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Oral history: education

The British Library holds a number of collections that record the experiences of school and education in the UK, from primary education through to tertiary education and employment training.

General

  • Memories of school, college and university occur in virtually all life story recordings made by National Life Stories and some focus on particular aspects of education and training.  Artists’ Lives, for example, looks at art schools, Crafts Lives includes recollections of apprenticeships and informal education, and Lives in the Oil Industry explores shifting in-service training as the industry developed. 
  • Within the Millennium Memory Bank (catalogue no.: C900) – the joint BBC and British Library project at the turn of the year 2000 – the themes ‘Growing Up’ and ‘Getting Older’ both included aspects of education and schooling, and teachers’ reminiscences.
  • The Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 (C707) collection contains life story interviews with a cross-national sample of people born before 1918 in the UK. The interviews were conducted thematically, and included School and Institutions and Boarding Schools.
  • The George Ewart Evans Collection is a collection of more than 250 recordings made between 1956 and 1977 by oral history pioneer George Ewart Evans, focusing on rural life in Suffolk and East Anglia from the 1880s. The recordings included discussion of school in rural communities.
  • A Century of Childhood (catalogue no.: C444/01) is a collection of video and audio tape material recorded for 'A Century of Childhood', a Channel 4 television series made by Domino Films, about the changing experience of childhood since the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the programmes focused on school (‘A Century of Childhood: School’, broadcast originally in April 1989).
  • The Television History Workshop collection (catalogue no.: C706) comprises original videotape recordings, editing and viewing copies made by the TV History Workshop for several broadcasts mainly on Channel 4. The collection includes material relating to the programmes ‘Critical Eye: What did you learn in school today?’ (1990) and ‘From Butler to Baker’, two programmes on 50 years of schooling since the 1944 (Butler) Education Act (1994).
  • The Bow Dialogues collection (catalogue no.: C812) comprises recordings made by Rev. Joseph McCulloch, Rector of St Mary-le-Bow, London, of Tuesday lunchtime debates held at the church between 1964 and 1979. Relevant interviews include: Baroness Heather Brigstocke, headmistress of St Paul’s Girls School (on co-education and teaching girls); John Vaizey (on the education of children in Great Britain); Rev. Donald Soper (on the moral education of children); Margaret Maden, headmistress of Islington Green Comprehensive School; Shirley Williams (then Secretary of State for Education); Bamber Gascoigne (on teaching, education and university); Joan Bakewell (on mixed-sex and single-sex education); Geraldine Jones (the first woman President of the Oxford Union and the organising secretary of women teachers); Dame Mary Green (on freedom in education, difference between comprehensives & public schools, mixed-sex schools and money within education); and John Rae (on the importance of law and education in society).  The Bow Dialogues are available for higher education users on the Sounds project.
  • Between 2011 and 2013 the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) co-ordinated an oral history project to record oral histories of disabled people’s experiences of education in England, called ‘How Was School?’ (catalogue no: C1559). This project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Nine volunteer interviewers, all of whom were disabled people, were trained in oral history interviewing techniques, and then conducted 50 interviews. ALLFIE has now produced 'How Was School?', a resource for schools based on the interviews.

Primary and Secondary Education

  • The Opie Collection of Children’s Games and Songs (catalogue no.:C898) comprises 88 cassettes and open reel tapes recorded by Iona and Peter Opie, documenting children’s playground games and songs between 1968 and 1982.  As part of the 'Childhoods and Play' project, the recordings were digitised and have been available via the British Library Sounds website.  The project ( which was funded by the AHRC and carried out by the British Library, the Institute of Education, University of Sheffield and the University of East London) also recorded a comparative set of video recordings.  Extracts from the collection were used in the Playtimes website.
  • The Damian Webb/Pitt Rivers Museum Children’s Games & Songs Collection (catalogue no.: C1431) comprises digital copies of 37 open-reel recordings made by Father Damian Webb between 1960 and 1983 as a result of fieldwork conducted at several locations across the UK. The original recordings, deposited at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (refs DW2-DW38) were loaned to the British Library in 2010 and, by agreement with the Pitt Rivers Museum, were digitised as part of the Children’s Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age project; the original recordings, together with digital copies, were returned to the Pitt Rivers Museum.  Extracts from the collection were used in the Playtimes website.
  • Out of Sight (catalogue no.: C444/04) is a collection of video and audio tape material recorded for 'Out of Sight', a television series made by Domino Films for Channel 4, about the experiences of disabled people as children in special schools and in their later lives.
  • The Paul Mersch orphanage interviews (catalogue no.: C453) is a collection of five interviews with those who were brought up in orphanages in the early twentieth century. The interviews cover staff, education, discipline, food and religion.
  • The History in Education Project Interviews (catalogue no.: C1371) resulted from a two-year research project by the Institute of Historical Research which began in January 2009, and aimed to create and publicise a historical record of history teaching as it has developed over the past century in English state schools. It will be deposited at the British Library in Spring 2011.

Higher Education and Training

  • The Brian Harrison Interviews (catalogue no.: C608) were recorded by Brian Harrison of Corpus Christi, Oxford between 1961 and 1992, principally for his multi-volumed 'History of the University of Oxford'. Interviewees include: Christopher Hill, A.J.P Taylor, Sir Henry Phelps Brown, Roy Jenkins, Dr David Butler, Raphael Samuel, Fred Jarvis, Sir Tom Hopkinson, Richard Cobb, Dorothy Hodgkin, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Denis Noble, Lord Blake and Sir Douglas Veale. Many universities have since undertaken their own oral history projects, including the Open University, the University of Strathclyde, the University of Aberdeen and Keele University.
  • Interviews with Librarians (catalogue no.: C698) comprises interviews with 17 librarians recorded in 1974-76 by David Gerard and Mary Casteleyn. The interviews were used in the Drake Education publication ‘Librarians Speaking: tape recordings of David Gerard in conversation with various librarians’ (Wales: College of Librarianship, 1974 - 1977)
  • The Society of Archivists Oral History Project (catalogue no.: C1181) comprises 72 interviews with archivists and conservators to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Society of Archivists. The project focused primarily on the development of the Society of Archivists and the profession and how the Society has changed, though archival education was a key topic.
  • The Hornsey College of Art Oral History Project (catalogue no.: C1374) comprises 15 interviews with students of Hornsey College of Art in the 1960s. The interviews focus particularly on the Sit-In of 1968.
  • Royal College of Nursing History Group interviews (catalogue no.: C545) is a collection of 34 interviews with nurses trained between 1910 and the 1950s. Interviewees discuss their nursing education as well as careers. Nurse training also features in the Wellcome Trust Course Oral History Interviews (catalogue no.: C646) and doctor training features in the Oral History of General Practice 1936 – 1952 collection (catalogue no.: C648).
  • The Work-based Apprenticeship interviews (University of Kent) (catalogue no: C957) is a collection of thirty interviews with individuals discussing their experiences of apprenticeship in a variety of British industrial sectors including: shipbuilding, catering, plumbing, motor trade, gas fitting, building, engineering, tailoring, bookbinding, hairdressing, carpentry/joinery, and painting and decorating.

Accessing the collections

To access oral history material:

  • Search for oral history recordings held at the British Library using the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue (see useful advice on searching the oral history collections).
  • Onsite access to oral history recordings: The Listening and Viewing Service in St Pancras provides free public access to the oral history collections on an appointment basis. Many digital recordings are also available via SoundServer, a computerised listening facility located in the Humanities Reading Rooms.  SoundServer is also available at the British Library’s site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire.
  • Internet access to selected oral history recordings: The British Library Sounds website gives remote access to a selection of interviews from the Library’s oral history collections. Some recordings are currently only licensed to Higher and Further Education users in the UK, others are available for full public access.

Further information

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

T +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History  / Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Curator, Oral History / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Archivist, Oral History)
E oralhistory@bl.uk