Resource: oral history

Oral History is becoming an increasingly popular research method, generating an historical resource on a range of subjects that may not be represented in the written record. For example, in Nursing History, it can be a useful source of knowledge about the development of nursing techniques and clinical practice; and on nursing as an activity or skill. Oral History can inform us what it was like at different times to be a nurse or to receive nursing care.

There is much discussion amongst historians about whether an oral history collection constitutes an historical source in its own right or a secondary source, and about whether it can substantiate or refute other sources. Its popularity as a research tool was revived in the 1980s by the rise in interest in social history and ‘history below', which spawned historians of civil and trade union rights, and feminism, who saw Oral History was seen as a means of empowering people who were hitherto hidden from history.

Oral historians argue that Oral History has a different credibility from the empirical evidence of documentary sources. Some have approached the discipline from a psychological perspective and argue that the events which we experience with most intensity will be more elaborately encoded in the system of memory which ensures that we recall what is most important to us. This makes Oral History a very personal account of the past, which is one of its strengths; but also its major weakness, rendering it open to the criticism that it lacks objectivity.

However, despite these criticisms, the medium of Oral History is an excellent method of creating a collection that captures the culture of an organisation or profession at a particular period in its history, providing insight into events. The life stories of the individuals who worked in an organisation can be used to build an organisational narrative: that is, the fund of information and stories about the past that are frequently repeated and in the successive telling are polished, embellished and modified by external and internal changing influences. From data of this sort a picture of the values and relationships that were a part of the collective experience can be built.

To quote historian, Luisa Passerini, ‘All memory is valid [and] the guiding principle should be that all autobiographical memory is true; it is up to the interpreter to discover in which sense, where, for which purpose'. In other words, every life history intertwines objective and subjective evidence, different, but of equal value. It is the job of the historian to interpret these memories in context with a wider view of history.

Oral history in healthcare in the UK

Over the last thirty years there have been several nursing oral history projects. One of the first was the Royal College of Nursing oral history project which started collecting interviews with retired nurses in the 1980s. The collection currently numbers over 400 interviews, covering the whole of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and dating back to the First World War. The interviewees, who represent all levels of nursing, recall their training, everyday procedures and patients, major historical events, social change and developments in health provision and nursing education. Contact  for further information and access.

A more recent project is that compiled under the banner ‘Nurses' Voices' by Kath Start's group at Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences at Kingston University. Initially focused on nurses at St George's Hospital, London, the collection has now extended to include a project on nursing and being nursed at Guy's and St Thomas'.


Other oral history: collections

In addition to these major collections, many researchers are using oral history in current projects, as the conference, ‘Who Cared? Oral History, Caring, Health and Illness' bears testimony to. The programme includes five papers on nursing research where oral history is playing a significant part.

Interviews with nurses also feature in two national oral history collections: The Imperial War Museum Oral History Collection contains a number of interviews with first world war nurses, while the British Library's collection also includes some interviews with nurses, including the famous sound recording of Florence Nightingale.  

The Imperial War Museum has an unparalleled collection covering all aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century conflict involving Britain and the Commonwealth. This includes 56,000 hours of historical sound recordings and 27,000 records related to audio recordings

The British Library Sound Archive's oral history collections cover a wide range of subjects including British history, the history of medicine and women's history. For remote access, the BL Sound Archive Catalogue [link to] is available to search online. They also provide a Transcription Service where copyright has been cleared. Publications can be found on the Research Resources page.

For on site access, the BL Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the collections at their St Pancras and Boston Spa locations.
The British Library provides advice and training in oral history methods. For information on training days run jointly by the British Library and the Oral History Society visit the training page on the OHS website.

Additional reading