1998: Untitled presentation [“Arguing for oral history as part of the archivist’s everyday toolkit”]

Craig Fees, Untitled presentation [“Arguing for oral history as part of the archivist’s everyday toolkit”]. Society of Archivists Scottish Regional Meeting, 23 May 1998.

2019: Author’s introduction to the 1998 presentation

This is the script for my first formal presentation of “the case for tape recording as an adjunct to archiving”, in the words of the paper. It was written for speaking – which shows – , and printed out in large type face; and benefits, as the estate agents say, from hand-written emendations, notes and crossing-outs which I have respected, 20 years on, but would change if revising for publication. Anything added today, 2019, is [within square brackets].

The paper was foreshadowed in 1997 by “The use of oral history as a technique for widespread use in archive work”. This was the title of a session I led on the first day of the Society of Archivists two day Recently Qualified Archivists Event of April 7 and 8, 1997, which was organised in London by the SOA’s estimable Training Officer, Susan Bradshaw. “The use of oral history” was the opening presentation after lunch, as part of two sessions on “Film and Sound”. The oral history session was followed by Andrew Read and Jane Alvey’s on “Sources of information for audio visual archive records.” The two 45 minute sessions were followed by a question and answer session, followed by a break, followed by hour long Group work (which included some handling of equipment and recording). A similar structure obtained for the 1998 event in Scotland: The oral history session, immediately after lunch, was followed by Janet McBain of the Scottish Film Archive speaking on the care and conservation of film and sound archives, followed by questions, followed by two simultaneous group sessions.  The session I led included practical introduction to recording and equipment, and the Scottish Regional members taking part recording one another for the “Celebrating Memory: An oral history of the Society of Archivists and its members” project. For who recorded whom, see the entries for 23.5.1998 on the old Film and Sound Group’s “Celebrating Memory” page in the Internet Archive.

There was no script for the 1997 presentation, but both the outline and the abstract which had been requested by Susan show that the structures and themes of the 1998 presentation were already in place:

ABSTRACT: “The use of oral history as a technique for widespread use in archive work.”

As we break into the 21st century we seem reluctant to break out of the mould of 19th century thinking. Are we librarians of the nation’s memory, or are we something more? And what constitutes that memory?

In this session I would like to address these issues, however briefly, and to put three reasons for archivists to equip themselves with tape recorders as a matter of course and daily practice. One is theoretical; one is utilitarian; and one is pragmatic and shamelessly self-serving. Question: which is which?


In re-reading this Untitled 1998 presentation, and looking again at the letter from the Scottish Region’s Honorary Training Officer Vicki Wilkinson inviting me to give it, I see that I either mis-read the letter or didn’t understand it. What she asked for was a talk “on the principles of oral history and archival therapy, how to approach it, your work, the pros and cons etc.” I didn’t engage with the question of archival therapy. It is something I had certainly gone into ten years earlier, in terms of groups and communities, in “Folk Memory in a North Cotswold Community“, and from a different point of view, two years after that, in “Reflections of a Folklorist in a Residential Therapeutic Community“, (1988 and 1990 respectively). In a sense it forms a core concern of the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project, another decade on (2010-2011), and the work of the late Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre as such. By not addressing “archival therapy” at The Burn in 1998 I feel as if I missed a beat.

On the other hand, the presentation was given at a time when oral history was still widely seen in the archives profession as outside its remit, and as running counter to the proper role of archivists as receivers and not creators of documents. The case for oral history still had to be made:

When I took over the Oral History Unit in the Sound and Vision Module (at the Centre for Archive and Information Studies at the University of Dundee) in 2010, I inherited a Unit which included a spirited, articulate defence for the legitimate role of archivists in not only managing, but in promoting and carrying out oral history. This argument is still reflected in what is now the Oral History Module, in 2019, but it is included in the Module as a kind of extended historical footnote, for people interested in the history of the profession. Although I do wonder how many archivists use oral history as part of their everyday professional toolkit today, as described in 1998.



The question of archivists and oral history first came to my attention about fifteen years ago, when I was doing my anthropological fieldwork in a town called Chipping Campden, in the North Cotswolds. An elderly lady I knew gave a collection of materials to the local Record Office. I suggested to the archivist involved that she take a tape recorder along when she went to pick up the collection, to talk to this lady about the photographs and the other stuff. It seemed to me to be the natural thing to do, but despite willingness it never happened, nor was there any recording follow-up. I was a bit puzzled at the time, because recording is so simple, and the wealth of information simply in the mode of speech and the way people express themselves outstrips anything you can take down in writing – not to mention the rich digressions or toss-off remarks which you often miss when talking to people, and which only appear when you listen to the recording. And if you are going to be there anyway talking about the collection, gathering contextual information, why not use a tape recorder as well? It is so simple, it is so cheap, and it is so richly valuable on so many dimensions of research interest.

This is the first opportunity I have had to argue the case for tape recording as an adjunct to archiving in a formal way, and I hope you will excuse me if I say things which are either blindingly obvious or painfully obscure. I will be arguing from the experience I have gained mainly in developing the archive for which I am responsible, in which oral history plays an integral part; and from my own background.

I came to this country in 1981 to begin doctoral research in the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies of the University of Leeds – I should perhaps say the late and lamented Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies, because one of the lessons I have learned about the English is that they are ruthlessly prepared to destroy institutions and history in the search if an ideal – and I use the word “ideal” deliberately. This is not the view of the English with which I came to this country, and I know I have not stated what I mean very well, but it reflects a certain lack of joy in and awareness of their own indigenous culture, and in their own people, which affects all of us who are in the business of memory. I grappled with some of these issues in a paper published last year in a book on the anthropology of tourism, and crunched a great deal of language in the process. I won’t repeat that here, but what I am pointing to is something which is not simply English.

I am obviously speaking now not just as an archivist, but as an ethnologist, for whom the English are what they will be to themselves in fifty years: a foreign culture, in the sense that the past is a foreign country. As ethnologist, as archivist, we live inside a past which is present all around us, and we are responsible for people whose grandparents haven’t even been born yet, asking us for information to help with questions whose roots are so obviously a part of our everyday life that we don’t begin to see them. We are required to think of things in ways that the people around us don’t; trying to understand what of that which we and they take for granted the future will wish we had preserved for them. It’s an impossible task, although living like a foreigner within it may be a help.

What we can grasp, however, is something of the nature of archives, of social memory, and of our responsibility and relationship to them. These are the main segments of my paper. I hope to conclude this first section of my paper – on the theoretical foundations for using oral history – with a definition of archives with which you perhaps can agree. The following segments are on “utility” and “self-serving”; But I am first going to state what I think may be obvious, and then suggest how these thoughts have arisen from my work.

What I think is probably obvious is that an archives is always the archives of a community, defined technically. A point I will touch on in my final section, which may not be so obvious, is that archives, as a focal point of memory, create community.

Let me explain that small bit of Britain for which I am responsible. It is a specialist area, but the lessons drawn from it can, I believe, generalise to archives of all sizes and natures.

I work for a small charitable Trust called the Planned Environment Therapy Trust. It was founded in 1966 by a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst named Marjorie Franklin on the basis of work with which she had been involved for over thirty years.

The concern of the Trust is to do with a way of living and working with difficult people and people with difficulties – emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children and young people, delinquents, people in prison, on probation, the mentally ill and so on, which utilises all the resources of the environment, the most important of which are the personalities and relationships. It is a way of working which is difficult, because it requires a phenomenal commitment to sometimes extremely difficult people, is both loving and confrontational, and utterly reliant on the capacity of the individual even when severely damaged to find a way towards something like wholeness and health and creative membership within a community; and embraces everything from R.D. Laing’s work at Kingsley Hall to work with unbilletable children in WWII, to mainstream work with psychiatric hospitals such as Fulbourn in Cambridge under the Physician Superintendent David Clark, or Littlemore in Oxford under Bertram Mandelbrote. If you know of this area, other names to conjure with are the Mulberry Bush School, the Cotswold Community, Peper Harow, the Caldecott Community, the Henderson and the Cassel Hospitals. One of the terms which became pinned to this way of working following the Second World War and some pioneering work at the Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital in Birmingham during the Second World War is “therapeutic community”. Americans working in a similar way coined the term “milieu therapy”. The founder of the charitable trust for which I work coined the term “planned environment therapy” for experimental residential work with inadequate, delinquent, and even psychotic young men in which she was involved before the Second World War.

Although I would normally say that we are concerned only with the archives of individuals, places and organisations since the turn of the century, in fact the basic way of working is much older; once you get into it, it is a deep tradition. The Retreat in York, for example, was founded two hundred years ago by Quakers as an alternative to locking up, locking down, and de-humanising the mentally ill. What is called community care today, sometimes euphemistically, is partly an outgrowth of the therapeutic community movement in psychiatric hospitals of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Despite the fact there there is a rich history of working in this way, that fact is almost entirely lost in contemporary debate and policy making. The problems we see around us are not new. They have been faced many times before, and resolved successfully. Why isn’t that better known? The simple answer is the lack of records. The lack of archives.

Why is that? The bulk of this kind of work has been carried out in small units, with the tightest of finances. Many of these units – and the organisations supporting them – have lived, flourished, and disappeared, or been swept aside in NHS or social services re-organisations.

Even where the work has been fully documented, the records are often lost – some were bombed and destroyed during the war; just before I came on the scene a collection was burned in despair on the orders of an ill and elderly man having to move house; another was destroyed by an over-zealous housekeeper as the confidential client files of her late psychiatrist employer; another was mistakenly thrown out with the Spring cleaning by a junior member of staff; another tossed out as irrelevant by a new director of the unit, a new broom (some of it – an album of photographs from the 1940s, for example – rescued by others surreptitiously from the tip); vital documents concerning others, in the Public Record Office, for example, have been weeded out by someone unaware of their significance; and others have simply rotted away in a loft or garage where they were put, upon the hasty winding up of a unit or organisation. Others have simply disappeared – and may still turn up. Indeed, through the oral history work some unique material has turned up.

I think we all can accept that in a largely oral culture, the establishment of an archives service requires an extensive use of the tape recorder, or at least I hope we can. This idea was introduced to me by Michael Cook, in a brief discussion before a course he was helping to run at Liverpool last year. When they were building an archives service in the emerging nations of post-colonial Africa after the last war, it was essential to go to the tradition bearers for the indigenous, oral, archives – what Alan Cameron speaks of as “living archives” when speaking of Gaelic and pre-classical Greek cultures.

What you may be less prepared to accept is the extent to which the Society within which we live is an oral one, unrecorded; or the extent to which the history of communities or organisations or industries around and about us exist only within individuals’s memories.

But take, for example, the archives of this Society, the Society of Archivists. The archives are in the Greater London Record Office, and apart from the first few entries when the life and excitement of creating a new Society and profession are evident in the minutes, I defy you to learn anything essential about the Society or the profession as dynamic and living entities from them. As the Society and its work and vision expand the archives become, for the most part, tedious and dull. Until they are brought to life by a living memory, they do not reflect (to my mind) what a challenge and a privilege it is to be in the profession.

Speaking as someone who explicitly devoted seven years to the study of contemporary English culture, who did his doctorate on what by anyone’s standards is a thoroughly documented English town, Chipping Campden, I will quite happily tell you that this remains true of English culture and history generally: Paper archives scratch the surface; the Society in which we live and the communities which we serve as archivists have a depth of history locked up in the safes of memory which conventional archives touch but cannot displace. Oral archiving is essential if we are going to transfer this memory into the public keeping: To archive them. And anything short of that involves a loss of memory.

Returning specifically to the industry or community which I serve, one might just as well approach it almost as a small African country emerging from colonial rule. The therapeutic community approach to problems and to people with problems – whether work with unbilletable evacuee children during the Second World War, disturbed long-term unemployed men between the wars, present day delinquents, mental patients, prisoners, “normal” children who have rejected “normal” schooling – even when surrounded in paper, are extremely under-represented archivally.

In that bit of Britain for which I am responsible, therefore, where it is precisely those things which can not be put on paper in the first place which are often vital, but where there is a paucity of paper documentation anyway – the history is largely cognate with oral history. The archives are in the people, they are in their memories. And just as you would go to a factory that is closing down to elicit its archives before they are destroyed, so you go to people. So you go to oral archiving. Unless I go out with a tape recorder and talk to the “living archives” – the people who have done this work – then huge portions of that experience which is the history of this field will simply cease to exist: that which this archive has been created to serve, and the potential and future of the archive, will disappear. It is irrecoverable by conventional means, and exists nowhere else.

So this keeps me at the “oral history” side of the archiving even when it has been a pain to do so, and even when I would really rather have been trying to catch up on the backlog in processing our more conventional collections. Archiving is a task, as you know, which expands to fill any space and time available, and then needs more. The prospect of traipsing across the country, of spending sometimes an hour, sometimes several exploring in detail a life and career with microphone in hand and then traipsing back home – to find the children in bed, the dinner in the microwave, and an inevitable evening in the office ahead of me – is not always inviting.

But it is vital. And the personal and professional rewards to date are simply too great to ignore.

So to a definition of archives and archiving in which oral history has a natural place as a standard tool.

The theoretical underpinnings of our current understanding of what constitutes “archives” is encapsulated in Sir Hilary Jenkinson’s definition of archives from the 1920s: “Archives…are the pieces of writing, on whatever material made and in whatever form (whether originals received or drafts prepared for despatch or memoranda of transactions), which business men and business offices, public or private, have tended everywhere to accumulate and preserve by way of reminder and summary of various aspects of the work of which they formed a part…” [fn 1]

There is a danger in defining any abstract category in terms of a set of objects which illustrate it. If you define “red” as a certain set of red objects, what happens when an altogether different object comes along which is also red?

So, rather than defining archives in terms of any particular aspect or medium, it makes more sense to aim for something like “redness”: in this case, what is the function of archives within Society, which remain the same as Society changes or within different societies at different times? Something perhaps like the slogan “Archives are the Nation’s Memory”, which, however, is not and can not quite be true.

A more recent formal definition, in which there are certain echoes of Jenkinson’s, is given by Alan Cameron in the Society of Archivists Training Manual from 1995: “The archive is that portion of the on-going business of any organisation which has been selected or is designated for permanent retention.” This comes closer to a functional definition. If you reckon in the role of record managers in selecting, planning and otherwise ideally gathering in material for retention, and change the language slightly, I think I could embrace this definition.

Instead of “organisation”, let us say “community” – a community is a form of social organisation and an organisation one type of community; and into the phrase “ongoing business” let us insert “life and”. With these changes, the definition of archives becomes: “that portion of the ongoing life and business of any community which has been selected or is designated for permanent retention.” Now – keeping an eye on the question “by whom” – from my point of view that’s a fairly useful definition, based in the archives tradition but taking in the reality of the full function of an archives within Society as a whole. It also takes us out of the backrooms of Record Offices and organisations, potentially puts a tape recorder in our hands, and makes us something more akin to record managers for our respective communities, or, more broadly, for Society.

Going back to that “by whom”, and perhaps looking at the difference between oral history and oral archiving. Oral history = pursuing research.

Footnotes [to section 1]

[fn 1] Within that definition you can see the educational tradition in which he was raised – the use of the term “business men”; his logo-centric assumption that archives involved “writing”, the elimination of the greater part of human culture and experience from what has historical/archival significance – a world which even at the time he was writing was beginning to slip away under the movements of new realms of scholarship and technology. You can’t move today without running into the term “discourse”, or “psychological” or “linguistic” which require the existence of film and sound recording.

Take a factory that closes down. The archives of that factory belong – in terms of the life and experience which they reflect and require to have existed in the first place – to the people who worked there, to the people around, who lived in the shadow of the work’s whistle and its social events; to the husbands and wives and children to whom the factory was a fixture, in which were fixed the days and happenings of their lives. These people are the community for whom these archives work, as a form of social memory.

But with the best will in the world, they [the written archives] are but the bones of that memory.


Now, let me change ground, and look at what I think are some of the utilitarian reasons for carrying a tape-recorder around. The scene: I am picking up a mixture of personal and organisational papers from the basement of the office of a psycho-therapeutic unit, and the Director, a busy practicing psychotherapist, has set aside a half an hour of his day between clients and meetings and training and fundraising and book writing to show me what to take and to fill me in on what they’re about. I put a tape recorder on the table and set to work. It’s a terrible recording: you can hear me puffing and panting up the stairs and out the door with the boxes, and our voices fade in and out as we go up and down, but if you squeeze your ears you can also hear questions and the answers. In some ways an almost impossible situation, but it is the only time I have been able to corner him to get him to talk to me about these records. Thank goodness I’d brought the tape recorder.

Take another situation. A unit for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children has had to shut down because the pattern of referrals has shifted radically in the past ten years and the debt to the bank has become unacceptable. They have run as long as they could in order to place the remaining children elsewhere with the minimum of trauma to them, but in consequence they have had to vacate the finally empty premises in a hurry, having already sold it to cover the debt. The papers go through one emergency weeding, are stored in a garage, and then over the period of a year and a half are refined by the longstanding secretary into what they feel is the essential archives of the organisation. Everything else having been destroyed, this core of records is then given to us. I don’t understand them.

To the extent that archives tell us in their structures about the organisations which produced them, and to the extent that it is one of our few genuinely essential tasks as archivists to deliver a set of records to researchers which articulates the structure and functions of the organisation in which they were originally created, then to that extent this is a disaster, which we have to do something to mitigate. The complexity of the organisation has been more or less stripped out. Thank goodness for the tape recorder.

And thank goodness for the secretary, who very patiently talks to me and the tape-recorder about the records: what was thrown away and why; how the organisation of the place was supposed to function, and how it worked in practice; what this group was and how it fitted into the overall management structure; the route that the various minutes took and who had simply a sight and who held a copy. She explains the shifting management structures, and tells me of the time the boys got into the records, with what results. And so on. Far too complex for me to remember as she talked, and indeed, far too intricate and interlaced to be captured with pen and paper note-taking – which is how I had begun, before it became obviously counter-productive and futile. Even her straightforward explanations confused me. Using the tape recorder, while creating an historical document of use to future researchers of many kinds, we re-inserted the meat and bones of its structure into the organisation’s archives, and I can listen to them time and again until I finally understand.

Let me take another fairly common example. An elderly man gives a collection of glass negatives to the local Record Office. The archivist picks them up and spends a while talking to him, as you do. The archivist takes notes, but doesn’t tape-record. Five years later, when the negatives have finally been processed, have been made available to the public, and have been discovered by a researcher, the old man is dead. So is the greater part of his generation. Who do you turn to to identify those photographs?

Photographs without context lose the greater part of their nonphysical meaning, while any time spent with a tape-recorder recording the asides and memories associated with each can make them into a treasure. And why not?

Nor is there sense in leaving it to oral historians or to the local historical society. They are not there (fn2). If they were, the recordings would already have been made, and, indeed, they might already have the glass negatives. The negatives have come to you, and you have been given the opportunity to preserve and enhance their value. And if you do not take that opportunity, which costs almost nothing, what do you say to the researcher in five years’ time, what do you say to those people in a hundred years’ time who want the information? What of your ethical obligations to the meaningfulness of the collection?

And finally, before we turn to pragmatism and self interest, let me take you back to the archives I serve, and a problem that faced me in 1988-1989 when I was asked to create and develop this archive and study centre. I had been working for some six or seven years with disturbed children – my solution to being a foreign student needing a place to stay while doing my research locally was to spend five years as a volunteer, for room and board and pocket money; and then to carry on as a part-time member of the team.

I was asked to create this archive, but despite those five or six years I didn’t really know what the field was about, or anything in depth about its history. I knew the term “therapeutic community”, and I knew the ropes about clinical confidentiality, and I certainly knew a great deal about certain kinds of human distress and how to live and work with them both practically and theoretically, but when I was sent by the Trust to negotiate for his papers with one of the most important living founders of the psychiatric therapeutic community movement, I didn’t, initially, even know his name. Indeed, I had not even managed to read any of his early and seminal books before I fetched up on his doorstep in Nova Scotia with tape recorder in hand to meet and spend a week with him.

That’s a preposterous situation to be in – an eighty year old man, preeminent in his field… On the other hand, if you are asked to go to a factory that is closing down or, say, a local shipbuilders, unless you have been very fortunate you will not know even the language of the industry, much less the organisational structures reflected in the record keeping and the historical, production and commercial processes which they reflect. How do you find out? How do you find out what the different groupings of records mean, how do you find out the authentic relations of the different departments, or the significance of changes in the filing style or documentation at particular dates, how do you find out what collateral information to pursue to imbed the archives in the necessary meaningful context for future and perhaps equally ignorant researchers? It isn’t all in books, and it isn’t all in the papers. The simple way is to ask. You ask someone who knows the business and its history. And if you tape record that conversation, which you are having anyway, then you create a permanent, complex document of inestimable value not only to yourself but to future researchers, often for reasons you can’t foresee.

This is largely what I have done, with the generosity of a great many people, and from my point of view among its many other attractions, oral history is also a powerful tool for the archivist’s self-education. This is, of course, a self-serving and self-interested reason for pursuing oral history, which takes us into the next section.

[Footnote to Section 2]

fn2 : (Or even if they were you would wish to think carefully – with the seriousness with which we take stamp dealers posing as collectors)


Now, saving the worst for last, the shamelessly pragmatic and self-serving element.

When I go out to record someone, I try not to think what other material it may bring into the archive. The fact is, however, that at least sixteen of our collections, major and minor, out of a total of 60 or 70, have come in the wake of interviewing, and there are numbers of others which I expect will come to us some day. Several hundred books and pamphlets, many of them rare and essential for any kind of serious research in this field, have been given. Not to mention a major donation, equal to about 2/3 of my normal operating budget, which came in recently. I could not afford not to go on recording.

As soon as people know that you are genuinely interested and committed to them – which you must be if you are going to be doing this kind of work – and know that you have a secure home in which these things will be valued – the gifts of material begin to flow. The referrals to other people who might also have material begin to flow. Things arrive through the post. Photographs are brought out. Old recordings are produced. The conventional self-selected archives of the community appear, and are made available in some way – copying or gift – to the archive.

Oral history is a way of finding the living archives of the community material, of publicising the work of the archive, of spreading the knowledge of the historical value of materials which may have been forgotten, misplaced, undervalued, or simply held onto because the person involved with them had not yet died. Oral archiving is a kind of ethnological survey, mixed with a public relations campaign mixed with rescue archaeology.

Although it sounds very bald, and I would not usually speak in these terms, the fact is that there are collections and other advantages which have come to the archive simply because of our oral history programme: Because it makes contact, creates personal relationships, and gives people a stake in our work. However much the oral history programme may appear to cost us, in the end it brings immense profit.

It also brings us, I think, a tremendous amount of goodwill which spreads out and works in ways which we can’t observe. Why did a “difficult” collection recently fall into our laps, for example? I can’t explain it from the things I can see. I could explain it from the gradual impact of several years of recording various people who fall generally within the network or community whose archives these are.

Let me advance a couple of more lines of argument.

Archives are not really in the mainstream of public consciousness. If I rent a car, or for some other reason have to tell someone my profession, I usually have to pronounce the word “archive-ist” carefully, with that sort of emphasis, and then to spell out the word “archivist”, and then to explain in simple terms what an archive is (“well, it’s like a library for…”). We are an essential part of the community, but for the most part the community isn’t very much aware of it. Apart from the fact that it is nice to be valued, why should it be?

There are two main reasons: 1) It is their money and support which keeps us alive, and the more firmly cemented we are in public knowledge and affection the more secure and better remunerated our services will be; and 2) it is public awareness of archives and their services which ensures that vital records of the history of our communities are not destroyed. We can not be everywhere, save every item, know of every unique and endangered collection. In the end our work depends on the public being our eyes and ears.

Oral history is attractive, it is vital, and it is a powerful way to carry the relationship of an archive into the community. It gives ownership, and generates an interest in the archive’s health and welfare that could be achieved in no other way, certainly with certain parts of the community. It is also a pragmatic investment in education and the active acquisition of conventional archival materials.

For the small, independent archive an oral history programme seems to me essential; for the Record Office it seems to me that it would provide a sheet anchor against the cuts and ignorance that the service is often heir to.

Turning to that. In the early days of the Society, when the nation-covering archives service as we know it was being created, a Record Office that had three visitors a week felt itself inundated. Today, volume of use is a vital argument in seeking funding from a highly competitive and strapped local authority. In terms of use and impact, what is probably the most successful archive in Britain today? I think the answer would be something like the BBC Film and Sound archives, arising from the sound archives founded just before the Second World War, against a kind of “why do we need it?” opposition from within the BBC. It, and the vision of its first archivist, Marie Slocombe, who had an active going-out-and-getting-the-material acquisitions policy, have (I think) proven their value immensely.


What is the cost?

In the past forty minutes or so that I have been talking to you we would have used one side of one tape, at a cost of something under a pound for tape, case and label. Let’s say I used batteries. It depends on the machine, but let us say I used my Marantz – 3 batteries at £4.50, and there is still a couple of hours of life in them, so let’s call that £1.50. When I get back to base I immediately make a copy of the tape for transcribing and reference, so add another pound.

Equipment: I have had this machine for about ten years, and it cost £250; microphone £60. This Sony Walkman Professional I have had about two years; it has been out on loan the whole time, and is about to go out again. That’s why I bought it. It cost me about £260, and the microphone again about £60. This Marantz has made maybe six or seven hundred tapes for me, and it is still very much alive. That adds about 2 pence per tape to the cost. Let’s say the administration costs round that up to another pound.

Before travel and transcription, the cost of each tape is therefore about £4.50.

The main costs of recording are travel and transcription. The travel would very often have to be done in any case, and may perhaps largely be absorbed; but let us call it an average of £10 anyway to make the figures a bit more scary. Then, I make a full transcription of each recording as a matter of course. This is a counsel of perfection, and most people would suggest a précis or index were enough. But I think it is worthwhile, so I add another £25 to £30 to the cost of each tape for a full transcription. At the end, each tape therefore costs about £40 to £50.

What do you get for this? You get a sense of Community and support for the archive, you get donations, value-added meaning for the collections, and history. Just about everything. Plus a priceless, irreplaceable document; a superb gift to the 22nd century.

[Pencilled note:] You don’t need to do the work yourselves, if you enlist volunteers, local history societies, etc