Scots on history track

May 17, 1996

Historians play a key role in helping our understanding of modern life, according to Peter Catterall, director of the Institute of Contemporary British History in London.

Dr Catterall, giving the inaugural lecture at Glasgow Caledonian University's Centre for Contemporary History, said that without historical understanding there was a risk of elevating the transient over the historically important.

The centre will initially conduct witness seminars, a form of oral history pioneered by the ten-year-old London institute. Instead of using one-to-one interviews, it brings together participants in particular events or developments, and records the dialogue, which can then be used by researchers.

The first project, backed by Pounds 10,000 from the Queen's Nursing Institute, Scotland, is an oral history of the district nurse profession.

Director Willie Thompson said the centre also hoped to track previously unidentified archives and be a resource for higher education.

"Scotland is different from a number of angles, such as the administration of legal and social life; the labour movement, where the Scottish Trades Union Congress has much greater relative weight than the TUC in England; politics, in the shape of the Scottish National Party which has no equivalent in England; and indefinable cultural differences," he said.

If organisations threw away records, part of history was lost for ever, and the same applied to living records, if people died without having been interviewed about their memories, said Mr Thompson.

Dr Catterall said that anyone who studied only the immediate past was in danger of seeing events in isolation, and contemporary historians needed a hinterland to assess whether these were new, fading or recurring phenomena. If history was ignored, the analysis of current events would be left to journalists or social scientists.

"But our understanding of the contemporary needs to be shaped, not just by the headlines or by the study of social, political or economic structures, but by how these have changed over time and been moulded by the past," he said.

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