The unseen work of the oral history summariser
Oral History Curator Mary Stewart reflects on the contributions of volunteers to the oral history collections, particularly remembering the sterling work of Audrie Mundy.
Anyone who has ever made use of the oral history collections will have used the interview content summary – the sometimes rather clunky piece of prose that acts as the main search tool to navigate around the (often lengthy) recordings that we make. Who writes these summaries, you might ask? Nowadays it’s standard practice in the oral history team for the interviewer to write up the summary, to allow them to reflect on the content and questions already covered in the interview, and prepare the topic areas to cover in their next visit to the interviewee. In earlier decades this practice was not so carefully enforced, and there was often a heap of cassettes waiting to be summarised. Helping to whittle down this pile, through careful listening and summarising, were several dedicated volunteers – unseen by the eventual researcher – whose efforts are often unsung. Marking International Volunteering Day, it seems apt to highlight some of the volunteers whose efforts have helped develop the Library’s oral history collections.
In the last 18 months we have seen the deaths of two of these stalwart volunteers for the BL oral history team, following the death of fellow longstanding volunteer Brenda Corti in 2010. We still reap the benefits of Katherine Thompson’s time as a volunteer. In addition to summarising many interviews, Katherine worked as an interviewer on City Lives and The Living Memory of the Jewish Community. The recordings Katherine made with scientists Aaron Klug, Max Perutz and Joseph Rotblat laid the foundations for the project An Oral History of British Science two decades later.
Katherine Thompson, 2014. Courtesy of Jenny Thompson.
When I joined the British Library in 2006 Katherine and Brenda had stopped volunteering, but I did have the absolute pleasure of working alongside Audrie Mundy, who volunteered until 2011, by which time she was in her early nineties.
Audrie recorded a few interviews, but her main task for over a decade was to summarise interviews from across the collections, particularly relishing working on Artists’ Lives, a project that married well with her own interests.
Although both Anthony Caro and Elsbeth Juda’s interviews are currently closed to public access, clips from Anthony Caro’s interview are accessible in our new Voices of art web resource. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to the long interviews with Anthony Fry, Frank Bowling, Denis Bowen and Paula Rego – then please say a quiet thank you to Audrie as without her excellent content summaries you would be unable to navigate through the mountains of audio. If you’ve sampled interviews from our Food: From Source to Salespoint collection not only did Audrie summarise several interviews, she also invented the project title.
Audrie was never anything less than kind, direct and hardworking each time she trekked into the NLS office – no mean feat by the time I met her as it was quite a lengthy journey from her home in Kew Bridge to St Pancras. Always immaculately turned out, she would quietly put on her headphones and set to work. Our lunches and coffee breaks were many times the highlight of my day. It mattered not the great age difference. Audrie was inquisitive and interested – and through these times together I was privileged to hear snippets of her extraordinary life – her early adoption of yoga in post-war London, her love of languages as she taught herself French and Portuguese, her pride in her family and thoughts on theatre, books and culture.
Audrie Mundy, 2004. Photograph: Ali Musa.
We missed Audrie greatly in recent years when her mobility meant she could no longer come into the office – though she remained the champion proof-reader of our Annual Review – and we all stayed in touch with her, marvelling at her deft and newly acquired email skills.
Although she played hard to get, in 2012, to our delight, Audrie agreed to record some of her own life story with Cathy Courtney, and we are especially pleased that this is now available online at https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Oral-historians.
Volunteer effort is still greatly valued by the oral history team and this autumn we have been delighted to welcome the first two curatorial volunteers as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Anna Savory wrote a fascinating blog on Ghosts in the Collections, and Laurie Green-Eames is hard at work, including some sleuthing for one early 1990s collection attempting to match up pseudonyms used in a book with the recordings we have in the archive. Rest assured, however, we won’t be expecting them to volunteer into their nineties!
This blog is by Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator at the British Library.