The social importance of oral history

By Jen Grasso, Volunteer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

‘Oral history is a history built around people,’ explains Paul Thompson in his book The Voice of the Past, ‘It thrusts life into history itself and it widens its scope’[1]. It was Thompson’s book I looked toward when I started working on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at The Keep.  I eagerly embraced this opportunity to gain firsthand experience of the archive sector because my background is in the visual arts and only recently, in collections and heritage studies.  So it was to Thompson I looked for help understanding this media and its wider social importance.

Thompson starts his book declaring that all history depends upon its social purpose[2]. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the continued calls for the restitution and repatriation of colonial artefacts and the importance in acknowledging the role of colonialism in the Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum (GLAM) sector within the UK, adds a critical level of social importance to this project.  My task has been to summarise oral histories from members of the Windrush Generation for inclusion into the British Library Sound and Moving Image catalogue.  Much like museum labels that look to summarise the complexities of individual objects in a handful of sentences, I’ve been tasked with summarising the details of someone’s life, or at the very least, the stories shared on one side of cassette tape, in a mere paragraph. Both are deceptively difficult tasks!  And most importantly, this has to be done without bias, judgement or censorship. I’m not here to construct a story, like in the case of museum labels, but I am here to help document, to assist with the cataloguing of these histories in order to make them accessible to the public. 

Thompson states, ‘once the life experience of people of all kinds can be seen as its raw material, a new dimension is given to history’[3].  This dimension, or rather I would argue dimensions, are both macro and micro in their appraisal.  On a macro level, I see the UOSH project as a step in the right direction, one that challenges the status quo and the domination of white, Eurocentric narratives within the GLAM sector.  I am, even if marginally, helping towards increasing representation among minority groups in the UK.  That the histories I have been working on are taken from members of the Windrush Generation, not only gives voice to this community, but by including the interviews in the British Library, this further reinforces the community’s place within Britain’s social history.

A photograph of text from a printed book reading: Oral history is a history built around peopoe. It thrusts life into history itself and it widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from the leaders, but from the unknown majority of the people. It encourages teacher and students to become fellow workers. It brings history into, and out of, the community.
From Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past

On a micro level, these histories also provide something for many that they will never be able to obtain otherwise. Thompson describes this as ‘a much fuller history of the family’: the patterns, trends, changes over time, and changes from place to place[4].  A good friend, a child of the Windrush Generation, saw the work I’ve been doing as contributing to a type of extended family tree, helping to document this community’s historical legacy, a legacy she has only learned from the oral histories told within her own family.  While her partner’s family, as well as mine, as well as many of yours, often have detailed family trees with branches spanning centuries, as my friend pointed out, her family, and most others of the Windrush Generation, don’t. 

It makes UOSH all the more valuable by not only continuing, but adapting this oral tradition for the 21st century, converting these personal, vibrant, illuminating and captivating histories from the confines of the fragile magnetic tape they were recorded on to easily accessible digital sound files. So while my friend might not be able to look up her family tree, she can, through the eventual transformation of these summaries into metadata and keyword tags, look to these histories and extract elements that personally relate to her story, her family’s story and their place in Britain, and be able to pass this down.

Two women, sitting on a sofa. One is wearing headphones, the other is holding a mp3 player. Both are smiling.
Listening to an oral history interview.

In my postgraduate studies at the University of Brighton, I repeatedly referred to professor and museum scholar Hilde Hein’s notion of polyvocality as a tool to help open up, and democratize the GLAM sector. The idea being that every view, every perspective, can contribute to a more holistic understanding of whatever topic is at hand[5]. Thompson states this another way, remarking on the complex and multifarious nature of reality, noting that oral history supports the ‘multiplicity of standpoints’[6]. I fully believe the future of the GLAM sector lies in this multiplicity, it should embrace polyvocality.  There is no end to the amount we can learn and no limit to what can be taught, and the inclusion of one, or many, additional perspectives, might make the proverbial boat sail in an entirely new direction.  And when looking not only through the lens of BLM, but also Covid, I think we all, not just the GLAM sector, could use a new direction.

So while I started the UOSH project feeling out of my league, in the short time I have been contributing, my scope has been drastically widened, not only with regards to oral histories and the function of archives in general, but also with regards to my understanding of British history, as Thompson promised.  And hopefully the work I have done has also contributed to widening the scope and greater purpose of archives.  I will continue to hone my summarising skills, and I do so full in the knowledge that, following Thompson, I am part of a larger collaborative process, and one I feel fortunate to be a part of[7].

Jen Grasso is working on summarising oral history interviews that have been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. The Windrush interviews come from the Southampton Archives Black History collection. These summaries can be found on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue under the reference UTK010.

[1] Paul Thompson. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, 23.

[2] Thompson, 1.

[3] Thompson, 5-6.

[4] Thompson, 8.

[5]  Hilde Hein (2011) The Matter of Museums, Journal of Museum Education, 36:2, 179-187, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2011.11510698

[6] Thompson, 6.

[7] Thompson, 12.

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