How Oral Histories can Give your Family Tree an Extra Dimension

Do you ever wish you’d asked your grandparents more questions about their earlier lives? Even those of us with quite large photo collections from the early 20th century typically don’t have anything to listen to. It would be the little things that I’d like to hear about – the walk to school, their first movie at a cinema, their first day at work.

We are extremely lucky, here at the SoG, to have two people who know a lot about oral history collections coming to give a talk on Wednesday 19 September.

Mary Stewart is Curator of Oral History at the British Library. Cynthia Brown is an independent scholar, based in Leicester, with extensive experience in the museums and education sector. They want to tell us how family historians can use oral history techniques to add a new dimension to their family trees.

It just didn’t occur to me to search for any of my ancestors in an oral history collection. I don’t know why – my mother in law found it a real struggle to be quiet and she lived in London through major events, like the Blitz. Maybe she was interviewed and its sitting in an archive somewhere. If I can look for her in the 1939 Register, why haven’t I looked for her in oral archives?

Apparently the British Library has one of the largest collections of oral history and life story interviews in the world. They range across subjects related to British life, work, culture and experience. To quote from their website ‘many sound recordings have been digitised…and a large number are freely available for listening online. There is also a ‘Sound and Moving Image’ catalogue to help you search for recordings. It’s a wonderful resource that we should explore.

Even if we can’t actually find oral records relating specifically to an ancestor, listening to oral history can help us build a picture of what their lives were like. The British Library’s collection aims to provide insight into aspects of UK personal memory, identity and experience. It’s really no different to watching old newsreels or looking up directories, is it?

Maybe you can find an interview that describes a village your family came from that is now a big town, or a job an ancestor did that has now totally disappeared. Perhaps there are interviews with women, like your grandmothers, describing their daily lives, how they shopped, how they cleaned their houses, or how they found jobs. I’d be really interested in just listening to how people spoke – their accents and the words they used.

While they are with us, Mary and Cynthia intend to use case studies to demonstrate how useful oral histories can be to family historians. The archival work done by the British Library and projects carried out in Leicestershire will give us evidence about how we can broaden our understanding and family history stories.

I’d be hoping for fresh clues or real evidence about events in my own ancestors’ lives. Of course, they might bring some of my ‘facts’ into question. That might give me some short term headaches, but I do want my family history to be as correct as possible.

As part of their talk, Mary and Cynthia also want to share what happens when people hear an ancestor talking for the first time. I imagine it would be as emotional as seeing them in a newsreel for the first time.

Join us for our Wednesday talk on 19 September starting at 2.00 pm: Oral History and Family History. The one-hour talk costs £8; Members of the SoG can pay a discounted price of £6.40. You can book online.

You can find out more about the British Library collection on their Oral History web page.

-Sherryl Abrahart

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