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This year I attended the Oral History Society annual conference held at Royal Holloway University on 10-11 June 2015. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Oral Histories of Science, Technology and Medicine’. The conference seemed a perfect opportunity to learn more about curating oral history collections and learning about current research and users, especially as there is a variety of oral history material held within the medicine and science collections at King’s College London Archives. My aim for attending the conference was to see the current research being undertaken in oral history and what role archives and archivists were taking in providing access to these historical resources. The next two days were a refreshing and stimulating experience on how current research is increasingly conscious of the need to incorporate archival practices and how digital technology is driving improved access to collections which both academic historians and archivists are having to adapt to.

View of Royal Holloway University, University of London

The first session that I attended on the Friday morning was the ‘Archiving Oral History: Clinic’ run by Rob Perks and Mary Stewart of the British Library Sound Archives. This was a new feature to the conference that gave the first indication how archives were being actively promoted by the society. The presenters gave an overview of the workflow procedures that the Sound Archive used for processing oral history collections; from record creation to long term preservation and cataloguing guidelines. The following discussions conveyed numerous helpful practical suggestions for individual projects, in particular focusing on the legal and ethical implications of interviews and how to address potentially libellous recording. It was also interesting to see how transcript software, such as Dragon Transcription, had improved and was capable of deciphering 90% of some oral history recordings.


The panel discussions reflected the diverse methodologies used in current oral history research. The sessions raised the issues of the constructed nature of memory; conflict between experience and historical narrative and the role of emotion within personal histories. I was particularly interested in the session on ‘Patients and Practitioners’ where Cheryl Ware, Macquarie University and Catriona Gilmour Hamilton, Oxford Brookes University discussed their research on interviewing HIV/AIDS and cancer patients respectively. Both talks discussed the ‘survivor narrative’ and how it was composed and shaped by societal narratives, it was particularly interesting how they highlighted the importance of emotion and performance in breaking with the imposed rationale on their experience of treatment.

The highlight of the conference was hearing Professor Doug Boyd’s plenary lecture ‘Play, Record, Pause: how technology is changing the practice and purpose of oral history’. He described how digital technologies were transforming the way we access oral histories and creating a global audience for them through harnessing web-based open source systems to facilitate searching. The example of the OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) developed at The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, was remarkable as it showed how intelligent use of indexing could allow thousands of oral history recorded interviews to be made both available and accessible to researchers. He noted however, that increased access and exposure of collections does increase risk of digital content being manipulated and copyright infringed by malicious users through re-editing of recordings. Yet, this did not dilute the main messages of the need for engagement with the ‘adolescent’ digital world in order to combat obsolescence of both archive material and the profession.


The main reflection that I took away from the conference was the heartening news that the importance of record keeping in the oral history community was particularly strong notably in terms of long term preservation, copyright and sensitivity issues and securing a suitable repository for new material. The challenge set for archivists is being able to store, catalogue and provide access to this digital material. More time and cost effective practices will be needed, to be adapted such as keyword indexing rather than full transcription, and out-sourcing of indexing to remote volunteers.  The project to transcribe the papers of Jeremy Bentham is an interesting case study.


To read more about the conference please read the following post on the noticeboard for Oral History in the UK: https://oralhistorynoticeboard.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/conference-write-up-oral-histories-of-science-technology-and-medicine/