Sound and vision blog

279 posts categorized "Oral history"

23 November 2022

Exploring disability during the Covid-19 pandemic through oral history

This Disability History Month, staff from across the British Library have collaborated on a series of blog posts to highlight stories of disability and disabled people in the Library’s collections. Each week a curator will showcase an item from the collections and present it alongside commentary from a member of the British Library’s staff Disability Support Network. These selections are a snapshot insight into the Library’s holdings of disability stories, and we invite readers to use these as a starting point to explore the collections further and share your findings with us.

This selection has been made by Dr Madeline White, Oral History Curator.

A banner hung on a fence which reads 'There will be a rainbow after the storm. Keep safe. Keep well. Stay at home.'

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

The theme of UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) 2022 is Disability, Health and Wellbeing. The theme was chosen to shed light on the societal barriers that compromise the health and wellbeing of disabled people. In particular, it seeks to highlight the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated many of these inequalities.

The UKDHM website draws together some of the research into the impact of the pandemic on disabled people and communities. Reports and statistical analyses reveal above average rates of preventable death, exacerbated mental health issues, and increased isolation and poverty among disabled people. This excessive suffering was not inevitable, but the result of structural inequality, discrimination, poor communication and government action.

The oral history collections at the British Library offer us an opportunity to explore beyond the statistics and hear people’s lived experiences and emotions. We can use oral history, for example, to listen to disabled people describe their experiences of living through the pandemic, in their own words. In doing so, we can begin to get a sense of the human impacts of policy decisions and ableist attitudes.

The Voices of Our National Health Service collection – now archived at the British Library – comprises thousands of interviews recorded by the University of Manchester between 2017 and 2022. Given its sheer scale and scope, the collection offers an unparalleled insight into healthcare provision in the UK as experienced by patients, staff and communities across the country – including during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Within this collection are hundreds of stories that speak to the UKDHM theme of ‘Disability, Health and Wellbeing’. Individuals with pre-existing health conditions or disabilities designated ‘Extremely Clinically Vulnerable’ by the government describe their experiences of shielding during lockdowns. In other recordings, patients experiencing long Covid symptoms describe the lasting impact of their new illness on their day to day lives. Throughout, these interviewees explore how their health needs were at times met and at others missed by government public health policy, by the medical profession, and by the communities they live in.

Photograph of Stephen LightbownPhoto courtesy of Stephen Lightbown.  Image not licensed for reuse. 

Stephen Lightbown is one such interviewee. Stephen was a Director of Communications in the NHS until March 2020, when he took early retirement on health grounds after developing long Covid. In his interview, Stephen reflects on life as a wheelchair user before and during the pandemic, exploring the extent to which society has adapted – or failed to adapt – to meet his needs and the needs of other disabled people over time.

In this first clip, Stephen recalls some of the discrimination he encounters in his daily life as a wheelchair user and some of the ways in which the pandemic exposed the ableist attitudes that are prevalent in UK society.

Stephen Lightbown on ableist attitudes of society being laid bare during the pandemic [BL REF C1887/700]

Download Stephen Lightbown on ableist attitudes - transcript

In addition to recording personal experiences at various intersections of disability and healthcare, the Voices of Our National Health Service collection offers an insight into individual wellbeing in the context of a global health crisis and beyond. Within the collection, people with disabilities describe how the pandemic and the measures to combat it impacted on their wellbeing. In this next clip, Stephen offers an illuminating perspective on access to social events. He argues that the swift move to online events during lockdown undermines the oft-made argument that providing regular access for disabled people to events and spaces is often too expensive or too difficult.

Stephen Lightbown on accessing events online during the pandemic [BL REF C1800/700]

Download Stephen Lightbown on accessing events - transcript

The nature of oral history as a methodology means the material it produces often offers unmatched insight into events as experienced by individuals, many of whom would not otherwise record their stories or be represented in the historical record. The Voices of Our National Health Service collection in particular has preserved for posterity raw and honest accounts of the pandemic from those who experienced it at its most extreme, of whom disabled people represent a significant demographic.

As the British Library and other archives continue to collect oral history material in the future, we will capture more stories from disabled people about their lives, including experiences of the pandemic. The legacy of the pandemic and its lasting impact on the rights of disabled people remain to be seen, but these archives will provide a vital source of information long into the future.

Reflection from British Library staff Disability and Carer Support Network member Barbara O'Connor:

Stephen’s words echo mine and those of many who are struggling to understand what is happening to our rickety constructs, created by us so we can fit in and function. I saw lockdown-levelling-up, this pandemic by-product, as a boon. On 23 March 2020 my life became normalised: everyone was housebound, working remotely, socialising and culture-consuming on-line. Puff! Gone overnight the anxiety and exhaustion of the daily foray into hostile territory. In Stephen’s words, it was 'liberating.' Come-wheel-with-me, my able-bodied friends, I’ll show you how this works - I’ve got form! I felt guilty about these thoughts, worried that I would be seen as gleeful. I too was optimistic that we would emerge with a fresh vision of new ways of being, of delivering, of including. On 21 November 2022 my life remains, de facto, in lockdown. The gap between our worlds has not lessened, nor an interest in closing this gap increased. Many appear unaware or unwilling to recognise that their privilege to choose remains in intact whilst mine remains arbitrary. This is as crushing as anything done to my body by the virus. As Stephen, my benign doppelganger says, 'it feels like we are dispensable' and 'it is heart breaking.'

Find out more:

The interviews in the Voices of Our National Health Service collection are now available for listening on site at the British Library and a large number will be available online via British Library Sounds from 2023. You can search for the collection using reference number C1887 in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

You can listen to more extracts from interviews in the Voices of Our National Health Service collection and explore material from the British Library’s other Covid-19 collections on the web resource Covid stories.

For more information on the wide range of disability oral history collections at the British Library, consult our oral histories of disability and personal and mental health collection guide.

14 November 2022

Recording of the week: The window seat

This week’s post comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist.

Photo of scenery from train window by Giulia Baldorilli

Above: Photo from train window taken by Giulia Baldorilli

Living in London, as I do, means commuting to work every day, and I find the quality of my daily commute really affects my mood and well-being.

It’s my belief that you need to entertain yourself when commuting. Taking the underground in London always fascinates me. The variety of faces and colours is what keeps my mind busy even during rush hour when the tube is packed.  People are a good source for stories and day-dreaming. I tend to imagine where the person in front of me might be from, what their plan is for that evening, or for the next year.

In the interview excerpt below from the National Life Stories project, the artist Ian Breakwell talks about why he prefers taking public transport. He discusses how it allows us do all the things we want to do, many of which are not possible with other forms of transport.

Listen to interview with Ian Breakwell

Download Ian Breakwell interview transcript

His last point about viewing landscape through a train window resonates with me in particular. As I and many in the UK return to working on-site most days of the week, the commute makes its gradual shift back into our daily routine. I like being a passenger. It is a chance to enjoy the landscape outside the window and lose myself in an unexpected inner conversation, or reverie.

This interview is available in full as part of a collection on the British Library Sounds website

07 November 2022

Recording of the week: The Vicinus Music Hall Interviews

This week’s post is by Victoria Hogarth, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

The Vicinus Music Hall Interviews, digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, are a treasure trove for music hall enthusiasts. Martha Vicinus, an American scholar of English literature and Women’s studies (now at the University of Michigan), visited a number of retirement homes for music hall and variety artists during the 1970s. She interviewed a range of artists, all of whom were active during the golden age of the music hall circa 1910 to 1950.

As well as the good times, the interviewees also touch on more difficult experiences. Many were part of The Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), set up to provide entertainment for British armed forces personnel during World War II.

The excerpts I’ve chosen for this recording of the week describe Don Ross’ experiences managing a travelling circus during World War II. Don was an artist turned promoter and producer who enjoyed a long career in music hall and variety.

Black and white photo portrait of Don Ross

Above: Portrait of Don Ross. Photographer unknown, published in the Guardian on 30 June, 1971.

I chose these clips because they provide an alternative wartime experience. Many of our oral history collections document the effects of the war on everyday life, but we don’t often hear about the effects on the entertainment business, and certainly not the circus! 

In the first clip, Don describes a particularly heavy bombardment that took place in Norwich during the circus tour. The city of Norwich was very heavily bombed in April and May 1942 as part of the so-called Baedeker raids. Don recalls keeping a vigil all night next to the lion cages, speaking softly to the lions while bombs rained down.

Listen to Don Ross on calming the lions

Download Don Ross 'Calming the lions' transcript

The second clip describes the intense difficulty of getting food for the circus animals during rationing. Don recollects his efforts to source herring for sea lions, hay for elephants and oranges for monkeys.

Listen to Don Ross on feeding the animals

Download Don Ross 'Feeding the animals' transcript

It’s easy to forget the bravery of the artists providing entertainment up and down the country, often in coastal towns highly vulnerable to bombardment. Later in the interview, Don describes losing three artists when one of his shows was bombed, and recalls having to entertain audiences during air raids. These clips offer a fascinating insight into the morale-boosting efforts of the ENSA performers, as well as a vivid description of life during the blitz.

31 October 2022

Recording of the week: A new life, all over again

This week’s post comes from Myriam Fellous-Sigrist, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Photo of Arun U3A display

Above: Photo above of a U3A display table taken by George Redgrave. Sourced from Flickr under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license. Link to licence

It is never too late to learn about oral history, or any other subject. In the 1990s, dozens of members of the University of the Third Age (U3A) trained to conduct oral history interviews in collaboration with the National Sound Archive. As a result, more than 300 life stories were recorded across Sussex, Somerset and London, with and by members of local U3A branches.

Most of the compact cassettes were archived at The Keep in Brighton (collection AMS 6416). In the last few years, they were digitised and reviewed by the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project (UOSH). As part of my work for UOSH, I have had the privilege of listening to the 59 interviews preserved at the British Library (collection C516). The narrators reflect on their social background, education, lifelong learning, careers, leisure, family life, friendships, experiences of migration, World War One and World War Two, and much more. This collection also features many pioneers of U3A who explain how this UK-wide movement was created 40 years ago.

The recordings give a sense of the key social and intellectual role of the University of the Third Age in the narrators’ retirement years. One of the interviewees is Pauline Cowles, who was born in 1919 in Brighton. At the end of the interview that she gave in 1995, she described some of the activities organised by U3A Lewes and the ‘new life’ that U3A has given to her and to fellow members.

Listen to Pauline Cowles

Download Pauline Cowles interview transcript

12 September 2022

Recording of the week: Childhood memories of D. H. Lawrence

This week’s post comes from Sarah Kirk-Browne, Cataloguer, Digital Multimedia Collections.

Photo of D H Lawrence in 1912

One of the most exciting things about exploring the sound archive is all the unexpected things you stumble across. While researching the Nottinghamshire dialect, I listened to this recording of Mr Arthur Sharpe (British Library reference: C707/190).

Arthur Sharpe was a Co-op grocery manager, recorded for an oral history project in 1971. The Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 project made recordings of speakers from a range of backgrounds talking about their memories from the late 19th and early 20th century.

Most of the interviews in the collection follow the same structure: with questions about parents, home life, school and employment. They provide a lot of insight into life at the time, plus plenty of linguistic interest too. However, on the final tape with Mr Sharpe the interviewer goes off-topic to ask him directly about something alluded to in some of his earlier answers: how did you know D. H. Lawrence?

What follows is a personal description of his connections with the Lawrence family, with D. H. Lawrence being his close neighbour and sometime teacher. In the clip you can hear Arthur’s anecdote about a disagreement with a schoolmate, which D. H. Lawrence calmly resolved.

Listen to Arthur Sharpe

Download Arthur Sharpe transcript

Somewhat sadly, recordings of this kind are as close as we are going to get in terms of audio documentation of D. H. Lawrence himself. Despite his living well into the era of recorded sound, it seems there are no extant recordings of his voice.

The Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 collection - often known as ‘The Edwardians’ - was a pioneering project co-ordinated by Paul Thompson, Thea Thompson (who also published as Thea Vigne) and Trevor Lummis at the University of Essex.

Over 500 audio interviews were conducted across all of the UK with people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and occupations. The collection provided the source material for Paul Thompson’s 1975 classic book The Edwardians: the Remaking of British Society, and Paul then became one of the pioneers of oral history both in the UK and internationally.

All of the recordings in this collection are available at the British Library, and transcripts can also be consulted at the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex.

The Spoken English and Oral History archives are full of ordinary people telling their extraordinary stories - so I look forward to discovering and sharing more hidden gems in the future!

01 August 2022

Recording of the week: Women’s work on the record

This week’s post comes from Myriam Fellous-Sigrist, Data protection and Rights Clearance Officer.

Women picking netted gooseberries in Bedfordshire  1941

Above: Wartime Activities, women picking fruit, Bedfordshire, 1941. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Source: LSE Library.

One of the many joys of oral history is learning about unexpected topics. Whether recording an interview or discovering another interviewer’s work, oral history - and especially life story recordings - is full of information that we would not suspect if we were to only read the catalogue records and summaries.

In the last few months, I have worked on three collections of interview cassettes that were preserved by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. These are An Oral History of British Horticulture (British Library ref. C1029), An Oral History of the Post Office (C1007) and the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Archive (C456). Most of the interviews are several hours long, sometimes up to 13 hours. Unsurprisingly, they cover much more than the topics of horticulture, the Post Office, or gay and lesbian experience in the United Kingdom. Some of the transversal themes are fascinating to observe, and one of them is women’s work in the mid-20th century, across social classes and geographical areas.

A large part of my work as an UOSH Rights Officer is to review newly digitised and catalogued sound recordings before deciding whether they are suitable for online open access. When it comes to oral history recordings, conducting a sensitivity review requires paying attention to the interviewee’s family members, key life events and relationships. Each time, I am reminded of the wealth of sociological and historical information that is usually captured in the first hour of most interviews, which often depicts the origins of two parents and four grandparents, as well as their occupations and roles inside and outside the home.

Listening to these recordings shines a light on the power of sound archives, and on the limits of their written description. The four extracts below show the importance of diving into the audio version of any interview, to go beyond the misleading categories that are inevitably created by cataloguing and summarising. This includes the simplistic, and often wrong, category of 'housewife' used to describe an interviewee’s mother. Often the interview summary also hides the many paid and unpaid occupations that many women had in the 20th century. These jobs are revealed when oral history narrators talk about their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and themselves. Although my selection is only of female narrators, the shift in women’s and men’s roles is also described through these personal accounts, as can be heard in the last extract.

My selection starts with Pamela Schwerdt, who was co-interviewed for the Oral History of British Horticulture project in 2002. She was born in Esher, Surrey in 1931. Her father was a naval officer and her mother’s occupation is described as 'none given' in our catalogue. Yet, the first part of the interview unveils a busy trio of women who, between themselves, set up and chaired for a century the National Wildlife Society. Its success culminated in Pamela’s mother receiving a CBE in 1986 for her work as President of this Society.

In this clip Pamela talks about the three Presidents of the National Wildlife Society. The British Library ref. is C1029/08.

Listen to Pamela Schwerdt

Download Pamela Schwerdt transcript

In the same oral history collection dedicated to horticulture, Peggy Cole described in 2003 the many paid jobs that her mother had in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite being catalogued as a 'housewife', her mother worked as a hospital cleaner, a woodcutter and fruit picker. In this extract, Peggy, who was born in 1935, recounts how her mother worked after the birth of her last son in 1950 as one of a hundred other female seasonal workers near Easton, Suffolk. The British Library ref. is C1029/11.

Listen to Peggy Cole

Download Peggy Cole transcript

In the third extract, we hear about Gladys Hillier who worked as one of the few postwomen in the 1940s in Gloucester, where she was born in 1917. In the interview that she gave in 2002 as part of the Oral History of the Post Office project, she described how she went from working in an aircraft factory during World War II, to delivering the mail in 1947 until her retirement in 1982. The British Library ref. is c1007/57.

Listen to Gladys Hillier

Download Gladys Hillier transcript

Women’s new paid professional activities during World War 2 are discussed in our fourth interview. Jackie Forster, who was born in 1926 in London, reflected on the impact this social change had within her own family. In an interview for the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Archive, she explained how her mother worked as an ambulance driver during the war and started making money in the Stock Exchange to support her two children. Jackie’s mother became the breadwinner after her husband, who was an army doctor posted in India, was declared missing in 1939. In this extract, Jackie describes the new family roles and dynamic, and how these had to be accepted by her father, who eventually returned to England in 1945. The British Library ref. is C456/87.

Listen to Jackie Forster

Download Jackie Forster transcript

18 July 2022

Recording of the week: ‘Living open-handedly’

This week’s selection comes from Holly Gilbert who was, until recently, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections at the British Library.

Colour photograph of Michael and Paddy

Photo of Paddy Taggart & Michael McEvoy © BBC

One of the many highlights of working with the Listening Project collection for nearly a decade has been the joy of hearing the wisdom that other people have gained from their own lived experiences.

The recordings are mainly conversations between two people who know each other well so it is almost inevitable that some profound insights are made in the course of what can often be quite deep and personal discussions.

As I leave the British Library for a new path in life I’m thinking about the parallels between meditation and wild swimming that two friends, Michael and Paddy, discuss in their Listening Project conversation in Belfast. They talk about how they met through their shared interest in both these activities and remember some of the swims they have been on together.

They describe the magical experience of being immersed in nature and the wildlife they encounter in and under the water.

They also discuss how being in water allows you to see things from a different perspective, and reflect on the meditative and philosophical side of swimming as well as how much fun it can be.

In this extract Paddy describes very eloquently what you can learn from the nature of water and how it can be applied to life on land as well. I invite you to turn up the volume, let go and jump in!

Listen to Michael and Paddy

Download 'Living open-handedly' transcript

Listen to the full conversation on the British Library Sounds website

11 July 2022

Recording of the week: Trailblazers in women’s sports

This week’s selection comes from Sarah Kirk-Browne, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

EURO 2022 promotional flyer

Last week, the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 competition kicked off in Old Trafford. This is the second time England has hosted the tournament, and there are live matches in stadiums across the country. With an exciting and inspiring summer of women’s sport ahead, I would like to highlight this conversation recorded for The Listening Project in 2021.

The Listening Project is an audio archive of personal conversations, collected by local and national BBC radio stations. Since 2012, people have been invited to have a conversation recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC and archived by the British Library. You can listen to over one thousand recordings in full on our Sounds website, and learn more about the ongoing project on the BBC website. In this recording, archived in full as British Library call number C1500/2124, two pioneering sportswomen discuss their successes and experiences.

Leah Caleb started playing football at infant school, joining in with the boys in the playground. As her love of football grew, her mum heard about a new women's football team called Chiltern Valley run by Harry and June Batt. Leah joined the club aged 11, and at just 13 she went to Mexico to take part in the 1971 Women's World Cup. At the time, the media were comparing her footballing skills to George Best, and interest and ticket sales for the competition exceeded all expectations. 

Although she was representing England and played in front of crowds of 90,000, the team was not recognised by the Football Association or the then Women's Football Association (WFA), and on their return home they were banned from playing for three months. You can read more about the WFA’s reaction to this event in the WFA Archive held by the British Library at call number Add MS 89306. However, this sequence of events paved the way for much greater recognition and support for women’s football, leading to the huge popularity and excitement for the 2022 Euros that we are seeing today.

In this clip, Leah describes her love for the game:

Listen to Leah Caleb

Download Leah Caleb transcript

Joining Leah in this conversation is Dana Abdulkarim, who was the first Muslim and Arab woman to represent England in any sport. Like Leah, she was also 13 when her football career was taking off. She was encouraged to go for trials to play for England, but an injury combined with attitudes around her faith and participation in the sport proved to be a challenge. Instead she focused on rounders, which at the time felt more inclusive. She had great success and subsequently gained 67 England caps. She then went on to become Britain's first hijabi Muslim PE teacher, encouraging future generations of girls in sport. She is also a speaker, writer, and trustee at the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation and the Chance to Shine charity.

Leah and Dana talk together about their trailblazing experiences as women in sport across different generations. They also discuss the challenges they have faced and their hopes for the future.

In this second clip, Dana talks about how things are changing for the better in school sports, and how much she is looking forward to the Euros:

Listen to Dana Abdulkarim

Download Dana Abdulkarim transcript

Get involved with preserving women’s football online:

The British Library is part of the UK Web Archive, which has an extensive collection of content from sports clubs (amateur and professional), fan sites, football research and events. There is no distinction in the collection based on gender, and we are working to ensure that information, discussion and creative output related to the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 competition is preserved for future generations. Anyone can nominate UK published websites for inclusion in the UK Web Archive by filling in our nominations form.

You can read more about the UK Web Archive’s UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 collection in this recent blog post by Curator of Web Archiving, Helena Byrne

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