healthcare. Margaret recalls a pivotal moment for her family in 1940 (before the creation of the NHS in 1948) when she was just five years old and her mother contracted tetanus.

Listen to Margaret Southey

Illustration of couch grass

Above:  Couch grass, how Mary's mother contracted tetanus. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. See Wellcome Images. Used under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

This experience captured in Margaret’s interview offers a unique insight into an infection that less than 100 years ago would have been life threatening. Treatment for tetanus was relatively new when Margaret’s mother received it. Before the Second World War (when developments advanced for the treatment of tetanus) around 200 people in the UK died of tetanus each year. In 2019 there were only 4 cases of tetanus reported in England. The number is low thanks to the effective tetanus vaccine given since 1961 as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

Margaret’s story is just one of many interviews in the collection that demonstrates how direct and in-direct healthcare experiences can impact all aspects of people’s lives. There are numerous other interviews in the collection that include experiences of tetanus. Whether that be from a nurse who treated babies with tetanus or someone’s first healthcare memory of receiving a tetanus vaccination at school. In my eyes, the huge variety of perspectives is one of the things that makes the Voices of Our National Health Service collection so valuable and interesting to listen to. Each interview, and each person’s experience allows us to see the NHS from a different viewpoint.

The full interview with Margaret Southey is catalogued at C1887/281 and is available to listen to on-site at the British Library.

Facts and figures from the Vaccine Knowledge Project.

Follow @BL_OralHistory for all the latest news.

27 June 2022

Putting 'AIDS: The Unheard Tapes' in context

Mary Stewart, Lead Curator of Oral History, gives more information on the interviews used in a new BBC documentary series.

Broadcast tonight on BBC2 is the first in a three-part documentary series entitled AIDS: The Unheard Tapes (27 June, 9.30pm BBC2). The series is a powerful showcase of selected recordings from the British Library’s extensive collection of oral history interviews with people living with HIV and those directly affected by the HIV epidemic. All three episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer.

AIDS: The Unheard Tapes uses personal testimonies to tell the story of the HIV epidemic in the UK from the early 1980s until the mid 1990s as experienced by the UK’s gay community, tracking a similar time period to the award-winning 2021 Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. Alongside new filmed interviews, each one-hour episode forefronts testimony from the British Library’s oral history collections recorded in the 1980s and 1990s. The documentary uses the audio from the archived interviews with each narrator's voice lip-synched for television by an actor. Sadly, many of the interviewees whose powerful testimony features in this series have since died.

 

Which oral history collections are featured in the documentary?

The programmes use selected interviews from two pioneering oral history projects, one recorded in the late 1980s and another from the mid-1990s onwards. Both were archived at the British Library for long-term preservation and public access.

The Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project features over 100 interviews conducted from 1985 until the early 1990s with gay and lesbian people in Britain. The testimonies contained in this rich and diverse collection were recorded as the HIV epidemic unfolded, so many of the interviews have stories from people living with HIV or from those who saw its effects on friends and their communities. Researcher Margot Farnham played a key role in organising and interviewing for the project and in the publication of two books* based on the testimonies. Margot’s voice features as one of the interviewers in AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.

HIV/AIDS Testimonies is a collection of life story interviews with people with HIV and AIDS recorded by researchers Wendy Rickard and Babs Gibson. 30 interviews were recorded between 1995-2000. In 2005 Wendy and Babs returned to re-interview as many of the original participants as possible, adding to the collection a second set of interviews capturing people’s experiences in the intervening decade. Where interviewees had since died, recordings with loved ones were made, where possible. The voices of Wendy and Babs also feature in AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.

 

What makes these collections stand out?

The power of life stories

The recordings in these collections are long and in-depth life stories in which the interviewees were asked to reflect on the entirety of their life experience: childhood, education, family, work, their social lives, communities and their relationships. This means that each recording captures a rich audio biography of the narrator in their own words recounting their experiences in vivid detail, drawing us into their emotional world, their humour and their turn of phrase. The documentary has, of course, used excerpts that are relevant to each interviewee’s experience of HIV, but the testimony is so compelling because it is drawn from the long life stories held in the archive. These interviews are a powerful reflection of their time – when knowledge of HIV had to be built from scratch and the prospect of effective treatment was at best experimental. This means that the recordings capture the uncertainty and emotion of the era, when no-one knew what the immediate future would hold.

Archiving the material for future listeners

The researchers leading these projects worked from the outset with the oral history team at the British Library to archive these frank and in-depth interviews (led by Curator Rob Perks, who worked at the Library 1988-2021). As with all oral recordings, each interviewee decided when and how their interview was made available, but everyone was interviewed in the knowledge that their recording would one day be publicly accessible. Many interviewees placed no restrictions on public access and these interviews have been accessible in the Library’s Reading Rooms for decades. There are still a number of interviews that are currently closed at the interviewees' request, and the Library will make these powerful recordings available to researchers in the future as soon as the access restrictions cease.

Without the Library's commitment over 30 years ago to archive and provide public access to these highly sensitive interviews there is little chance that they could be used in this documentary series. The production team at Wall to Wall Media listened to many hours of testimony in the Library’s Reading Rooms, selecting the material that they wished to broadcast. Where possible all of the interviewees or their loved ones were then re-contacted to ensure that they were happy for the audio to be broadcast.

 

What other oral history material is available at the British Library on HIV in the UK?

It is vitally important to recognise that this documentary series and the interviews selected to feature in it represent only some of the communities and individuals affected by HIV in the UK. This diversity of experience is reflected in the other testimonies held in the HIV and AIDS Testimonies collection and also in the wider body of material archived and made accessible by the Library’s oral history team – work which continues today. 

Here is a brief overview of the oral histories of people living with HIV, or working in HIV specialisms, within the British Library collections. You can search the detailed catalogue records for all of the interviews on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. There are search tips available on the British Library website. The Library's Listening and Viewing Service can provide assistance and information on how to listen to recordings. 

Invisible Women: Positively Women HIV Interviews is a collection of 16 oral history interviews with women living with HIV. The interviews reveal how HIV has affected them socially, at work and in their family lives. The project was carried out by Positively UK as part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2007 and 2008.

Imagining Patient Zero: interviews about the history of the North American HIV/AIDS epidemic is a collection of 50 interviews recorded by Richard McKay between 2007 and 2008 as part of his research investigating the concept of ‘patient zero’ and the early years of HIV in North America.

Haemophilia and HIV Life History Project and HIV in the Family: an oral history of parents, partners and children of those with haemophilia and HIV comprise nearly 80 interviews and document the history and lives of those living with these conditions, as well as the experiences of the families of those infected. Extracts from both projects are available on the Living Stories website. These powerful oral history interviews are being used in the ongoing Infected Blood enquiry.

Listen here to interviewee Paul reflect on recording his story about living with haemophilia and HIV:

Paul interviewed by Sian Edwards, 2004, Haemophilia and HIV Life History Project C1086/12 © British Library

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The AIDS Era: an oral history of UK healthcare workers is a collection of interviews with 61 healthcare workers who cared for people with HIV at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Jane Bruton, an interviewee and one of the project leaders, is also interviewed for AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.

Geraldine was a staff nurse and then the Community Liaison Nurse on the HIV ward. In this clip from her interview she talks about the vital role of volunteers in the 1980s and 1990s:

Geraldine Reilly interviewed by Fiona Clampin, 2018, The AIDS Era: an oral history of UK healthcare workers C1759/51 © British Library.

Download Transcript

The oral history team are absolutely delighted to be currently working with CHIVA: the Children’s HIV Association on their interviewing project Positively Spoken. The project team are recording 50 interviews with young people about their experiences of growing up with HIV. The project is participative and includes peer interviews. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Positively Spoken is gathering powerful testimonies from young people, many of whom are speaking on record for the first time about their experiences of living with HIV.

 

Making AIDS: The Unheard Tapes possible

The production company for this series, Wall to Wall Media, liaised extensively with the oral history team as we worked through the permissions, rights and ethics for each recording considered for broadcast. This has been supported by colleagues from the Listening & Viewing Service, Soundcopy Service, Sound Licensing team and British Library Press. Both collections featured in the documentary have been digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, so thanks are due to the UOSH team and project funders the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Considerable thanks are also due to Wendy Rickard, Babs Gibson and Margot Farnham for their collaboration and consultation.

Finally, and most importantly, a massive thank you to all of the interviewees, interviewers and project leaders for their time, effort and generosity in helping the Library build and provide access to such an amazing array of personal testimonies.

 

Find out more

The Library’s LGBTQ histories web resource highlights material from across the collections. From Tuesday 28 June 2022 visit the Treasures Gallery in St Pancras to see the new case ‘Proud Words’ which showcases newspapers, books, leaflets and manifestos authored by LGBTQ+ people in the 1970s and 1980s - creating and claiming words for their community.

*Walking after Midnight: Gay Men's Life Stories (The Hall Carpenter Archives, 1989).

*Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories (The Hall Carpenter Archives Lesbian Oral History Group, 1989).

Margot Farnham and David Ruffell, ‘Scenarios of Departure: the AIDS Paintings of David Ruffell’ in Ecstatic Antibodies, Resisting the AIDS mythology, edited by Tessa Boffin and Sunil Gupta (Rivers-Oram Press, 1990).

Wendy Rickard, ‘HIV/Aids Testimonies in the 1990s’ in Oral History, Health and Welfare edited by Joanna Bornat, Rob Perks, Paul Thompson and Jan Walmsley (Routledge 2000), pp 227-248. 

Richard A McKay, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

 

Recording of the week: Sharing Somali sounds and stories

This week's selection comes from Emma Brinkhurst, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

As Learning and Engagement Coordinator for the British Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage programme, a highlight of my role has been working in partnership with Camden Somali Cultural Centre to develop a listening project. Weekly listening sessions showed the capacity of recorded sound to make connections, bringing listeners in contact with different times and places, as well as connecting those who share the experience of listening together. Ubah Egal, director of Camden Somali Cultural Centre, explained the significance of Somali sound recordings in the British Library’s World and Traditional Music collections, saying 'Camden Somali Cultural Centre wants to re-engage the community with our oral tradition of sharing stories. The collection at the British Library represents a beautiful selection of recordings capturing our oral tradition from many generations of Somalis.'

Poet and storyteller Elmi Ali selected recordings of song and poetry for the group to listen to, which elicited discussion, reminiscence, laughter and a sharing of cultural pride during the sessions. Of particular interest to participants were recordings from the John Low collection, made in Somalia in the mid-1980s during Low’s time as a development worker in the Lower Shabeelle region. On 12 November 1984, Low sent a postcard from Somalia to the British Institute of Recorded Sound (now the British Library Sound Archive). He wrote that 'songs, poems, work songs abound' and set about making recordings representing a diverse cross section of musical styles and practices. Several decades later, following Somalia’s civil war and the disruption and displacement it caused, Somali listeners in London engaged with these songs and poems, which stimulated memories of cultural heritage and former times, places and people.

During the listening sessions, artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer drew and painted, reflecting the words and stories shared by the group. Sophie’s drawings portray recollections of nomadic life evoked by recordings such as this house building song performed by a group of women and recorded by Low:

House Building Song [BL REF C27/13]

This song stimulated discussion about the role of women in nomadic culture and how women were responsible for building nomadic houses, with one participant commenting that this song made her think of her mum. At the end of the project she said: 'this has brought back so many memories.'

Black and white drawing of a nomadic woman with the words 'most come from a nomadic background the woman building the house or hut - using wood, mud, cloth, singing the songs while they build.'

Participants were very moved by lullabies from the collection, such as this one performed by Faadumo Cabdi Maxamed:

Lullaby [BL REF C27/13]

Hearing recordings such as this prompted memories of other lullabies, such as a fondly remembered lullaby that a participant sang to the group, a moment that was captured by Sophie in this drawing:

Black and white drawing of a mother and child and a glass of water, with the words 'We sing lullabies for the boys: "New moon, we need you like a thirst" and for girls: "you are so beautiful...no one is going to hurt you and if they hurt you I will hurt them"'

Low also recorded camel songs, including this watering song for camels at the Shabeelle river, sung by Geedi Maxamed Cali and a male chorus:

Camel Song [BL REF C27/12]

Listening to this evoked much laughter as a participant recounted memories of being a city girl visiting the countryside and running away in fright from various animals – foxes on one occasion and a baby camel on another!

A coloured pencil drawing of a camel and two children with the words: "So when I was out in the wild with my cousin we saw a fluffy animal and I didn't know what it was because I'm from the city. She said "watch out it's gonna get you!" and she followed it so it chased me! I was scared but it was only a baby camel'

One member of the group described the listening sessions as providing 'an opportunity for us to get to know each other in a different way, tell these stories to each other that we never speak about.' Ubah Egal reflected on the project as 'a wonderful moment capturing the reactions and impact the recordings had on our community and participants.' This small selection of recordings demonstrates the potential for sound heritage to unlock memories, connect listeners, and make a deeply personal impact.

The Somali listening sessions took place as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, a major project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund which aims to preserve and provide access to thousands of the UK's rare and unique sound recordings.

With thanks to John Low for allowing us to use the sound clips, Sophie Herxheimer for permission to post her artwork, Elmi Ali for selecting recordings, and to Ubah Egal and members of Camden Somali Cultural Centre for allowing us to include their comments and stories in this blog.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

The logo of the Camden Somali Cultural Centre Pink waveform logo of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project