The living document

January 1, 1999

Is oral history a useful and reliable research tool? Academics are divided on the issue, says Harriet Swain

Derek Lovatt, a 58-year-old recovering alcoholic, describes on tape growing up in the post-Teddy Boy culture of West London, coping with new technology and clubbing. In Belfast, Ruby Purdy, 84, recalls seeing the laying of the stone of Stormont.

All over the country this winter people are telling their stories about drug addiction, national service, arranged marriages, illiteracy and countless other subjects as part of the BBC's millennium oral history project. Broadcast next autumn, on 40 local radio stations, more than 600 radio programmes, involving 8,000 interviews, will show "a sound-map of the century" through a snapshot of Britain in winter and spring 1998-99.

"Had we had something like this at the turn of the last century, it would have been fascinating," says Jenny Verlini, administrator of the National Life Story Collection, a charity that has conducted interviews with Holocaust survivors among others and has been involved in the BBC project.

There is an explosion of interest in oral history - historian Simon Schama will include interviews in his forthcoming televised history of Britain - and recorded reminiscence has become a popular tool in care homes to make elderly people feel involved in the future. As the millennium approaches, people seem anxious to talk about their experiences of this century, while a growing body of historians, sociologists and community groups want to preserve their stories for the next.

A recent survey by Alistair Thomson, a lecturer in the centre for continuing education at the University of Sussex, found more than 60 departments in British universities were offering courses in oral history. They were in old and new universities, and scattered through different departments from history and sociology to English and anthropology.

It is all a long way from the difficult early years of oral history in 1960s Britain. While historians have always relied on eyewitness accounts, in the 19th century they began to take the spoken word less seriously than documentary evidence. By the time they rediscovered oral history in the 1960s, it had become political: it represented a means of finding out about the experiences of types and classes of people whose stories were rarely documented. In the 1980s, it became further linked with social difference, when the Manpower Services Commission made collecting oral history part of a job creation scheme. Those out of work for a long time were sent out to record others talking about their communities.

The suggestion that oral history could fill gaps not covered by traditional histories - let alone the fact that it was carried out by non-academics - spurred academic historians to hit back. They raised doubts about the legitimacy of oral history, about how reliable memory could be and about whether a person's account could be representative of a period or a community.

But while these are hot issues, the latest thinking argues that the subjectivity of oral history can be a bonus. Rory O'Connell, curator of oral history at the Museum of London, says: "It is a method of history that carries big responsibilities. It is often dismissed as just memory, but a lot of historians would say it causes other methods of history to challenge their own subjectivity."

Recent work by the Italian historian Luisa Passerini has stressed the importance of listening to what people do not say as much as to what they do - the value of silence. And oral historians have begun to see that the distortions and myths that emerge through people's memories as no less valuable a reflection of their age and society as the truth.

So while many history departments still pay no more than lip-service to the technique, it has become more respectable, says Joanna Bornat, senior lecturer at the Open University and an editor of the Journal of Oral History. Lecturers say that while it can be time-consuming, it sparks students' enthusiasm, while teaching them about communication, collecting and corroborating evidence.

It raises ethical questions, too. "Because a lot of academics are distant from ordinary people's lives, there's a temptation to feel it doesn't matter if someone's story is published in an academic journal," Bornat says. "But explaining the research process to people taking part and making sure they have a say in what happens to the transcript is very important."

Since changes to copyright laws in 1989, interviewees have had to assign in writing the copyright of their recordings and transcripts. But this has deterred few from telling their story. Ethically trickier are the problems posed by new technology. Transcripts originally destined for a small-circulation journal may now be available to the world over the internet. Interviews may be videoed and form part of a multimedia package in which how something is said and the appearance and expressions of the person speaking may be analysed as much as their story.

"When I started oral history it was a way of making known silenced voices," says Alistair Thomson. "The web is the antithesis of that. If people signed a consent form before the web, do they know what they feel about everyone having access to their life story?" What is vital, says Bornat, is that, while people may have been victims in the events they are relating, they are not made to feel victims once more. Interviewers need to tease out traumatic details without bullying.

Many interviewers also try to adapt to the conversational etiquette and rules of the community they are addressing. Thomson says that in some countries it is difficult for younger people to question their elders. So anthropologists often work closely with historians in developing interview techniques.

Not only are the thousands of people recording their lives documenting contemporary history for future years, they are also giving today's generations a way of assessing where we are now, at the end of the millennium.

'It's just impossible to think that people can be so cruel'

Barbara recalls the process of being selected for work, by the Nazi Josef Mengele, before her transfer from Auschwitz to Nieder Schlesien, Pirshkow.

"By that time we knew about the gas chambers. And, ehm, when he selected, well, actually he took me by the hand and he gave me a clap and threw me out. And that was Mengele, a very goodlooking man, dark and handsome. You wouldn't think that such a devil was in him. And all the SS men, they were so goodlooking young men. It's just impossible to think that people like that can be so cruel. Anyway, they took us again to a room where there were showers."

Were you selected to go outside the hut?

"Outside the hut. And the other girls were on the other side of the block."

So how many of you were taken out?

"The Polish of us were up to 200, but I don't know if he was collecting from other blocks or ours as well. But when we got to the working camp there were 200 Polish Jewish girls and 800 Hungarian Jewish girls, so it was a thousand. When we got there we dressed ourselves outside the block, and then they took us to a place. We had to strip ourselves again, left our clothes out behind, and there were showers on top. Now what's going to come out - is it to come out gas or water? We were all holding ourselves with our hands. Water starts coming out and if you can hear everybody, "Thank God'."

Extract from the archives of the National Life Story Collection.

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