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12. Oral history in the British Library

By George Severs

In 1972, Raphael Samuel wrote of the ‘perils of the transcript’, the potential for mutilation and distortion of the spoken word when it is transferred to the page. In the 45 years since then, oral historians and archivists have been keen to heed this warning, yet inevitably such difficulties persist.

In 2015 I was finishing the research for my undergraduate dissertation, transcribing oral history interviews in the British Library with gay HIV+ men. Of the few that were transcribed already, one read:

What are you reading at the moment?
Oh lots. I’ve just finished Lloyd George’s autobiography, which was superb!

Having read the transcript, this stuck out like a sore thumb to me, but I wasn’t sure quite why. My suspicions were vindicated, though, when I listened to the interview myself, only to hear that the interviewee had in fact been enjoying Boy George’s autobiography. Funnier than it was perilous, perhaps, but it reminds us how relevant Samuel’s essay remains to practitioners today.

Image: Vintage AFCO Senior 75 Reel-To-Reel Tape Recorder. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vintage_AFCO_Senior_75_Reel-To-Reel_Tape_Recorder,_Battery_And_AC_Power,_Made_In_Japan_(14166679723).jpg.

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