Unlocking the everyday experiences of ordinary people
So far the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at Manchester Central Library has been working on collections held in Manchester. One of the first external collections to be transferred is the pioneering Manchester Studies oral history archive held by Tameside Local Studies and Archives.
The collection was created by academics at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) in the 1970s and 1980s. The Manchester Studies unit’s mission statement was radical and ambitious.
Manchester Studies actively seeks to encourage and develop research into the history of the Manchester region. However, its particular emphasis lies in recording, in detail, the lives and experiences of the ordinary people who lived and worked in the area. Our work attempts to effect a redress in the balance of history, a bias which has tended to concentrate exclusively on the influential and articulate in the community.
(Manchester Studies conference report, 1981)
While the team of historians and students were out capturing oral history interviews, they also copied family photographs (on the basis that often this was all the documentation that survived of ordinary working families) and arranged for any rare surviving family papers to be stored securely in local archives. We are very lucky now to have these photographs, archives and oral testimony.
Emma Stott was a half-timer in the local mill. She tells a story during her interview about the fate of her family’s papers that explains exactly why the work of Manchester Studies was so crucial.
Emma’s anecdote also hints at one of the classic methods oral historians use to identify interviewees – the snowball effect, where one interviewee leads to another, for example in this case a neighbour in the same street. This method would probably have been particularly crucial in the area surveys, for example of Trafford Park, Wythenshawe and the Miles Platting Tripe Colony.
The collection includes hundreds of interviews with people from all over Greater Manchester who were born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They discuss their life histories, including connections with trades unions, domestic service, pioneering women in politics, the cotton industry, pawnbroking, music halls, maternity services and housing. And we have the wonderful job of digitising and cataloguing 500 tapes from the collection.
Each interview is on one, two (or even up to six) 5″ open reels. They are all labelled and stored in perfect conditions in the Tameside archive strong room. Before collections can be sent to us, we need to know exactly how many tapes are coming, and what they say on them. This first bit of prep work we call the inventory – sometimes it is done by local volunteers, sometimes by staff.
In this case, the inventory job was made easier by the fact that the collection was already so well documented. All of the interviews have a covering sheet explaining crucial details like where the interview took place, who was interviewing who, along with notes on topics and tape quality. Every interview either has a quick summary giving an overview of the conversation or a full verbatim transcript.
Cataloging Manager Vicki Caren and I spent a couple of days in the summer working with the kind help of Rob Hillman, the Tameside Archivist, to check the shelves against what we already knew about the collection. We noted any missing tapes and whether any interviews went across more than one tape. And we wrapped them up in elastic bands to group each interview clearly together.
The spreadsheet that eventually results from this work is what we call Stage 1 cataloguing – it’s as much as we know about the tapes before we listen to them. What’s on the tapes isn’t always what’s written on the labels, but at least we’re clear which tape is which. The Stage 1 catalogue allows us to link the tapes with the digital files created from them.
In August we drove a hire car out to Ashton to pick the tapes up. I was pretty nervous about whether I’d ordered a big enough car. As you can see, it was a tight squeeze trying to get 500 tapes into a hatchback!
So far our Digitisation Manager Siân Williams has digitised 80 of the tapes. Each night the digital files are sent down to the British Library in London to a temporary drive where they wait to be digitally preserved. Meanwhile Vicki is working on Stage 2 cataloguing. This is the most time-consuming bit of the process because involves listening to the digital files and writing summaries of the conversations, or fixing up the existing summaries to make sure they are consistent and accurate. But it’s also the most fun because this is when the stories start to come to life.
Alice Davies is asked about her the clothes she wore in the mill. Her answer takes her off, for very good reasons, on a different and quite shocking direction. This is a good example of why good oral historians allow their interviewees to lead the direction of the conversation. One memory sparks another because our memory is a living breathing thing, and it’s important to allow the anecdotes to flow naturally.
All the descriptive information we produce goes down to the British Library to be checked and published on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Once that has happened, we can link up the digital files and the Stage 1 and 2 cataloguing and finally ingest the digital files into the Library’s Digital Library System. I think about this (because otherwise it makes my brain hurt) as being like putting the files on a digital shelf, and making a note of their filenames and the shelf number.
This is the point in the process where we can start to think about clearing copyright and checking the content for any data protection sensitivities before preparing the audio to be accessible online or at Tameside. But all that can wait till another blog. Look out for much more from us on this fascinating collection…
You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.