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Oral history: science and technology

The British Library is home to a number of donated oral history collections concentrating on medicine, science and technology. Collections range from interviews with distinguished physicists, chemists and biologists, to those involved in the design of groundbreaking technological innovations.

Science

  • An Oral History of British Science (catalogue no: C1379), a National Life Stories project initiated in November 2009 with funding from Arcadia, aims to create a major archive for the study and public understanding of contemporary science in Britain through 200 in-depth interviews with British Scientists.  The project aims to record 200 life story interviews, averaging 10-15 hours in length, complemented by some shorter video recordings reflecting key events or locations, plus at least one group ‘witness seminar’ for each of the project’s four themed strands: The Factory of Life, Cosmologies, Made in Britain and A Changing Planet.
  • The Fellows of the Royal Society interviews (catalogue no: C864) comprises video interviews with Lord George Porter of Luddenham (British chemist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1967); Sir Francis Graham-Smith (Astronomer Royal 1982 - 1990); Professor Nicholas Kurti, (physicist at Oxford who worked atomic bomb project between 1940-1945), and The Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne (theologian, mathematician and physicist).
  • The Science Museum Cable Company interviews (catalogue no: C386) is collection of three interviews with those involved in the cable service industry which was carried out to provide background material for the telecommunications gallery at the Science Museum.
  • Calvin Laboratory Interviews, 1945 – 1963 (catalogue no: C1017) is a collection of interviews recorded with Melvin Calvin and scientists who worked with him in the Bio-Organic Chemistry Group which he set up in 1945, in order to discover the path of carbon in photosynthesis. Calvin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1961 for this work. This oral history project was set up in the late 1990s by Professor Vivian Moses who was a postdoctoral student with the Calvin group during the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Edinburgh University Science Studies Unit, 1969 – 1971: Distinguished British Scientists (catalogue no: C1270) is a collection of eight interviews with distinguished British scientists, recorded for the Science Studies Unit, University of Edinburgh, between 1969 and 1971, including Sir Lawrence Bragg and Sir Bernard Lovell.
  • Edinburgh University Science Studies Unit, 1969 – 1971: Institute of Animal Genetics (catalogue no: C1271) is a collection of eleven interviews with members of staff of the Institute of Animal Genetics, University of Edinburgh, recorded for the Science Studies Unit, University of Edinburgh, between 1969 and 1971.
  • Cotgrove Industrial Scientists (Qualidata) (catalogue no: C817) is a collection of eleven interviews with research scientists, particularly in the field of chemistry.
  • Royal Society of Chemistry interviews (catalogue no: C454) is a collection of interviews with Professors Dorothy Hodgkin, George Porter and Harry Julius Emeleus about their lives and work, recorded by Moira Donnelly of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
  • The BBC World Service 'Discovery' tapes (catalogue no: C540) is a collection of over 360 open reels of 'insert' tapes recorded for the BBC World Service Discovery programme between 1971 and 1981.  There are around 700 individual interviews within the collection, covering subjects within natural science, applied science, physical science and cognitive science.
  • Interviews with physicist Brian Flowers and molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins are included in the National Life Stories project, Leaders of National Life (catalogue no: C408).
  • Interviews with chemist Aaron Klug, physicist Joseph Rotblat, molecular biologist Max Perutz, and biologist Zhores Medvedev are included in the National Life Story Collection: General Interviews (C464).

Medical science

  • The Common Cold Unit recordings (catalogue no: C1038) comprise34 recordings conducted between 1994 and 1997 by Dr David Tyrrell who was Director of the Common Cold Unit between 1982 and 1990. The interviews record the memories of those who worked at the Common Cold Unit during its lifespan from 1946 to1990, and include the testimonies of office workers, laboratory technicians, bacteriologists, microbiologists, dermatologists and virologists.
  • Other collections relating to medical science include the Penicillin recordings (catalogue no: C771); two audio letters and an interview with Dr C.W. Morley.
  • For collections relating to other aspects of medicine, see personal health, mental health and disability and medicine.

Technology

  • Oral History of Recorded Sound (catalogue no: C90) is a collection of 111 interviews with people involved in all areas of the recording industry: artists, engineers, managers, technicians, legal experts, teachers, producers, musicians, record company personnel, wildlife recordists, writers and journalists. Interviewees include David Attenborough on wildlife recordings; Christopher Bishop on producing EMI's first LP 'Men of Brass'; James Blades, former Professor of Percussion at the Royal Academy on his recording of 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra'; Charlie Gillett on Oval Records; Sir Charles Groves; Roy Henderson on working with Kathleen Ferrier; Joe Loss, dance band leader; Dame Vera Lynn; Humphrey Lyttleton; Ewan MacColl; Sir Neville Marriner; George Martin on The Beatles; Sir Yehudi Menuhin; Cavan O'Connor; Maurice Oberstein of Polygram; Dame Eva Turner; and Sir David Willcocks of the Royal College of Music. Selected interviews from this collection are available for higher education use on the Sounds website
  • Herbert Smart's history of printing processes (catalogue no: C264) is a collection of self-recorded talks by Herbert Smart about printing production techniques, in particular electrotyping and stereotyping. The collections covers: nickeloid, the impact of the Second World War, Eyre and Spottiswoode, Dalziel process, London College of Printing, newspaper production (including the Daily Telegraph), Overseers Association, laminated plates, litho.
  • The Kenneth Owen Concorde interviews (catalogue no: C1153) is a collection of interviews with people involved in the design, building and operation of the Concorde supersonic airliner, recorded in three sequences in 1979, 1992-4 and 2001, with a number of other items relating to the history and future of supersonic passenger transport recorded between 1979 and 1991.
  • The Rodney Giesler Oral History Interviews (catalogue no: C599) comprises of interviews with test pilots for Hawker Aircraft, Westland Aircraft, Supermarine and Concorde. The collection also includes interviews with airline pilots, as well as flight deck recordings and assorted sound effects.
  • Many of the collections dealing with the oil, steel and food industries feature technologists. See industry, agriculture and employment and food and drink.

Related recordings

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