An Oral History of British Science, initiated in November 2009 with funding from the Arcadia Fund, aims to create a major archive for the study and public understanding of contemporary science in Britain through in-depth interviews with British scientists.
Genetic engineering, fusion research, the internet, and climate change are topics daily discussed by the media, and Britain is one of the key promoters of scientific innovation in the world. Yet little is known about important scientific and technological advances that in Britain paved the way to some of the innovations that have caught public attention.
No comprehensive historical survey of British scientific endeavour and discovery exists which draws on personal memory and experience. Nor has the advancement of science in twentieth-century Britain been documented to provide a detailed picture of pioneering innovation, research developments, the rise of new research schools and their achievements.
Remarkably few leading British scientists, including several Nobel laureates, have been interviewed at length about their life and work, and very few personal testimonies of scientific discovery exist in the British Library collections, an omission it is urgent to remedy.
In the light of the challenges facing global society, the study of British science in the latter part of the twentieth century bears on key policy debates: from assessing and developing energy sources to the regulation of human biology research. Given its potential importance to the public understanding of science, the historical study of contemporary British science through the reflections of the key protagonists is an under-developed field that this programme aims to address.
An Oral History of British Science will comprise 200 life story interviews over four themed strands. Each audio interview will average 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 strand:
- Made in Britain
- A Changing Planet
We are extremely grateful to the Arcadia Fund, who have generously funded two strands: Made in Britain and A Changing Planet. Fundraising continues for Biomedicine and Cosmologies.
Complete interviews, with no access restrictions, are available on-site at the British Library via the Listening & Viewing Service and increasingly available online via the British Library Sounds website. Updates on new interviews uploaded to British Library Sounds will be provided via the History of Science blog.
Partners and sponsors
Accessing the collection
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.
The British Library
96 Euston Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Oral History Curator / Director of National Life Stories)
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Oral History Archive Assistant)