Search the catalogues for oral history recordings

A curator taking a book from the stacks in the basements

How to search the British Library's catalogues for oral history recordings

The British Library provides access to oral history recordings covering a wide range of subject areas relating to British life, work, culture and experience. The Sound and Moving Image online catalogue describes all of the Library's oral history holdings and you should start your search there.

Simple search

  • Start in 'Simple search' and 'Search everything'. This will search the entire catalogue for the words(s) you have entered.
  • Entering a specific catalogue number, e.g. C466/323, should give you the information you need.
  • Never use the back browser button on your Internet window; use the 'Go back' button at the left-hand side of the catalogue banner instead.
  • Once you have found items of interest, you can 'mark' them by clicking the 'Mark' button on the left-hand side of the catalogue window. You can then click on the 'Kept' button on the right-hand side of the catalogue banner to see a list of marked recordings, and send the catalogue entries to an email address.

Advanced search

  • 'Advanced search' gives you a number of additional search options. Select ‘Oral history’ from the ‘Collection’ drop-down menu. This will search for your word(s) in the oral history collections only. Use the wildcard characters $ or ? to return any character.
  • You can combine or restrict different types of searches by clicking on the 'AND' drop-down box and choosing the AND, OR or NOT.
  • The 'name' field is useful for searching for information about interviewees and interviewers, in addition to their names. For example to see the five female interviewees in the Artists' Lives project born in the 1910s, enter '190? female' in the 'name' field and C466 in the 'any words or numbers' field.
  • In the 'year' field, you can use the ‘<’ and ‘>’ symbols to search for recordings made during certain date ranges.  For example entering ‘<1925’ with a search for ‘Winston Churchill’ only in the oral history collections would find only recordings mentioning Churchill made before 1925.

To search a particular collection, enter the catalogue reference ‘C’ number in one ‘any words or numbers’ search box; and the word or phrase that you are searching for in another ‘any words or numbers’ search box. You can find C numbers for collections in the Oral History Collections Guides.

Narrowing your search

If your search is resulting in too many records after trying an advanced search, for example for 'London', you should review your search terms.

  • Could you add a search term, for example ‘London and blitz’ or exclude a term, for example ‘London not blitz’?
  • The $ symbol spreads your search, for example ‘nurs$’ will search (all at the same time) for nurse, nurses, nursed, nursing, nursery and nurseryman.
  • Minimise the number of hits by selecting ‘Recording’ on the ‘format’ drop-down menu; this will give you only recording (content) entries for an interview.

Finding keywords in a content summary

Searches only give you whole records (some of which contain very long and detailed interview summaries) and do not highlight the precise word you have looked for. To find a single word in a particular record go to 'Edit' on the toolbar at the top of the window, select 'Find (on this Page)' and type in a key word. Pressing ‘Control-F’ does the same thing.

‘Product’ and ‘recording’ entries

A catalogue search for oral history recordings is likely to bring up two types of catalogue record: a product and a recording:

  • a product entry records information about the format on which the recording was made and the physical carrier which holds the sound (e.g open reel, cassette tape, Mini Disc).
  • a recording entry records the details of the content of the interview – such as the names of the participants, details about access and copyright, an interview content summary, and the reference number you need to order the item from the Listening Service.

For analogue recordings each interview will have both a product entry (details on format and physical carrier) and a recording entry (which gives content details), for example C410/110. For recordings which were recorded digitally (including most fieldwork recordings made after 2004, for example C821/198) there will be only a recording entry because the audio is stored as a digital file rather than on a physical sound carrier.

Research toolkit for searching oral history interviews

This research toolkit and user journey offers practical suggestions for finding ‘difficult to find’ material in archived interview collections. Written by Paul Merchant as part of a collaboration between National Life Stories and the Understanding Unbelief programme at the University of Kent. The toolkit provides useful tips for searching the Sound and Moving Image catalogue and for working with oral history interview content summaries.

Search tips for British Library Sounds

Over 2,000 oral history interviews have been digitised and are available for listening online via British Library Sounds, though some recordings are restricted to users in accredited higher education establishments. If a recording is available on British Library Sounds, you will see a ‘Listen at British Library Sounds’ link at the top of the catalogue record on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

  • Go to British Library Sounds and select ‘Oral history’ from the drop-down category menu at the top-right of the page.
  • Enter one or more search terms in the text box, for example ‘Holocaust Kindertransport’ and click ‘Search’.  Searches will find records containing all of your search terms (it will not find records containing only some of your search terms).
  • Searches only give you parts of whole records and do not highlight the precise word you have looked for. To find a single word in a particular summary part go to 'Edit' on the toolbar at the top of the window, select 'Find (on this Page)' and type in a key word.
  • British Library Sounds does not support Boolean searching (AND, OR, NOT operators), phrase searches, truncation or variant spellings.  Use the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for more detailed searches.

Further information

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7404