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Oral history: personal health, mental health and disability

The British Library has an active policy to make sure that the views and memories of people of every background, culture and occupation are represented. We hold a number of collections and have taken part in collaborative projects which help to chart the experiences of those, both old and young, with disabilities, ill-heath or with mental health issues.

Health

  • The Life Testimony and Health Promotion Project (HEA/UEL) (catalogue no: C931) was a joint project between the University of London and the Health Education Authority which sought to address gaps in existing knowledge about health beliefs and highlight the value of personal testimony as an evidence base for health promotion, focusing on three priority groups: homeless, refugees, and 'looked after' children (also known as children 'in care').
  • An Oral History of Diabetes (catalogue no: C1239) is a collection comprised of 51 life-story interviews with people diagnosed with diabetes between 1927 and 1997, recorded for the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, and funded by the Wellcome Trust. The material has been used for the Diabetes Stories website where all the audio is available online.

HIV/AIDS

  • The HIV/AIDS Testimonies (catalogue no: C743) is a collection of life story interviews with people with HIV and AIDS. This project has been recorded in two stages. Interviewees from the original set of interviews recorded between 1995-2000 were re-approached and interviewed again between 2005-2008. This project, led by Dr Wendy Rickard, was conducted in conjunction with the University of East London and then London South Bank University.
  • Two ground-breaking projects on the subject of haemophilia and HIV are archived at the British Library Sound Archive. The Haemophilia and HIV Life History Project (catalogue no: C1086) recorded the stories of 30 people with bleeding disorders infected with HIV through contaminated blood products. HIV in the Family: an oral history of parents, partners and children of those with haemophilia and HIV (catalogue no: C1202) gave a voice to 36 family members who witnessed their partners, children, siblings or fathers face the challenges of living, and dying, with HIV infection. Extracts from both projects feature on the Living Stories website.
  • ‘Invisible Women’: Positively Women Oral History Project (catalogue no: C1254) is a collection of 16 oral history interviews with women living with HIV; the interviews reveal how HIV has affected them socially, at work and in their family lives.  The project was carried out by Positively UK as part of an HLF funded project in 2007 and 2008.
  • Imaging Patient Zero: interviews about the history of the North American HIV/AIDS epidemic (catalogue no: C1491) is a collection of 50 interviews recorded by Dr Richard McKay between 2007 and 2008, as part of his DPhil to investigate the concept of ‘patient zero’ and the early years of the North American HIV/AIDS epidemic ('Imagining 'Patient Zero': Sexuality, Blame, and the Origins of the North American AIDS'.). The DPhil was completed at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at the University of Oxford.

Mental health

  • The Mental Health Testimony Archive (catalogue no: C905) (a collaborative project with Mental Health Media) holds fifty life story video interviews with mental health service users. Project interviewers had themselves experienced mental health problems and had first-hand knowledge of the system. Interviewees include those who lived in the psychiatric asylums (long-stay patients), as well as 'revolving door' patients and those with a mental illness diagnosis in the second half of the twentieth century in England and Wales. The collection includes a great deal about life in the large psychiatric institutions, including treatments and everyday life on the wards.
  • A Fit Person to be Removed (catalogue no: C549) includes seventeen personal accounts of life in a 'Mental Deficiency Institution' (Meanwood Park Hospital, Leeds) from long-term residents. Many had been incarcerated under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act as 'a fit person to be removed' from society: some simply because they were pregnant outside marriage, or had conditions such as cerebral palsy. The interviewees speak out about their ways of coping with the effects of institutional life and, for some, coming to terms with rejoining the wider community as a result of changing mental health and 'community car' practices.

Disability

  • A number of collections document the lives of people with cerebral palsy. Two collaborative projects with Scope, Changing Society: Oral History of Scope (catalogue no: C984) and Speaking for Ourselves: an Oral History of People with Cerebral Palsy (catalogue no: C1134), include life story interviews with those involved in the establishment of one of Britain's leading disability charities, and interviews with people with cerebral palsy over the age of 50. Interviews from Speaking for Ourselves can be accessed via the British Library Sounds website.
  • Multiple Sclerosis interviews (catalogue no: C949) is a collection of three life story interviews with women with multiple sclerosis, focussing on issues of fitness and exercise, carried out by a student at the University of East London for BSc (Hons.) Fitness and Health in 1998.
  • Domino Films: 'Out of Sight' (catalogue no: C444/04) is a series of some fifty video interviews with older blind, deaf and physically disabled people focusing on the years before the National Health Service and reflecting memories of exclusion, prejudice, institutionalisation, war, work and relationships.
  • ‘Unheard Voices’ (catalogue no: C1345) was an HLF-funded project conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Hearing Concern LINK, a charity that provides information and support for those with hearing loss and their family members.  Sixteen volunteer interviewers from the deafened community were trained to interview other members of the community. The interviews were audio recorded and were supported by a Speech to Text reporter and VDU screens which displayed on a monitor the text of the conversation.  The collection archived at the British Library is comprised of 66 audio interviews accompanied by the STTR transcripts and summaries.  Interviews from Unheard Voices can be accessed via the British Library Sounds website, whilst short video interviews with a selection of interviewees that took part in the project can be viewed via Hearing Link's YouTube channel.
  • 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 ‘What Did You Learn at School Today?’ (catalogue no: C1559). In May 2013 the project was renamed to 'How Was School?' 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.

Related recordings

  • Other material of relevance to the history of disability and health can be found in Oral History of Geriatrics as a Medical Speciality (catalogue no: C512) and the Andy Stevens Psychiatric Nursing Interviews (catalogue no: C823).
  • Subjects raised within these collections also feature in collections relating to medicine and those practicing medicine .
  • For collections relating to medical science, see science and technology.

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