Social Science blog

05 November 2012

Oral history interviews: possibilities for re-use by social scientists

I recently had a productive conversation with my colleague Dr Polly Russell about the re-use of the oral history interviews held in our collections at the British Library. Polly was in the process of writing a talk for an event which is to be held here this November (‘Tales from the Archive’) in which she will trace the biography of one collection item, discussing the journey through which an interview arrives at the Library, its life here and how the institutional context impacts on its possible re-use. This conversation added fuel to my desire to listen to more of the recordings held at the Library and to work with others to encourage possible re-use.

Since joining the Library I have been interested in the use of the oral history collections as a resource for social scientists. The oral history department, led by Dr Rob Perks at the British Library has built huge and varied collections of national relevance, as well as ingesting collections from oral historians and social scientists who have used the oral history methods in conducting their interviews. The collections include, for example, material as diverse as an oral history of British Science , The Millthorpe Project:  Interviews with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Trade Unionists and 150 recordings on City Lives . In fact, you can listen to a huge number of extracts from the oral history collections on the British Library Sounds Website and watch a brief introduction to the collections by Rob on our YouTube channel.

Two of the possible uses of the oral history collections for socials scientists are in secondary data analysis and qualitative interview training. There has been a great deal of debate about the extent to which other people’s interviews can be used for secondary analysis and there are examples of where this has been done successfully. For example, Peter Jackson, Graham Smith and Sarah Olive re-used oral history interviews in their work on families and food.

The interviews offer students in qualitative research methods the opportunity to listen to in-depth interview techniques and to benefit from the insight that can be gained through hearing the life stories of other people’s respondents. I was lucky enough to listen to some of the interviews with sex workers which Wendy Rickard recorded in the 1990s and certainly found that this experience offered me a new perspective which I will inform me should I ever again undertake interviews myself. I have written more about this experience with Wendy herself, and other colleagues.

We are interested in exploring how social scientists may make use of the oral history collections in the Library and would love to hear your views, as well as to hear from those of you who have used the collections in social science research.


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