National Life Stories

Sarah O’Reilly interviewing Dame Penelope Lively

The UK’s leading oral history fieldwork charity, National Life Stories (formerly the National Life Stories Collection) was established in 1987.

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Its mission is 'to record first-hand experiences of as wide a cross-section of society as possible, to preserve the recordings, to make them publicly available and encourage their use'. Alongside the British Library oral history collections,  which stretch back to the beginning of the 20th century, National Life Stories' recordings form a unique and invaluable record of people’s lives in Britain today.

As an independent charitable trust within the British Library, National Life Stories' key focus and expertise has been oral history fieldwork. Over the past three decades it has initiated a series of innovative interviewing projects funded almost entirely from sponsorship, charitable and individual donations.

Each collection is archived at the British Library and comprises recorded in-depth interviews of a high standard, plus content summaries and transcripts to assist users. Each individual life story interview is several hours long, covering family background, childhood, education, work, leisure and later life. Information about the collections is provided via the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue and listeners can use the British Library’s onsite Listening and Viewing Service to listen to recordings. A growing number of interviews are being digitised for remote web use through the British Library Sounds website.

National Life Stories Projects

NLS has completed projects in the steel, oil and gas and publishing industries, with Holocaust Survivors, about the financial capital of the City of London, and corporate oral histories of the Post Office, Tesco, Barings Bank, and the UK water industry.  There are a number of active interviewing programmes including Artists’ Lives, Crafts Lives, Architects’ Lives, Authors’ Lives, An Oral History of British Science, An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry, Legal Lives and An Oral History of Talking Therapies.

Each NLS project aims to gather a variety of perspectives in the area under study, covering all activities and functions and recording life stories from all parts of the hierarchy: from chief executive to secretary, technician, clerk and cleaner, including the well-known names as well as those who have no public profile but an interesting and enlightening story to tell.  All key NLS projects have an expert advisory committee, which shapes and guides the project.

Each year National Life Stories publishes its Review and Accounts, which contains articles and reflections on the year’s work from National Life Stories staff, interviewees and researchers. This year’s Review is available here.

National Life Stories co-ordinates the annual National Life Stories Goodison Fellowship - which encourages the dissemination of the collections in the public sphere, such as in print, broadcast and new media. Information on the 2016 Fellowships, which will focus on Artists’ Lives, is available on the Artists’ Lives project page.

Who’s who at National Life Stories


President: Lord Asa Briggs, Past Chairman: Sir Nicholas Goodison
Chair: Dame Jenny Abramsky
Bob Boas (Treasurer), Roger Gavin, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, Bill Knight OBE, Lesley Knox, Dr Robert Perks (Director and Company Secretary), Richard Ranft,  Dr Jo Reilly, Professor Dorothy Sheridan MBE, Professor Paul Thompson (Founder), Jennifer Wingate (Associate Director)


Sir Peter Bazalgette, Eric de Bellaigue, Lord Bragg, Professor Mary Chamberlain, Sir Roger Gibbs
Dr Mark Girouard, Sir Nicholas Goodison, Professor Leslie Hannah, Dame Penelope Lively, Lord Rees of Ludlow OM, Jonathan Taylor CBE, Caroline Waldegrave OBE, Bill Williams

NLS core staff

Director: Dr Rob Perks
Deputy Director: Mary Stewart
Project Director (Artists’ Lives, Architects’ Lives): Cathy Courtney
Senior Academic Consultant (An Oral History of British Science and An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK): Dr Sally Horrocks
Assistant Archivist: Emily Hewitt
Bookkeeper: Pauline Morrison

Project Interviewers

Frances Cornford (Crafts Lives and Artists’ Lives)
Niamh Dillon (Architects’ Lives)
Dr Thomas Lean (An Oral History of British Science and An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK)
Dr Paul Merchant (An Oral History of British Science)
Sarah O’Reilly (Authors’ Lives)
Dr Elizabeth Wright (Crafts Lives)
Dvora Liberman (Collaborative Doctoral Student for Legal Lives)

How to support National Life Stories

Through National Life Stories' charitable status, donations or sponsorship are subject to the relevant tax relief for either individuals or companies. There are four tax-efficient and convenient ways to support National Life Stories.

The Gift Aid scheme allows NLS to claim back basic rate tax on any donation received from individual taxpayers. This means that for every £100 donated we can claim an additional £25 from the Inland Revenue if a signed Gift Aid form is received. A Gift Aid form (PDF format) can be obtained from the NLS Director or NLS Bookkeeper. It needs to be completed and returned to the NLS.

Companies now pay the charity the full donation without deducting any tax and in turn obtain full tax relief when calculating their profits for corporation tax.

Donors of shares will no longer be deemed to have a disposal that makes them liable to capital gains tax. The charity will have the option of retaining the shares or selling them. Unlisted shares traded on a recognised exchange are included in this initiative. The individual making such a donation will also be able to reduce their taxable income by the value of the gift. A company donor will obtain full relief against corporation tax.

Sums left to National Life Stories are deducted from an estate in the calculation of Inheritance Tax and therefore free of tax. The NLS Director can advise on an appropriate form of words within a will.


See also

Sound projects

Save our Sounds

Save our Sounds is our programme to preserve the nation’s sound heritage

Directory of UK Sound Collections

The British Library has created a directory of UK sound collections

Edison Fellowships

We offer fellowships to encourage the study of classical music sound recordings

Opening Up Speech Archives

An AHRC-funded project that studied the use of speech recognition technologies



Sound and video recordings from all over the world