Historical Voices

By Kayt Button, @kayt_button

Today we collect a vast array of readily available information in the form of statistics, stories, reports, and videos available publicly on the internet or through more official channels. These are created by journalists, public servants, and the public at large who are able to self-publish. Before the advent of what has been named “Big Data”, events were written down, or photographed, by a few individuals and published. Before that, pictures and oral histories recorded important events. All these sources have their own difficulties – in the case of Big Data, as the name suggests, the volumes of available information can be overwhelming. Hard copy written sources were authored by someone and understanding the writer can be as important as what they reported, which is also true of oral history, drawings, and photographic evidence.

Historian and anthropologist Jan Vansina describes “Oral Tradition” as being the result of both a product and a process. The product is the mesage itself and the process is the way in which this message is transferred from person to person. This suggests that any histories passed verbally through generations are constantly changing as the message is influenced by the process, whereas photographs or reports which captured a moment in time are physical records which remain the same, although the interpretation of them might change depending on the reader and their circumstances. Different cultures and languages give different levels of importance to this oral tradition.[1]

"Let they who have ears..."
“Let they who have ears…”

My own work investigates the environmental impacts of electricity becoming the utility that we understand today. Much of the history relates to the first quarter of the twentieth century, around 100 years ago, or roughly three generations. Photographs, letters and public documents are available but there is very little oral history of the time made by people who were there. Instead, I am trying to collect memories passed through families of electricity as a new energy source. Yet this is difficult, because in Britain the oral tradition is not strong. However, this gap is beginning to be addressed by the British Library’s collection of British History Stories. They suggest oral history “enables us to eavesdrop on events, feelings, attitudes and ways of life which have been hidden from history, and thus create more vivid pictures of our past”. They also talk about the way oral history can “enliven” and “engage” audiences as well as “bringing generations together”. The subjects covered range from ‘women’s history’ to ‘religion and belief’ to ‘industry, agriculture and employment’ (a full list can be found here).

The British Library collections include a comprehensive collection of electrical industry oral histories given by eminent people from within the industry. It is their early memories of electricity rather than their later industry experiences that feed into my work but this adds significant value that can only increase with time. Peoples’ stories provide the complement to historical research of a real human experience. This adds a richness since, although memories may be tinted by nostalgia, individuals remember what was important to them at the time which in itself is valuable to my own work. For example, the memories recorded of people from the electricity industry are not directly relevant to the period I am studying, but why they chose to work in their industry or their childhood memories of electricity in their own homes and surrounding areas gives me insight into what might have inspired earlier electrical engineers. Future historians will look back to the periods of history to which their stories are vital.  And their vocal recordings will provide a snapshot in time but with the additional benefit of the teller’s own words and voice. Going forward, this resource provides a wide-ranging set of historical sources delivered through the voices of the people who lived them.

[1] See Jan M. Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison, Wisconsin, 1985) and Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford, 1978).

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