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Oral history: major national oral history projects and surveys

The British Library holds key oral history collections that offer surveys of British life.  These collections are national in scope and are rich with details about British life, work and families in the twentieth century. Many of these collections will be useful to those researching political and social issues, health, disability, ethnicity, immigration, religion, food, art, and British heritage.

Millennium Memory Bank

In the last year of the 20th century all BBC local radio stations across England, together with Radio Scotland, Radio Ulster, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru, joined forces with the British Library Sound Archive to create a powerful record of the century just ending through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life. This joint BBC and British Library project, entitled ‘The Century Speaks: Millennium Oral History Project’ collected over 6000 interviews.

Between September and December 1999 each of the BBC's forty stations then used the recordings as the basis for its own series of sixteen programmes called 'The Century Speaks' in which local people reflected back across the last 20, 50 or 100 years. Each series showed how - in that part of the UK - different aspects of life have changed. This was the largest project in the history of British radio.

The British Library holds all of the uncut interviews in the Millennium Memory Bank (C900) and all the resulting radio programmes in The Century Speaks (catalogue no: C953)

6,000 people of all ages and backgrounds told us how they and their communities have changed during this period and in so doing they helped us to create a sound map of the century. Memories have been gathered under sixteen headings, allowing us to hear teenagers and centenarians talking about the same themes so that each subject is seen through the eyes of different generations. The sequence of themes was: Where we Live and House and Home; Living Together; Who We Are and Belonging; Crime and the Law; Growing up and Getting Older; Technology; Eating and Drinking; Money; Playtime; Going Places; Life and Death; Beliefs and Fears; and What’s Next.

The George Ewart Evans Collection

Writer and oral historian George Ewart Evans (1909-1988) is widely regarded as the 'grandfather' of British oral history, although he always said that the term 'oral history' reminded him of 'the filing cabinet of a well-equipped dentist'. His preference was for 'spoken history', the title of the last of a series of books based on recorded reminiscences published between 1956 and 1987.

This collection comprises around 250 recordings of interviews and songs made by Evans between 1956 and 1977, involving about 170 people. Most recordings were made in Suffolk, with a smaller number in the Midlands, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The principal subjects are rural life and agricultural work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, folk beliefs about animals, medicine and witchcraft, folk and popular songs, entertainment and education in rural communities (with some material on domestic service, transport and mining). The collection consists of copy tapes dubbed from originals loaned to the National Sound Archive in 1976.

Interviews from the George Ewart Evans Collection are now available via the British Library Sounds website. ‘George Ewart Evans and His Legacy to Oral History’, an article written by NLS Director Rob Perks, featured in the NLS Annual Review 2009-10.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

This pioneering collection of oral history interviews, also known as 'The Edwardians,' was devised and recorded by Paul and Thea Thompson at Essex University between 1970 and 1973. It comprises structured interviews with a cross-national sample of people born before 1918 in the UK. The interviews were conducted thematically, and included Meals, Domestic Routine, School, Weekend Activities and Religion. A quota sample of an initial 444 individuals was selected to be geographically representative of Britain, broken down by urban and rural district according to where the informants resided in 1911 (census data), and by occupation at time of interview. A further 65 interviews with middle and upper-class families were conducted later, also 7 interviews with black migrants, 3 with Irish men and women, and 6 with American men and women. From C707/455 to C707/518 the tapes have been given the collection title 'Middle and Upper Class Families'. This collection, the result of the first national oral history interview study to be carried out in Britain, also forms the basis for Paul Thompson's The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (1975).

Other major projects

Families, Social Mobility and Ageing: a multi-generational approach (Qualidata)

Also known as '100 Families', this research study was carried out between 1985 and 1988 by a team under Paul Thompson at Essex University, aimed at gathering ethnographic data illustrative of family, ageing and social mobility. A sample of 110 families was taken from 200 wards in England, Wales and Scotland, based on a sub-sample of interviewees from the ESRC stagflation project (which concerned economic hardship in the 1970s). The initial focus was middle generation informants aged 33-55, married with children. Interviews typically covered family background, childhood, working life, marriage and childrearing.

BBC World Service: My Century

A collection of 251 5-minute oral history recordings which were broadcast daily on BBC Radio 4 throughout 2000. The recordings cover a multitude of topics from warfare, crime and mental illness to sporting achievements, economics and telecommunications.

National Trust Sound Archive

An ongoing collection of recordings made by the National Trust. The interviews record the experiences of those that worked in properties now owned by the National Trust between the 1920s and 1950s, recalling daily life, the families that lived in the properties, and descriptions of the houses and gardens. The collection also includes many recordings about the period after properties had been acquired by the National Trust, including interviews with staff, archaeologists, architects and landscape gardeners.

Related recordings

Issues of Britain and British life will arise in almost all life story interviews. Before searching the oral history collections using the British Library Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, the guide to searching for oral history recordings may be useful.

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
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)