The British Library holds important recordings made by oral history pioneers as well as major deposited collections covering a wide range of subject areas.
Oral history is a powerful means of recording through audio and video the unique memories and life experiences of people whose stories might otherwise have been lost. It enables us to eavesdrop on events, feelings, attitudes and ways of life which have been hidden from history, and thus create more vivid pictures of our past. Few historians and researchers can now afford to neglect the insights that oral sources provide. Oral history can enliven static displays in museums and galleries and more directly engage visitors in their own past. Reminiscence techniques can be used in older people's residential homes and in the community, both to entertain and to encourage a sense of self-worth. Oral history has a firm place in schools as an interactive and shared experience offering children a rare chance to question history face-to-face, bringing generations together.
Oral history at the British Library
The British Library's oral history collections cover a wide range of subject areas such as British colonialism, religion, the history of medicine, industry, politics, the arts, women's history and Jewish history. We collect audio and videotaped interviews and welcome offers of suitable oral history material that offer insights in British national identity and culture. If we are unable to accept the offered collection we aim to identify an alternative institution to which the donor can be referred.
We also carry our own programme of life story recordings through National Life Stories, an independent trust within the Oral History Section of the British Library. National Life Stories’ key focus and expertise has been oral history fieldwork; interviews are carried out on a project basis and all NLS collections are held in the British Library.
You can follow what's happening with the British Library's oral history collections via the Sound Recordings blog, whilst updates on the NLS project An Oral History of British Science can be found via the History of Science blog.
Oral history training and advice
As the national centre for oral history in Britain we provide advice and training in oral history methods and maintain close contact with oral history groups in Britain and abroad. For information on oral history training days run jointly by the British Library and the Oral History Society please visit the training page on the OHS website. The Oral History Society will be able to provide advice for those starting oral history projects, including information on best practice, ethics and oral history, and information on how and where to apply for funding.
For a list of publications on oral history, visit the research resources page.
Accessing the collection
To access sound and moving image material:
- Use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.
- The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.
- The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.
- Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.
- The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.
The British Library
96 Euston Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Oral History Curator / Director of National Life Stories)
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Oral History Archive Assistant)