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The Voice of the Eyewitness

Updated Friday, 11th February 2005

Oral history is a vital resource that complements and sometimes corrects the evidence of written and visual records.

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The BBC's Frank Gillard reports on VE Day Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC The Value of Oral History


Did you ever wonder what it might have been like to be called up to fight in the Second World War; to be a nurse on the home front, or a teacher of evacuated children? Or just to be one of those children perhaps seeing the countryside for the first time?

Maybe you were there, in the prison camps, arriving from Delhi or Kingston answering the Empire’s call, keeping watch during air raids, cooking meals with rationed food, going to school, waiting for letters, getting married, working in factories, leaving home for the first time…

Eyewitness accounts of wartime experiences make us feel as if we were really there. They also fill in the gaps in official accounts - and sometimes they go against those public stories. Did people really sink their differences during the Blitz? Were there any deserters? What did local people know about the secret world of places like Bletchley Park?

The Second World War may be sixty years away but it’s still there in the memories of people who lived through it.

I am an oral historian and I find myself gripped by the things older people tell me about what they’ve done in the past. Recording those memories and finding ways to pass them on to future generations is a part of what I do. I’m Professor of Oral History at the Open University where I’ve written material for courses such as Understanding Health and Social Care (K100). Many of our students work with older people giving the support they sometimes need. They find that talking about the past can help them with getting to know older people better. They also discover that they learn a lot about the past simply by listening to what older people have to say. I wrote Working with Experience for K100 so that people like health and social care workers could find out why people’s stories are important in care work.

I also helped to make Start Writing Family History (A173) where there’s a section called ’Family stories: oral history’. This is a short introductory course for people who are interested in getting into family history. Of course for many people the idea of family history is a matter of looking up records in archives and drawing family trees. But oral history can often be the key to understanding those family relationships, providing clues about where to start looking for places and people.

Encouraging someone to talk requires some skill and patience, it also means learning how to listen. You could practise next time you’re standing next to someone at a bus stop or in the supermarket but you might also want to read more about what oral history is and what oral historians do. One place to start is the website of the Oral History Society. There you’ll find out about training opportunities, useful resources, the UK network of oral historians and information about ethics and copyright rules. You might want to listen to some interviews about the People’s War that have already been collected. Some of these have been put into archives, others have been published in books by local community groups. 





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