Oral histories of social policy

Olive Stevenson
Photograph of Olive Stevenson, social worker and academic. 1976

We hold a large number of oral history collections that survey British life, work and families in the twentieth century.

About the collection

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 20th 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.

What is available online?

Pioneers in Charity and Social Welfare, a National Life Stories project, has recorded the memories and experiences of key figures in welfare and charitable work. Interviewees include human rights lawyer Lord Joffe, leading social work academic Olive Stevenson, Christian socialist Ken Leech and Red Cross nurse Pegeen Hill.

The collection includes a five-part interview with Revd Nick Stacey, which ranges across his long career in sport, the clergy and social services.  As with all oral history recordings, the views expressed in the interview are solely those of the interviewee.  In the case of this recording, there are some descriptions of the culture of social services in the 1970s and 1980s which people may find disturbing, and which the Library in no way condones. However, as first-hand testimony of a period in our recent past we believe that it is important for the interview to continue to be available to researchers.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Search the online Sound and Moving Image catalogue to retrieve detailed information for every oral history interview.  All recordings without access restrictions can be accessed in the Reading Rooms via the Listening and Viewing Service.

An interview with Baroness Lucy Faithfull, director of Social Services for Oxford City Council between 1970 and 1974, and founder of the Lucy Faithful Society, a child protection agency helping sexually abused children and their families, is included in the National Life Stories project Leaders of National Life.

Interviews with Priscilla Young, social workers since the 1940s and founding member of the Association of Social Work Teachers, and with Peter Townsend, social scientist at the forefront of poverty studies since the 1950s, are included in the NSA: General collection.

Pioneers of Qualitative Research is an ongoing project initiated in 1997 to record life story interviews that document qualitative research techniques and practice in the 20th century.  Interviewees include social anthropologists Sir Jack Goody and Peter Loizos, and sociologists Ann Oakley and Lord Michael Young.

Care Leavers' Stories Project is a collection of video interviews of people whose lives have been affected by their experiences in care, including residential and foster care. This project was coordinated by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Four volunteer interviewers, themselves formerly in care, were trained in oral history interviewing techniques and conducted the interviews.  More information about the project can be found on the SCIE website.

The Fire Brigades Union Project consists of 28 interviews and was conducted as part of an Essex University PhD on Fire Brigade Unions.

An interview with trade union leader Jack Jones is also included in the National Life Stories project Leaders of National Life.

The National Co-operative Society Oral History Project is a series of life story interviews with active members of the Co-operative movement from all over Britain, administered by the Co- operative College, Stanford Hall, Loughborough. Interviews cover many aspects of the Co-operative movement and Co-operative societies, including the retail and wholesale businesses, the Co-op Bank and Building Society, CIS (Co-operative Insurance Society), the Co- operative Party, the Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth, Socialist Sunday Schools, the Communist Party, Co-operative Youth, St Mary's Guild, Woodcraft Folk and the Co-operative Women's Guild.

Interviews with Animal Welfare activists is a collection of oral history interviews with people active in the animal welfare and animal rights movement in Britain, including the Hunt Saboteurs Association, Chickens Lib, RSPCA Reform Group, League Against Cruel Sports, Animal Liberation Front, Compassion in World Farming and other organisations campaigning against animal experimentation and maltreatment.

The Women's Liberation Movement collection is comprised of 4 interviews with activists in the women's movement in Britain and overseas, covering a wide range of topics in the field of women's liberation activism. Interviewees include Oonagh Marron and Mandana Hendessi.

Sisterhood and After: the Women’s Liberation Oral History Project comprises 61 interviews with feminists who had been active in the Women’s Liberation movement in the UK in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The project was a partnership project between the British Library, University of Sussex and the Women’s Library and was carried out by Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Lizzie Thynne, Peter Harte, Freya Johnson-Ross from the University of Sussex and by Dr Polly Russell at the British Library.

The project also commissioned 10 short documentary films which are available for viewing at the British Library. More information about the project can be found on the project’s British Library Learning website.

The Ronald Fraser Interviews: 1968 – A Student Generation in Revolt collection includes interviews with student activists about the events of 1968 in Britain and the United States, carried out for Fraser's book entitled 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988). The collection includes interviews with lecturers and students, including: Sally Alexander, Tariq Ali, Anna Davin, Jeffrey Dudgeon, David Fernbach, Paul Ginsborg, Fred Halliday, Geoffrey Hawthorn, Paul Hirst, Kim Howells, Martin Jacques, Bernadette McAliskey (Devlin), Sheila Rowbotham, David Triesman and Hilary Wainwright.

The Hornsey College of Art Oral History Project is a collection of 15 interviews conducted by staff at Middlesex University centring on the events of the 1968 student sit-in.

More information on education see the education collection guide.

Further information

See the collection guide to Oral History and webpages for National Life Stories: the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library.

Search the online Sound and Moving Image catalogue to retrieve detailed information for every oral history interview.  For more information on how to search the catalogue and listen to oral history recordings see our 'How to' guide. 

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom