Community Voices: Oral History on the Ground Conference Review

Posted on 12/09/2014 by


Nearly 150 delegates attended this year’s annual conference of the Oral History Society, whose theme was community oral history.

The conference, which was held in association with Manchester Metropolitan University, highlighted the diversity and richness of community oral history with papers covering a huge range of topics.

The conference began with a keynote speech by Simon Elmes, creative director of BBC radio’s documentaries unit, who spoke about the Listening Project, the short conversations between friends and family which are played daily on Radio 4. Elmes’ key question was whether the Listening Project is oral history.

His clips ranged from a lesbian couple teasing each other about their laundry and whether bras should be clipped or unclipped when they go in the wash, to a son discussing his mother’s death with his father and revealing his hatred of boarding school. Elmes also said that the Listening Project “effected a bit of social change” when an Asian woman obliquely came out as gay to her mother.

Elmes said that conversations could last about 45 minutes and discussed the fine editing that takes place, with the final clips only being about two to three minutes long. Elmes’ talk was an example of the many ways in which oral testimony is being used, a theme that continued throughout the conference.

One example of that was the work of Alex Henry, who works with community groups in the north east to create digital stories. Digital story telling is not oral history, said Henry, who showed examples of her work: a person narrates a tale or memory from their past which is accompanied by images. These may be photographs of their own, pictures from the time or a cartoon may be specially created to accompany the narration.

The use of digital resources is of course becoming more common in oral history and speakers from Germany and Ireland explained how they had made the most of the online world. Penny Johnston and Cliona O’Carroll from the Cork Folklore Project gave a very practical paper about their use of online tools such as Google analytics and Facebook insights to track visitors to their online Memory Map.  O’Carroll talked of the “power of nostalgia on the internet”.

“We want to use our projects to build relationships with people – either with people we know in the real world or people online,” she said.

The second keynote speaker at the conference was Linda Shopes (bottom right), an oral historian with experience in museums, community projects and teaching. She gave a reflective – and challenging – talk , looking back at her work with the Baltimore Neighbourhood Heritage Project in the 1970s, a project which documented the lives of six blue-collar communities in Baltimore. This project, borne out of high hopes of shining a light on a community that was losing its identity, faced numerous challenges, said Shopes. She talked about the tension between the “professional” oral historians who wanted a more academic project and the volunteer interviewers who were happy to reminisce about the past.


“I believe our professional approach to oral history, honed in the academy and replete with forms, deadlines and certain lines of inquiry was simply out of synch with local people’s sense of history as something deeply personal, communicated in everyday reminiscing with friends,” she told the conference. This tension persists today, she argued.

One problem with the BNHP project, said Shopes, was “defining our work around a series of life history interviews” as they lack focus and “can all too easily lapse into the accumulation of loving detail about daily life… with no sense of what those details might add up to.” She said that she has argued that a community history project should be conceptualised around a “historical problem” or issue, rather than a series of life history interviews.

She said that choosing a group of people living in a geographical area was problematic, for example African-Americans in Mississippi, Latinos/Latinas in Los Angeles, as “by defining a particular community around a single dimension of identity … we imply – not directly or consciously perhaps – that all members of the community are more or less the same, or that one dimension of identity cancels out significant differences. Better, I think, to understand community as a group of people comprised of multiple identities, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not.”

She advises oral historians to consider whom they are missing out when designing a community-based project.

Shopes’ paper was not attacking the practice of community oral history, more it was flagging up ideas of how projects could make a lasting differences and cited examples such as the Threshold Collaborative which uses oral history to raise awareness about issues such as domestic/sexual violence, teen parenting and local food sustainability.

She concluded: “So maybe we should get out of the way a bit and create spaces where people’s stories can simply be told — difficult stories, hard stories, complicated stories – not just stories of survival or of all getting along. And then maybe we can juxtapose stories that contradict one another, that tell of crosscutting communities within communities, of those excluded and those with power over it. And by doing so, perhaps we can indeed raise consciousness.”

Later that day the session on performance and oral history went some way to demonstrating Shopes’ vision in action, with presentations focusing on a documentary play about soldiers who had fought in the Iraq war and a play about a Jewish socialist community in Toronto.

Ruth Howard, who worked with the Jewish community to develop the play as well as being a member of it, spoke of the difficulties inherent in developing oral history work: “I wanted to help our community survive but not expose it. However, it was important to tell the whole story.”

Graham Smith, chair of the Oral History Society, said that community oral history had developed significantly since the last conference on this topic in 2007.

“It struck me that the level people are working at is much higher than it was five years ago,” he said.

  • Next year’s conference will focus on oral history in science, technology and medicine and takes place at Royal Holloway, University of London on 10th and 11th July. For more information on submitting a paper click here.
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