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Archivists and Oral History: Engaging the Community

Craig Fees

Society of Archivists Training Day, 27 April 1999.




1. What are archives? What are archives for?

Archives are a form of social memory. Archives are part of the memory function of a person, group, community, organisation, Society.

Q: What is the function of memory in an individual? For a group of individuals? For a community?

Partial Answer: Personality requires memory; social coherence is a function of memory; the capacity to deal with the future in a creative, productive, and non-destructive way is a direct function of the richness, accuracy, use and effective accessibility of memory.

(What follows from this?)


2. Records Management: is a recognition that memory begins in the present, and that effective long-term memory requires the involvement of archive professionals in the day-to-day selection and management of recording experience.

A living, active archive is one with an active involvement in the day-to-day life of the business, organisation or community of which it is a part, and which it serves, with an eye on both the short-term and long-term memory needs of the parent body.

British archives, certainly since the war, have never been simple repositories, whatever that might mean. Very quickly many of the county and business archives took on an overt records management function. They became involved in the creation of a concern about, an approach to, and a process of handling information and passing it into the formal corporate memory. Running alongside, in many cases, was an explicit or tacit oral history programme.

Q: How do oral history and records management relate to one another?

Partial Answer: They are different expressions of the same function.


3. Fundamentals: The memory of a group, organisation or community is not only tied up in conventional objects of recording, such as paper, or even photographs or films. It is also tied up in the memories of the members of the organisation or community, and in some instances or in relation to some aspects of the life or business of the body, it is the only memory. Archives have a duty to attend to this area of personal and corporate memory.

Q: This runs counter to the traditional definition and view of archives and of records. We can refer to people as “living archives”, but doesn’t this side-step the fundamental nature of archives?

Partial answer: Archives follow recording technology and the cultures which control and use them in a complex way. Formal archives as we know them were born when the dominant technologies were based in pen and paper, and developed institutionally in the era of the typewriter and mechanical reproduction. The weight of memory preservation and re-production shifted from central government to local government to businesses to specialist repositories; and continues to devolve.

Q: Where do the demands on archives now come from? If they still exist, where will they come from tomorrow?

Partial answer: As technologies develop, the demand for their use in research and in responding to the opportunities and challenges of the present also develop. Researchers and communities increasingly expect archives to be on the Internet, and increasingly expect their holdings to include oral history, in readily accessible recordings of high technical quality. This is their memory, which they will come to feel is theirs to be there by right. Archives will either serve that requirement; or people will turn to those that do.


4. Pragmatics.

An archives service survives and thrives to the extent that it understands, and that it is and is seen to be engaged in meeting the many and varied needs of the group, community, or organisation which flow from memory and its accessibility.

Oral history gives an archivist access to the current and historical concerns of an organisation or community. It puts them in touch with an overview, which conduces to a better targeting of the archives and its services. It also demonstrates the normally hidden work and personality of the archive in an immediate and immediately accessible way.

Oral history is an effective and demonstrably productive way to become engaged with the life and work of a company or community. It creates an awareness of the archives service, it demonstrates the archive’s commitment to the people and the organisation it serves, it spreads knowledge about what “archives” are and what it is that the archive is interested in, and – as a matter of reciprocity - it generates in return the support and participation of the community in the archive itself, which is realised in the form of additional materials coming into the archives, in funding, and in the fruits of “ownership”.


5. Practicals. What does an oral history programme cost?

In equipment: Perhaps £400 - £500 all in.

Per recording session: Perhaps £1 - £5 in tapes and batteries.

Per tape: Perhaps £30 - £60 for transcription (the better the recording quality, the clearer the recording session, the lower the transcription cost)

In staff time: Travel, real time of interview, two hours subsequent paper-work/follow-up

In terms of storage: Fractions.



6. What is the minimum level of oral history activity each archives service should support? What are the options?


  • Archivists using tape-recorders when negotiating, collecting and accessioning archives. Cost: Materials only; this is travelling and work the archivist is doing anyway. It is extremely simple. Benefit: By recording contextual information from the donor, or members of the workforce or people represented in the archives, significant value and flexibility is added to the archives and their potential for future use.


  • An awareness of recording going on in the community. Moral and professional support for same. The equivalent of a survey of parish registers to determine the extent and nature of prior recording.


  • Providing a home for recordings.


  • Equipping and providing support for volunteers carrying out oral history projects in association with the archives service.


  • Building oral history into the work and philosophy of the archives.