A fascinating repository of unique interviews about people's working lives in the twentieth century are bringing the past to life in Glasgow.
Professor Arthur McIvor, director of the Scottish Oral History Centre (SOHC) at Strathclyde University, and Dr David Walker are leading a project to develop and digitise the oral history collection currently held by Glasgow Museums.
The idea for the project stemmed from the SOHC's on-going work, leading them to develop ideas about the need to make oral history more accessible to the wider population.
“We'd been working with the museums,” recalls Professor McIvor, “and we realised just how difficult and inaccessible these collections were.”
McIvor and his team knew these archive recordings existed because of their close work with the Glasgow Museums – but not many other people did.
“We wanted to tap into the potential that was there,” says Professor McIvor. “These recordings were just sitting there in analogue form, so that was what led us to develop the idea of this current project.”
And this current project, supported with an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship over two years, 2010-11, includes digitising and cataloguing over 300 of those archive recordings. In order to facilitate speedier research of the data the team have also opted to summarise them, extracting information that is particularly pertinent to reconstructing the ways the experience of work has changed in the city over the years.
“This material couldn't be accessed widely before, but now with digitisation it can be,” says Dr David Walker, the project's research assistant. His collaboration with Professor McIvor is a long one – he was formerly one of his PhD students before moving on to take up a position at Glasgow Museums on the M74 project, collecting oral testimonies from people living and working near the new motorway.
Using their expertise in collecting oral histories, the team have also added new material to the archive. They assessed the existing recordings and identified gaps in the collection, leading Dr Walker to then carry out further interviews to ensure as much experience as possible is covered.
Gaining information about the ways people used to work is a long-term aim of the SOHC.
“This is part of our Glasgow Working Lives project,” says Professor McIvor. “We're also planning to mesh this into a broader British research and archiving network, the Britain at Work project, hosted by the Trades Union Congress Library Collection.”
And the new digitised resource will be especially helpful for students – McIvor is creating a new module on oral history for fourth year honours students which will involve them using the archive interviews and even contributing to the collection through their own oral history interviews, meaning that the working lives resource will be extended and kept updated.
“This new class will sustain the work we've begun,” says Professor McIvor. “Students will go on work placements with museums and archives, and continue this project by building up more testimonies and life stories.”
It's not just students looking at the world of work and employment who will be able to use this archive, though; the linguistics department at Glasgow University have already been using the digitised resource for a Leverhulme-funded research project ‘Sounds of the City’ in which they are measuring the changes in the Glasgow vernacular that have taken place over many decades. As Dr Walker explains: “The histories from this project are rich in vocabulary and in their accounts of the past.”
Having used oral history as a methodology in his own PhD research and in his work since then, Walker is unsurprisingly very positive about its value. “I think oral history opens doors that you can't get opened any other way. I sometimes call it the Heineken method – it reaches the parts that other methods can't reach. It gets you first-hand accounts, and a unique sort of history. You can use it to investigate areas where records are sparse.”
However, it's not unfair to say that sometimes oral histories are subject to a certain amount of scoffing among people who think that an individual's narrative is not a reliable source of information.
“It's something that's said by people, but we don't take one source and say it's 100 per cent accurate, it's something that is used along with primary research materials,” explains Dr Walker. “But occasionally you can't get other materials, so you have to listen to people. It's as valid as any other source.”
Similarly, Robert Fulton, one of the Glaswegians who have contributed their narratives to the project, believes that recording oral histories allows for an accurate and special record of the past.
“I was surprised to be asked for an interview, but pleased that somebody was doing this project,” he says. “I got to talk about an important part of my life that's now all but gone. People make things up, there are a lot of assumptions about things that used to be, so I am delighted that now there's an accurate record.”
Dr Walker agrees. “When you have a meeting and someone takes minutes, that's just one person's account. People write their own memoirs. But nobody says they're not reliable or not accurate – they're not challenged in the same way as oral testimony. This is a very interesting area – it's an opportunity to speak to the past, which you don't get from a book.”
He is fascinated by all the interviews he's worked on for this project. “All of the histories are good in their own way,” he says. “One is an account of a woman and her family fleeing Germany at the rise of the Nazis – but what's interesting is that she tells the story in a monotone voice. Perhaps she'd told it many times before. Then there's another from John Brown, later Sir John, who, as the naval architect for the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary ships, provides fascinating testimony and insight of his career designing and building such ships in Glasgow.”
As the project continues and when it is completed, the interviews will be enhancing exhibitions across the city, but they will also be accessible to people across the world through talking heads, clickable audio trails and memoryscapes on the project website.
Dr Walker is excited for the potential for further collaboration in the future. “I think it also helped create a much stronger knowledge, interest and enthusiasm within Glasgow Museums for the use and storage of oral history testimony,” he says. “This interest and enthusiasm will flow from its staff into future projects as well as helping to guide and shape future collections and research policies.”
Professor McIvor agrees. “The project has been fundamentally important in demonstrating the long-term benefits of meaningful knowledge exchange and engagement between academics in the Scottish Oral History Centre and curators and researchers in Glasgow Museums working in public heritage,” he says.
“At the same time, it provides the basis for a refocused public history in the city, infused much more systematically with the voice and drawing more effectively upon memory sources thus involving and empowering the community actively and directly in constructing their own history as a shared and more democratic experience.”
Image courtesy of Glasgow Museums - Group of children in a Glasgow (Maryhill) tenement back-court c.1950. One of the children was interviewed as an adult for the 2000 Glasgow Lives project. She is on back row, far right hand side - Lilian Gibson (McBride).
Feature by Carrie Dunn