Oral history is something we have made much of in West Glamorgan Archive Service. This grew out of some sterling work done in the 1970s by a combination of individuals and groups using reel-to-reel tape recorders, which left us with a strong base of recordings of reminiscence interviews.
Magnetic tape is quite fragile, so rather than letting researchers listen to the original tapes, we decided to set about digitising them. For this we used a piece of free software called Audacity, which can convert the signal that comes from a headphone jack on a tape recorder into a digital file.
The next problem was how to make them available to the public. First of all, with the help of a dedicated band of volunteers, we indexed all the recordings. The aim was to pick out the topics that are discussed in depth and indicate where on the recording they can be found, to help researchers find what they want with the minimum of fuss.
The next thing to do was to make a user interface. This works on a web browser and although it isn’t available remotely, it works just like an internet site. There is an explanatory page and list of recordings for each of the recording projects, and all the content is bilingual, Welsh and English. The volunteers’ index became one of the pages: each index entry is an interactive link. Click it, and the recording begins to play. Everything has been made in-house using standard software and the result is that researchers are able to gain access with a few clicks, while the original tapes are held safe from harm.
Having the screen and sound archives available in the searchroom has helped us to promote oral history as a means of recording the past. We have given talks to community groups encouraging them to record their own history and this has resulted in the addition of many more recordings to our holdings. The topics covered have become more diverse too, and we now have recordings to do with sport, military history, literature, dialect and ethnicity.
This diversity provides an important opportunity. One of the challenges facing us as archivists is ensuring the representation of all the communities in the area we cover. Historically, many groups have not been well-represented in official, written records, and it is here that oral history comes into its own. By facilitating peer-to-peer recording projects, we are able to help community groups to tell their own stories to posterity, in their own way and to their own criteria. For example, a group of Chinese students interviewed and filmed ten elderly Swansea residents who had originally come from Hong Kong. They told their stories in their own languages and their words are translated by subtitles.
An oral history recording does not replace an official, written account, but rather complements it. It can be of immense value to the creator and listener alike, and its importance as a historical resource only goes up as time goes by.
Assistant County Archivist, West Glamorgan Archive Service