2002: Oral History, Adding Value, and Archives

Craig Fees, “Oral History, Adding Value, and Archives”, Film and Sound Group News 16 (June 2002), pp. 8-10

For some years, thanks to the kindness of the Society of Archivists’ Training Officer, Susan Bradshaw, I have been conducting the Oral History session at the Society’s Seminars for Recently Qualified Archive Professionals. My message has always been divided into two: That archives ought to regard the doing or facilitating of oral history as a core element of their work; and that archivists themselves ought to have recording as part of their everyday professional toolkit.

In the beginning I was inspired as much by belief and faith as by the fruits of practice, although those were certainly there. Having been asked to help establish ex nihilo an Archive and Study Centre devoted to therapeutic community, a field with a long history of neglect, loss, and lack of records (although not so extensive as I originally believed), oral history played an obvious gap-filling role. It also led to the discovery of archives, and to my education in the parameters and perimeters of the field. But there were other benefits as well, and taken together these seem so obvious and well-aired by now that I went to the most recent Seminar, on May 14, prepared with two presentations – one in case I found myself in the position of selling old rope, and another, getting into the exciting issues which arise among archivists actually doing oral history. In the event only a handful of the 30 delegates (and one President of the Society) had ever done oral history, and very few were in offices in which oral history was a feature.

I find this curious. To me there are two very strong arguments for including oral history within the remit of archives and archivists, and therefore in their training. One is based in first principles. The other is a simple appeal to Naked Self Interest. They both go back to the fact that archives only have a legitimate economic claim on Society if they are a value-adding activity. If managers in a corporation can get better value from twenty-five file cabinets and a squad of secretaries than they can from a dedicated archivist and archive service, then the conclusion is obvious. If a community doesn’t get back more from an archive than it puts in, then ultimately it will (or should) pull the financial plug.

As far as first principles go, we have to ask ourselves what an archive is, and what social role it fulfils. This is simple: Archives are a form of social memory, and an archive fulfils the role within a community that memory does within an individual.

That we don’t tend to see archives in these simple terms goes back to the fact that the profession as we know it grew up rapidly before but mainly after the Second World War, largely within government (the Society of Archivists very nearly began life as the Society of Local [i.e. ‘government’] Archivists), at a time when writing and print were not only the dominant technologies for recording experience, but were widely regarded as the only legitimate forms. It seems strange, now, in the day of “archive hours” and classic re-runs, that the early figures in the saving and preserving of recordings at the BBC had to fight both an entrenched lack of concern and an active opposition; just as it seems strange – or ought to – that it was once thought sufficient to save the transcript of an interview, and to dispose of an original recording. The flood of people seeking ancestors and family and community history on the one hand, and the proliferation of cheap and accessible recording technologies on the other, have helped to sweep that world away, and with it a definition of “archives” rooted solely in terms of written records and the conduct of business.

If an archive is a form of social memory, and if its role corresponds to that of memory within an individual, then we know certain things. We know that the deeper, the more diverse, the more extensive, the more grounded in reality, and the more accessible memory is, the more effective and appropriate the response to others and to changes and challenges in the environment. We also know the contrary. We know that where memory is impoverished, or inaccessible – or, indeed, fragmented, narrowed, decayed, distorted or cut off from experience – organisations and individuals behave stupidly, if not destructively.

Archives add value to the life of a community – and by that I mean any group or organisation – to the extent that they conduce to the former, and obviate the latter. That almost seems to me to be archival common sense. As someone who spent seven years studying the heck out of a small English town for his PhD. , what doesn’t make sense is the belief that the history of a community of any kind is sufficiently recorded in its conventional archives. The mass of experience – as anyone who has ever taken minutes knows – the mass of events, and the fullness of their reality, resides outside the conventional record. Indeed, there are whole swathes of human experience which are not even touched or indicated by conventionally understood archives, but which are essential to an understanding of why things have happened as they have and will happen as they do. We are not serving our communities to the highest standard if we are not looking for and storing up something of that mass for future use. You can call it oral history, although in principle a slightly better term might be ‘oral archiving’, the distinction being similar to that between an historian’s purpose and approach to collecting original materials as against that of an archivist’s.

Although it could be expanded, that is basically the argument from first principles: The community’s memory is not just on paper (or on disks); it resides more widely, notably in its members.

The pragmatic argument, or the argument from Naked Self Interest, begins with the fact that there is a social demand for oral history, and if archivists don’t cater for it, some other agency will, and will gain the benefits. Some of those benefits are reasonably well known, although perhaps not among archivists. Oral history, done well – and that is a catch – creates a relationship from which other things flow. It creates a sense of belonging and ownership in the archive. It generates trust, it generates understanding, it generates participation and involvement, and it generates the gift of conventional archives and resources or gifts of other kinds. Gifts of friendship. Gifts of special knowledge. Gifts of visible and invisible support.

In my first presentations to the Recently Qualified Archivists Seminars I tried to convey all of this Naked Self Interest dimension largely on the basis of enthusiasm and faith, albeit based in my early years of working to establish the archive, and, of course, in my PhD. research. Now, I am arguing it on the basis of what seems to me the accomplished fact of a flourishing archive service, making significant contributions to the community it serves. The growth from one collection stored in what then served as my bedroom, to several hundred collections housed in a specially adapted facility, which we have just extended through the construction of a purpose-built two-story archive block (which is already beginning to look too small even before we have really begun moving things into it), owes an incalculable amount to our oral history programme and the commitment it represents. Given the vicissitudes through which we have passed, and the difficulties facing a relatively small charity in establishing an archive of this standard from scratch, I do not think it is overstating the case to say that without our oral history programme we would not be here.

So much for oral history as such. What about the argument that archivists ought to have recording as part of their everyday professional toolkit? Again this seems to me to be obvious. To survive and flourish, archives have to be a value-adding activity. If you take a tape recorder with you when you go to pick up those archives; if you take the tape recorder with you when you meet the donor and go over the deposit with them; if you take it when you go to meet the manager or secretary or works foreman who is going to describe the way that the records coming into the archive were generated and handled and how they relate to the business of the organisation, you immediately add value. Your notes are not the same. Your notes will not capture the aside in which a hidden dimension of a family’s life is revealed; they will not catch a technical word which you thought you understood but in fact radically misheard; they will not convey the emotion when the donor comes across a letter they thought they had mistakenly destroyed.

In the Seminars I play various recordings, and I think the value they add to the archives to which they relate is immediately and incontrovertibly obvious. That is part of the nature of a recording: it contains a richness of information which can’t be converted into print, even in poetry. So what is the argument against? As an archivist you are going there anyway, and you are going to be asking those questions and going through those materials anyway. Take a tape recorder with you, and you automatically add value to the work you are doing, sometimes immense value – and if you don’t know it, the person you’re recording will, and the researcher coming after will. When the equipment is so cheap, when the process is so easy, when the benefit to the donor, to the materials, to the archive and to future research is so palpable, can it be professionally responsible not to?

That’s a rhetorical question. Given the growth in interest and understanding of oral history, I believe the time will come when archivists are expected as a matter of course to hold this dimension of the community’s history, or will have to explicitly account for the fact that they don’t. If the sponsoring community – be it a town, a trade union, a City business, a government department, a family – reaches for it and finds it there, it will benefit the archive. With the benefits of doing oral history themselves so clear, this seems to me a powerful argument: If you’re not engaged with oral history, why not? And if the recently qualified archivists, who are the future of the profession, are not taking this question back to their repositories, who will?

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Post-scriptural remarks.

One of the key contributions that recently qualified archivists can make to themselves and to the profession is to carry out interviews with the senior people in their offices, and/or with those who have retired. If you need guidance or inspiration, contact the Film and Sound Group’s “Celebrating Memory” project, or go to the project web-site, at http://www.pettarchiv.org.uk/fsg/handbook.htm.

If we understand the work of archives in terms of social memory rather than record production, it clarifies a number of issues and gives a clearer sense of future direction. In the first instance, it underlines how potentially disastrous the slide into an identification of archives with something like leisure services is – it distorts and disguises the function of the archive, and leaves it less anchored and adaptable when times and fashions change. Conversely, where it is clearly understood that archives are part of the memory function of the community, the archive can respond actively and proactively to changes in memory needs, as with leisure-time researchers, without abandoning or diverting from its primary task. It can respond quickly and without let or apology to changes in recording practice and technology (as with the Internet and computers today or, in an earlier period, Roneo machines and photocopiers), and it can move ahead to anticipate and address the potential gaps in the community’s memory as different recording technologies, and change within the community itself, create them. Archivists need a variety of tools in their toolkit Oral history is one tool in this task.