Craig Fees, "Celebrating Memory: An Oral History of the Society of Archivists and its Members. An Illustrated Report."

An unpublished paper presented at
"Past, present and future"
The 1998 Annual Conference and Conservators Training Conference of the Society of Archivists
8-11 September 1998
Venue : Ranmoor Hall, University of Sheffield


The reason I am standing before you today is to do with a sense of duty and obligation. Duty and obligation seem to me to be central to the archives professions — our duty to the Past, our duty towards the Future, our obligation to the material in our care and to the communities, individuals and organisations which have entrusted them to us; and I am here today to try to discharge some of my responsibilities to the Society of Archivists for having given the Film and Sound Group £4,000 to initiate an oral history programme, to the many people who have given us help along the way, including the fieldworkers/volunteers, and Pat Cleary, and Chris Weir who chaired the 50th anniversary celebrations working party and was continually helpful and encouraging in various ways, and you, the members of the Society who in the end have paid to enable us to do what we have done and who overwhelmed us with the names of people you felt we had to interview, and more particularly to the members of the Society who have agreed to be interviewed, and who have given enormous amounts of time with generosity and frankness for the benefit of the profession and its people - current and unborn - and the materials this profession is uniquely designed to serve. The greatest part of my sense of obligation is to attempt to convey something of the gratitude we feel to everyone who has made this project possible.

Now let me apologize in effect for not having done more. With the £2,000 the Society gave us for the recording phase of our project we estimated we could afford about fourteen interview sessions of two hours each. Within weeks of initiating the project we had been given the names of sixty people Society members wished us to interview, a number which has now grown to well over eighty. Some of these have died or - in a way more sadly - become unable to record; huge amounts of history have slipped away since this project was suggested and as we are speaking. But the number is still greater than the resources to hand, and of course grows inevitably, and with the best will in the world, and as volunteers with full-time jobs and families to attend to as well - we have simply not been able yet to see a great many people whom we all agree it is crucial we record. We will try - and indeed will do what we can on our own resources if outside support is not forthcoming - but there are many people who have every right to expect us to have been to see them, and who we have not.

I am sure you will spot other apologies - and hopefully other thank yous — bedded thoughtfully throughout the course of the following.


Let me explain the project.

As you will be aware, the Society of Archivists celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1997. In the build-up, the Society asked its various Groups to suggest ways in which they could contribute to the celebrations. At our February 1996 meeting, the Film and Sound Group Committee came up with the idea of an oral history of the Society and its members. This seemed obvious, especially for a Group which has oral history among its remits - it is one of the Units in our soon-to-be released Audio-Visual Diploma Course Module — and we put it to the Celebration organisers, who, I am glad to say, actively welcomed it. It was provisionally accepted as one of the official 50th anniversary celebration projects in June 1996, and having completed the necessary paper-work it was formally accepted in September 1996 and given a budget of £4,000. The Chairman of the Film and Sound Group, David Lee, made the first recording on September 9 with conservator Gilbert Wilson.

The fundamental aim of "Celebrating Memory: An Oral History of the Society of Archivists and its Members" was initially stated as being "to meet with senior and founding members of the Society of Archivists within Britain, to collect their memories and reflections on their lives, careers, and the Society, and to make this information as widely and publicly available as is appropriate." We divided the project into three phases — A Preparation Phase, in which we would produce a Handbook, carry out pilot interviews, establish procedures and documentation and so forth, and which we thought would take about three months; a main Recording and Transcription Phase, which we felt would require six months, completing in April 1997; and an Editorial/Publication Phase, which we thought would take another three or four months, and conclude with the institution of a “Rolling programme of ongoing interviews" sometime in the late summer or early autumn 1997. £2,000 of our £4,000 budget was allocated to Recording, and £2,000 to Publication. Recording and transcription were to be completed by April 1997, with a culmination in some form of publication by this time last year, September 1997. We have always felt that publication was essential - One of the aims of the celebration must certainly have been to raise the public profile of archives and of the Society, and help to increase our own and the general public's understanding of what archives and archiving are all about; and that to these ends the greater the spread and diversity in publication the better.

The Film and Sound Group Committee formed an oral history subcommittee to shepherd the project. This subcommittee consisted of Dr. John Alban, David Lee and myself as interviewing/recording members and Michael Willis-Fear as treasurer/ advisor/ informant. I was chosen to co-ordinate the project. We were hoping that other members of the Film and Sound Group would join us in the recording, and later in the publication, and advertised for volunteers in the Film and Sound Group Newsletter. Unfortunately none were forthcoming. Then John Alban found himself almost immediately appointed County Archivist for Norfolk — involving a cross country move from Wales; and I became immersed in moving our archives and library from one building to another, in the midst of ongoing-construction in which (in the spirit of the early record offices) I was a labourer, and without a permanent office. David Lee pointed to the difficulty raised by the fact that recording could not be done in work-time, and that the personal free-time available to go out and do interviews was distinctly limited for all of us.

So, by the time of our sub-committee meeting in February 1997 we had fallen way behind the timetable. Far from entering the backstretch for an April finish we had completed only five tapes with three people. By the end of March this had gone up to eleven tapes with five people - and given the list of seventy or so people we had already been asked to interview, I don't think it is too far off to say that as we pressed into April the subcommittee was feeling a bit lonely and a bit desperate. And then, following a session for newly qualified archivists in London at the beginning of April, Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan and Antonia Moon volunteered to help with the recording, and following an article in the Society's Newsletter suggested by Chris Weir we made contact with Amanda Arrowsmith, Barbara Erskine (in Australia), Adam Green, Pamela Hunter, Lucy Jefferis, Marion Kiely, and Elizabeth Shepherd, all of whom expressed a willingness to record. I had already been in touch with Robin Wiltshire, archivist for the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition here in Sheffield, and through my brother and Prof. Brian Dippie of the University of Victoria recruited David Smith to help with recording in Canada. Furthermore Simon Fowler of the Public Record Office sent us five recordings with PRO staff made in 1996, and Adam Green sent us four tapes he had made in 1991 with former Somerset County Archivist Derek Shorrocks. All of this, as you can imagine, was an immense boost.

To date - including the PRO and Somerset/Derek Shorrocks tapes, a total of 18 volunteers have made 92 tapes with 39 different interviewees and (as far as I am aware) we are still within budget. This is a huge difference from our original costed estimate of 28 tapes with 14 people. And I think this indicates something of the generosity of all those who have been involved.

Another difference from the original proposal is signalled by the fact that there were volunteers in Canada and Australia. Our original proposal to restrict the project to Britain did not take into account the fact that Britain belongs to a Commonwealth within - as well as without - which archivists have had considerable mobility, that this is effectively an international Society, and that members have wished us to interview people some of whom lived then and/or now live abroad. Furtherer, implicit in the title of the project — ʻan oral history of the Society of Archivists and its members’ - is a broader scope than “founder" or "senior“ members, and we found ourselves pressed to begin to interview newly qualified and younger archivists as well, as a kind of gift to future historians of the Society. Indeed, we were explicitly asked to interview Brian Frith, a very well known user/researcher, who this year received his MBE for his work. And consequently, what we have begun to build up at the instance of members is an oral history around archives as such, and an extremely interesting and powerful body of data is accruing.


Partly by way of apology, partly by way of explanation, I would like to turn to the mechanics of the operation of the project, and with a particular eye on the delay in bringing this first phase of the oral history project to a close. But the anniversary was last year, after all, and as I stand here I am painfully aware that though the recording phase is complete some of the transcripts are still in the pipeline. And what have we done about publication?

First to mechanics:

As the co-ordinator of the project I adopted the model which I use in my Archive, in which oral history plays a key role, and in which something over 300 of the approximately 550 recordings held have been generated by the Archive itself. The key here, of course, is that the huge majority of the recordings in the collection have been made by myself; and in what is anyway an extremely labour-intensive process, at least several steps have been left out. With a project involving 18 volunteers of different levels of skill and experience, in an innately labour-intensive field, I am afraid I magnified the problems by designing an even more cumbrous/labour-intensive administrative procedure.

We set up the project so that everything flowed through the co-ordinator. The logic here was to attempt to facilitate the work by taking on as many of the required tasks as possible into the centre and therefore making it as easy for interviewers and interviewees as possible; and, hopefully keep a naturally disparate and diverse project as coherent and integrated as possible.

The tasks were laid out at one stage as follows :

  • Where volunteers prefer to work this way, make contacts with potential interviewees, establish a willingness to be interviewed, if possible collect some general information about the person's life and career, and then hand it over to the volunteer.
  • Where volunteers prefer to make the contacts themselves, supply with names, addresses, and phone numbers, and any information you might have (and you often don't have much) on the person's life and career.
  • On receipt of tape(s):
    • Acknowledge receipt.
    • Make copies for transcriber, informant, and interviewer.
    • Prepare local documentation.
      • Post tapes to respective people; give tape to transcriber.
  • On receipt of transcript;
    • Transfer to own computer system, making necessary corrections when (as at the moment) there is any incompatibility between them
    • Proof-read the transcript against the tape, to catch any obvious mistakes or misinterpretations, or to try to fill in any gaps which the transcriber couldn't catch.
    • Print and post a copy to the interviewer for their proof-reading.
  • That in hand (or simultaneously) print and post a copy to the interviewee for their corrections.
  • That in hand, print final versions for interviewee, interviewer, and editorial team.
  • Post.
  • Keep track of, and assure that all documentation is complete.
  • Try to keep other volunteers in touch with what is going on.
  • Report to sub-committee.
  • Gather and keep track of suggestions for people to be interviewed.
  • Liaise with 50th Anniversary Celebration Committee on problems and progress.
  • Publicity.

All of this, of course, along with all of the travelling and recording itself, had to take place for the most part in borrowed time and out of hours, so to speak. None of us was paid to do the work and none of us was in a position to devote any substantial periods of full-time to it. From this point of view the project was going to be difficult from the beginning, and we are grateful to Chris Weir, to Pat Cleary and to Fiona Maccoll who recognized the value of what was being done and the difficulties of trying to do it within the original time-frame, and through whom the 1996-1997 budget was ultimately extended to September of this year (1998), giving us the breathing space to do what we have done.

As for publication: This is still partly in the air. An extensive meeting was held in January (1998) to thrash out the best achievable options, with time and cost remaining the ultimate arbiters. A proposal for CD publication was put to the Publications Panel, and I understand is still under consideration. The Handbook has been available on the Internet since the middle of 1997 - and I am quite happy to make it available in hardcopy to anyone who wants a copy of it - and earlier this year we began to mount transcripts on the site. The first transcript mounted was an interview by Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan with Michael Cook, and we aim to have all of those which can be put on the site - that is, where we have permission - by the end of this year, with as much accompanying material (eg., photographs) as possible.


As for the future, at its meeting on October 6th last year the Film and Sound Group agreed to create an Oral History Forum working as one of its sub-committees. It was formally launched at the AGM this year, and one of its aims is to ensure that the oral history programme has a home and carries on. The National Sound Archives, by the way, has agreed ultimately to take the Collection.


Before moving to the recordings: These were made on a number of different types of machines. With the caveat that these are third-generation recordings - the generation that you would normally make available to researchers - I’d like to play for you some examples.


Digital Audio Tape recording. Makes splendid state-of-the-art recording in which each playback or copy is effectively a master. Dicey in the long-term survival stakes, and so not recommended for permanent storage. Masters made on standard analogue tapes.

Micro-Cassette Dictation machine

One of our volunteers, Marion Kiely, had a Sony Walkman Professional on loan to record an interview with Carl Newton. The Sony is an excellent machine, which makes very good recordings, but it failed on her and she turned in the emergency to a friend’s micro-cassette dictation machine. It is both to her credit and to Carl Newton’s that the interview went on. It is not the medium to be favoured, however, as this snippet from a later interview using a micro-cassette tape recorder between Jan Merchant and Christine Gillespie in Scotland may show:


A good reel-to-reel machine is a useful tool. From an archival point of view it is a tried and tested technology, with early recordings still going strong (having been kept in appropriate conditions) many years later. They tend to have been displaced by cassette recorders, which have convenience and widespread availability on their side. But they are still worth considering.

Analogue Cassette:

The majority of our recordings have been made using standard audio cassettes and recorders. These can be very good, and can get into broadcast standard. But there is a whole range of machines. Here are two different recordings. The first, with Edwin Welch, was made on a machine with built-in mike. It is a precious recording, not least because it is his last; he has since died. The second recording is with Sheila Thomson and is made with an external microphone on a Marantz tape recorder.


We also did a brief interview on hi8 video, but have not had clearance yet and can not show that to you.


The original fifteen volunteers, not all of whom have had an opportunity to make a recording, include

John Alban, Norfolk County Archivist

Amanda Arrowsmith, Director of Libraries and Heritage, Suffolk County Council

Barbara Erskine (Australia), archivist and oral historian in charge of the North Queensland Oral History Project at the James Cook University of North Queensland.

Craig Fees, Archivist, Planned Environment Therapy Archive and Study Centre

Adam Green, Somerset County Archivist

Pamela Hunter, Curator, Department of Manuscripts, British Library

Lucy Jefferis, Archivist, Buckinghamshire Record Office

Marion Kiely, Company Archivist, Investors Compensation Scheme, London

David Lee, Film and Sound Archivist, Wessex Film and Sound Archive

Antonia Moon, Archivist, India Office, British Library

Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan, Archivist, Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester

Elizabeth Shepherd, Tutor and lecturer in archives and records management, University College London

David Smith, (Canada), professional archivist and historian

Michael Willis-Fear, Greater Manchester County Archivist, retired.

Robin Wiltshire, Archivist, National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, Sheffield

At a Scottish Region meeting in May of this year I also enlisted the help of Lisa Strachan, Alice Stewart, Aoife Martin, Alistair Tough, Jennifer Tait, and Jan Merchant.


[edited sections from several interviews were played]