Oral history gives a voice to the voiceless often forgotten in written records

Posted by ap507 at Jun 19, 2015 01:30 PM |
Colin Hyde from the East Midlands Oral History Archive discusses the value of oral history in capturing unique moments in time – and the people who experienced them
Oral history gives a voice to the voiceless often forgotten in written records

Credit: Liz Blood; Image shows Colin Hyde speaking with a Korean War veteran

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When the University of Leicester’s History Department hosted an early meeting of the fledgling Oral History Society (OHS) in 1972 few could have guessed that more than 40 years later oral history would still be thriving in the School of History. Although people had started to use new, portable recording equipment for recording music and folklore after the Second World War, it was with the start of the OHS that oral history was formalised in Britain.

As far as we can tell, the first oral history project in Leicester was started by Dr Adrian Bailey of the University’s History Department in the 1970s. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the recordings have survived, although a fascinating photograph collection was created. The first funded oral history project covering Leicestershire started in 1983 and since then thousands of memories have been recorded by many groups across the region.

In 2001, the Centre for Urban History (CUH), in partnership with the City and County councils, successfully bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to create the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA). EMOHA’s brief was to identify, collect, digitise, and make available, all the oral history that had been recorded in Leicestershire & Rutland to that point. Although the HLF were not able to follow up the initial funding and create a truly East Midlands archive, EMOHA was able to continue at the CUH with the support of the University and has given advice and help to many projects from across the region, both academic and community, over the last 15 years.

Credit: Leicester Mercury
Oral history has often been used to capture the voices of people from minority groups and in Leicester this has led to a lot of work about migration. Since the Second World War people from Ireland, the Caribbean, South Asia, East Africa, East Europe, and many other parts of the world, have made Leicester their home. However, individual voices tend to get lost when discussing these global trends and oral history is an important way of highlighting the various motivations and experiences of people who have arrived in search of work, education, or to escape persecution. Local oral history has also looked at other minority groups such as people with particular health issues, LGBT histories, and histories of special interest groups.

Students also use the collections to investigate local dialect, the effects of deindustrialisation and many other subjects. The increasing interest in family history has highlighted the value of recording family members and EMOHA is sometimes contacted by people who have found the name of a relative on our catalogue and now want to hear her/his voice (sometimes for the first time in many years).

The centenary of the outbreak of World War One (WW1) has seen the collections at EMOHA come into their own. After more than 30 years of recording we have reached the point where it is impossible to add fresh memories to the early material that was collected in the 1980s. Childhood memories of the Boer War and the death of Queen Victoria; adult memories of Edwardian Leicester; memories of people who lived and fought through WW1; all these recorded memories are now unique. Along with the written, photographic, and material records we also have, through oral history, a chance to listen to people talking about they did, what they thought they were doing, and what they think they did in retrospect.

Almost 300 recordings in EMOHA’s collections mention WW1 in some way and extracts from these recordings have been used to create an online exhibition that covers everything from the outbreak of war to dealing with the aftermath. This complements the documentary record and tells us not just what happened, but how people felt about it and how they remember important events many years later. Clearly there is scope for exploring the 1920s and 1930s in the same way and, in some respects, more than 30 years after the first local recordings were made, the work of EMOHA has only just started!

Listen to a podcast of edited memories of WW1 in Leicestershire & Rutland below:

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