Hidden Stories of 21st Century Latin America and the Caribbean

workshopThe International Oral History Workshop “Hidden Stories of 21st Century Latin America and the Caribbean” took place at Warwick on Wednesday 21 February 2018. The day was a celebration of the launch of the Special Issue on ‘Cuba’ recently published in Oral History.

After an introduction to the day by my Warwick colleague Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla we had a morning session of papers on Cuba by Stephanie herself, Kepa Artaraz (University of Brighton), Elizabeth Dore (University of Southampton), and Daliany Kersh (Regent’s University of London). Kepa spoke about the role of the intellectual in 1960s Cuba, using oral history interviews with protagonists of the revolutionary period in a paper entitled ‘Constructing identities in a contested setting: Cuba’s intellectual elite during and after the revolution’. Stephanie reflected on her oral history interviews with Cuban medical professionals, and she examined the impact of Cuban medical internationalism on identity construction. Based on life history narratives recorded in Cuba from 2004 to 2016, Elizabeth Dore explored the different ways Cubans experienced the loss of equality and the growth in inequality that has occurred in Cuban society over the past twenty-five years and the ways their memories about egalitarianism have changed. Daliany talked about gender roles and the division of labour in the private sphere during the Cuban Special Period, 1990-2005. Based on oral history narratives with Cuban women, she discussed how gender roles and the division of labour in the private sphere were affected during the period, arguing that despite current perceptions of a lack of change, there were in fact subtle shifts to gender roles and the traditional division of labour.

In the afternoon, the focus broadened out to include the wider region with papers from Jasmine Gideon (Birbeck, University of London), Ricardo Leizaola (Goldsmiths, University of London), Karen Tucker (University of Bristol) who joined us via Skype. Karen talked about her work on the Quipu project, a collaboration between two academics at the University of Bristol, transmedia documentary collective Chaka Studio and women’s organisations in the provinces of Piura, Cusco and Pucallpa. The project uses mobile phones to collect and share testimonies of those affected by forced sterilisation programme in Peru in the late 1990s. Jasmine discussed her oral histories Chilean exiles living in the UK, focusing on their coping strategies and how these are shaped by gender. Ricardo reflected on his involvement documenting oral history, ethnographic and ethnobiological knowledge in El Pedregal, an urban working-class community in Caracas. His account focused on his long-term collaboration with four generations of the same family.

Finally, the day finished with an amazing photo exhibition by Olga Lidia Saavedra Montes de Oca (aka Olisam), (University of Sussex) entitled ‘The Family as a space for gender transition’. By reflecting on contemporary images of transgender individuals in relation to their family, in her work Olga seeks to query the focus on gender transition as a contemporary, individual process, and re-locate it in personal and family histories.

The workshop was an extremely interesting day which led to academic researchers using oral history in Latin America and the Caribbean and beyond coming together in discussion and collaboration.

Angela Davis (University of Warwick)




Launch of Oral History Unit and Collective at Newcastle University

By Andy Clark, Research Associate in Oral History, Newcastle University

In this post for the Oral History in Higher Education Network Blog, I would like to introduce a new oral history group that has been established within the School of History, Archaeology and Classics at Newcastle University. The Oral History Unit and Collective represents a major investment in oral history at Newcastle. It has been created through an internal funding initiative designed to strengthen the quality of research and teaching, and represents a major commitment from university administrators to oral history work.

The name of the group is reflective of its aims; the ‘oral history unit’ consists of the academic staff working within the university. The collective extends this beyond the institution, and involves community-based oral historians doing excellent work across Newcastle and the North East. The Unit and Collective is therefore very much an umbrella organisation that brings together all researchers and teachers utilising oral history. This will allow for the development of stronger relationships, a higher standard of collaboration, and the sharing of skills and expertise.

The Unit has undergone a period of substantial growth since its inception in mid-2017. Within the University it comprises a new Chair in Oral History, two full-time Research Associates, a Research Assistant and an Associate Researcher.

Professor Graham Smith was appointed to lead and direct the group in September 2017. Smith served as Chair of the Oral History Society for twenty years and has a substantial research, teaching and publication record across disciplines and geographies utilising oral history methods. Following this, myself and Dr Alison Atkinson-Philips began our roles as Research Associates in November and January respectively. Joining this core full-time staff is Research Assistant Sue Bradley, who has worked on oral history projects for two decades, and Associate Researcher Rosie Bush, a secondary school teacher who will facilitate interaction with local schools.

We have established a close relationship with the Newcastle University Library, working together to develop an oral history archive that is fit-for-purpose and accessible to researchers. We are also in the process of developing an interactive website that will allow visitors to find out about our projects, events, collaborations, and access excerpts of archived interviews. Additionally, we have created a blog platform with posts, news, and podcasts recorded with oral historians.

The Unit and Collective aims to be international and interdisciplinary in its approach. We are currently developing three research projects involving scholars from English, Linguistics, Medical Science, Digital Humanities, Ageing and Demography. We have met with community-based oral historians, local film production companies and artists, looking to develop sustainable partnerships to conduct research throughout the region. We will be attending international conferences to engage with other researchers, present our work and contribute to new directions in oral history research.

The Unit and Collective was officially launched in January 2018 with a keynote lecture provided by Professor Alessandro Portelli, with over 100 attending to listen to his ‘Reflections on a Life in Progress’. If you were unable to attend the keynote, you can access the recording here. We are actively building upon the success of the launch event and will be hosting open meetings, seminars and other events to bring together academics and community groups using oral history. We hosted our first monthly drop-in session in March 2018. The aim of these sessions is to invite everyone in Newcastle and the North East using oral history to come into the university to discuss ideas and research projects over a cuppa, in an informal and friendly environment. The programme for our seminar series is currently being developed, as are plans for future keynote lectures and exhibitions. Information for all of these events will be announced on our blog, our Twitter account and – shortly – our own website.


We would be delighted to hear from oral historians across Britain who wish to engage with the Oral History Unit and Collective at Newcastle. If you would like any further information, or would like to be added to our mailing list, please email us at oralhistory@newcastle.ac.uk.

The right to a name

By Rebecca Clifford, Associate Professor of Modern History, Swansea University


Last year, I had a conversation with an archivist that gave me a great deal to mull over. We were discussing the case files of child survivors of the Holocaust. I had flown half-way across the world to use her archive, one of the few that allowed me free access to an entire collection of children’s case files. Most archives require a researcher to have special dispensation to see such case files, and with good reason: they can contain highly sensitive information, including medical and psychiatric reports, and in many cases the ‘children’ concerned are still alive, now in their seventies. But this archive was an exception: they would allow me to look at any case file I wished. There was only one catch. I could never use the names of any of the children whose stories of persecution and loss were set out in these precious files.

I explained to the archivist that this created an ethical dilemma for me. I am writing a book about child survivors of the Holocaust, and I am chiefly interested in how child survivors have made sense of their pasts, in different ways at different times, through the seven decades of the postwar period. As an oral historian, I was drawn to this group because I wanted to understand how, without parents, relatives or communities to fill in the details of their early lives, these children have made sense of their childhoods, and related their own histories. There are many children in my study who do not know what town they came from, or their own parents’ names, or whether they had siblings; a few are not even certain of their own birth names. Throughout my research, I have paired oral history with archival documents, and I have done this predominantly by locating children in the archives, and then tracing them using their names. In interviewing child survivors (or anyone, for that matter), I always give interviewees the option of telling their story anonymously. No one has ever wished to do so. I have always assumed that this is because the people I interview recognise, perhaps more keenly than most, how precious the life story is. You can lose your home, you can lose your parents and relatives, you can struggle for years to understand the most fundamental details of where you have come from and who you are — and at the end of that process, to lose your very name from your life story is a loss too far. If we anonymise these stories, we both turn them into abstractions, and rob their owners of the right to continue to own them. Thus the archive’s policy (and it is a policy that is certainly not unique to this one archive) of ensuring that no researcher would use the names of the children in the files made me very uncomfortable: I could track the children down and interview them, or use other interviews that they had given, but I could not use their names. I would be forced to strip their identities from their stories.

The archivist explained that she had a very different set of concerns in mind: she was worried about identity theft. Archive staff wanted not only to protect the privacy of the now-grown ‘children’ whose case files they held, but also to guard against the chance that anyone might claim their identities in order, for example, to make a fraudulent claim for restitution. I had to admit that this had never occurred to me as a concern, and the archivist admitted that she had never considered my perspective on the ethical issues posed by the policy. We agreed that historians and archivists need to do more to talk through these issues. Fundamentally, we both wanted to protect the identities of the children in the files: she wanted to protect them by ensuring that their names would never be attached to their stories, and I wanted to do precisely the opposite.

We open a tricky can of worms where we anonymise people’s life histories. After going through the case files in this archive, I managed to track down and interview (or find existing interviews for) several of the ‘children’ whose case files I had seen. These interviews revealed the ‘children’ as subjects and historical actors in their own right, as they explained the long-term repercussions of their wartime and postwar experiences. The interviews likewise shed light on just how hard many of these young survivors had worked, slogging through archival records and tracking down distant relatives, to be able to tell their own life stories. All of these survivors gave testimony in their own names, but where I use the material in their case files to describe their histories, I must remove their names. To me, this feels wrong. I agree with the thoughtful and perceptive archivist who I met on the other side of the world last year: it might be time for oral historians and archivists to sit down and have a good, long conversation about the right to a name.



We, the administrators of the Oral History in Higher Education Network, are taking part in – or supporting – the University and College Union’s (UCU) strike action to defend our right to a fair pension. At this link you can read a public call for support of the strike by the University of Warwick’s UCU Committee.

If you would like to share other calls for solidarity feel free to comment.


Transcription: Useful Guides for Students and Researchers

Transcription: Useful Guides for Students and Researchers  

Over the last term, a colleague and I at the University of Bristol taught a new course examining ‘voices’ from the past. We explored a range of voice-gathering projects, from transcripts of late eighteenth-century criminal proceedings to modern oral history interviews. As Alexander Freund has recently pointed out, the gathering, recording and dissemination of voices all have a long history and leave behind a variety of archival traces.[i] Each week we tackled a different way in which ‘voices’ from the past had been recorded and questioned how reliable these attempts at voice-gathering were. By the end of term, it became clear that each week had yielded a very different type of transcript (loosely defined) and that there were challenges in using every single one of them.

But during our final week on digital recording devices – and the potentials of using YouTube or various digital bookmarking tools – an important question emerged: was there still value in producing written transcripts of oral history interviews ourselves? There followed an emphatic “yes!” It was felt that, despite the evident issues in transposing spoken words to written prose, transcription was vital not only in terms of dissemination but as a learning and reflective tool, helping the researcher to pay closer attention to the detail and intricacies of the spoken word.

What resources then are available for students and researchers still looking to produce a transcript themselves, beyond guidance given in standard referencing guides? Below are a list of some guidelines and articles that I have found useful in teaching and research, although doubtless other useful resources exist (which members are very welcome to share using the “Comment” function below). Happy transcribing!

Grace Huxford, University of Bristol

Transcription guides and advice

  • Baylor University Transcription Guide – a long-standing, comprehensive guide produced by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. The guide is based on the Chicago Manual of Style, with particularly helpful sections on using punctuation effectively and accurately.
  • Minnesota Historical Society – guidelines on producing and editing a transcript for oral historians, with useful guidance on being consistent with false starts, simultaneous speech and ‘habitual qualifiers’.
  • East Midlands Oral History Archive – Transcription is the subject of no. 15 of the EMOHA’s clear and concise guides to various aspects of oral history.
  • Linda Shopes “Transcribing Oral History in the Digital Age,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/transcribing-oral-history-in-the-digital-age/ – a thoughtful article on the place of transcription alongside digital technologies, with a particularly useful set of questions transcribers should ask themselves.
  • Digital Omnium (blog produced by Doug Boyd) – a range of resources and blog posts on oral history, digital technology and archiving, including a March 2017 post on Transcribing Tips and the challenges of verbatim transcription.
  • Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed, 2003) – a useful guide on many practical aspects of oral history methodology, especially for those starting out with oral history and transcription.
  • Alexander Freund, ‘From .wav to .txt: why we still need transcripts in the digital age’ Oral History (Spring 2017): 33-42. Five arguments in favour of transcription and discussion of transcription in the era of digital indexing tools.

[i] Alexander Freund, ‘“Confessing Animals”: Toward a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview’ Oral History Review, 41, 1 (2014), 1-26.


Oral History & Archives – Connecting Scotland’s Sounds

By Andrea Thomson, University of Oxford

In April 2017, I was delighted to lead a seminar on Using Oral History Recordings for Research at the Oral History & Archives – Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Conference. The day’s varied programme focussed on the interplay between oral history and archives, and was hosted in the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow by the Scottish Oral History Group, Scottish Oral History Centre (University of Strathclyde) and the Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Project. Delegates enjoyed a day of lively and engaging presentations and workshops, and participated in a number of thought-provoking discussions around access and future engagement with archived oral history.

I first visited the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archive at the University of Edinburgh whilst a Research Assistant on the AHRC-funded project A History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland, c.1855-1976 at the University of Glasgow. The project adopted as a framework the life course stages of a marriage or cohabiting relationship, and therefore explored the history of love and courtship, cohabitation and/or marriage, separation and/or divorce, and finally, widowhood. This historical research was set within an overarching investigation of family forms and structures within Scotland, and the legal and policy framework around this at a national level. In addition to the original oral history interviews conducted as part of this research, the use of archived oral testimony offers further insight into Scots’ experience of marriage and family during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The School of Scottish Studies holds thousands of recordings gathered in Gaelic, Scots and English by fieldworkers who worked across Scotland and its diaspora since the School was first established at the University of Edinburgh in 1951. Amongst much other fascinating material, these archived recordings feature music, songs, folklore, rich biographical detail and accounts of local history. On visiting the School’s Sound archive, I was struck immediately by the extraordinary detail and expansiveness of many of the narratives recorded.

Vivid first-hand accounts of men and women born in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century provide otherwise elusive detail, not just of the prevailing cultural traditions but also of the economic and social lives of many Scots, many of whom are underrepresented in the documentary sources for this period. This is the case, for example, where those who were interviewed lived in geographically remote locations or as part of travelling communities. In the course of the Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Conference, I was especially keen to highlight the extent to which women’s voices, both young and old, as well as those of children, are represented in the Sound archive.

My own research, which looked at family, marriage and marriage breakdown in late twentieth-century Scotland, similarly drew on oral history. This has previously led me to consider the impact of hearing the original spoken word in understanding historical experience. As explored in the theoretical literature, an original recording gives a sense of distinctive characteristics that are routinely lost in the transition from audio-to-paper, including in the form of emotion, intonation, accent or dialect, for example.[1] This seems especially relevant in light of the diversity and richness of language, accents and dialect in evidence in the School of Scottish Studies Sound archive.

When we are able to hear actual ‘voices from the past’, as is the case with this material, what people share and describe feels even more immediate. The Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Conference this year served not only to demonstrate this, but also provided a very timely overview of some of the exciting research that uses archived oral history testimony, which is currently under way. Do check out the Scotland’s Sounds website and their tweets @ScotlandsSounds for the latest updates.

[1] See for example Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, London, Routledge (2010). There is now also a Companion Website for the second edition of Oral History Theory, which provides valuable supporting material to extend and enhance the book’s comprehensive treatment of the application of theory to oral history analysis.


‘Oral History Week’ at Warwick

During the week beginning the 13th November ’17 we held an ‘Oral History Week’ at Warwick as part of our re-launch of the Warwick Oral History Network. Our aim at the network is to provide opportunities for anyone involved or thinking about getting involved in oral history (or any related area) to come together to share ideas, our experiences, and best practice. The nature of running a network for researchers in higher education is that our population is fluid as new and existing colleagues move in and out of the field – and of course the institution itself. In consequence, every couple of years we need to remind people of who we are and what we do, and to encourage new members to join us. WOHN

This year the network has been very fortunate to have Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla, based in Global Sustainable Development, join me as a co-organiser, and also cementing the interdisciplinary nature of our network, which we have always seen to be a key strength of our group. With the goal of fostering new connections, chances for discussion, and potentialities for collaboration in mind, Stéphanie and I decided to hold an ‘Oral History Week’ as a way of advertising the network to our Warwick Colleauges.

We kicked off the week with a joint seminar with the Centre for the History of Medicine on the 14th where Kathleen Vongsathorn, a historian from our History department here, gave a fascinating paper on “The Place of Birth: Mothers, Midwives, Birth Attendants and Choices about childbirth in C20 Uganda”. Kathleen’s research is based upon hundreds of oral history interviews conducted with mothers, midwives and other medical practitioners, traditional birth attendants, and community leaders throughout Uganda.

Kathleen then joined us the following day for a workshop on conducting oral history research where she, Stéphanie, myself and Alison Ribeiro de Menezes (Modern Languages) talked about our own experiences of oral history. We had a diverse range of experiences to reflect on: Alison spoke about beginning a new project about Chilean exiles, as someone coming from a background in Literature and new to oral history research; I discussed my experiences of using archived oral history interviews for my current project on Jewish motherhood in England and Israel, and how this compared to my previous research where I had conducted my own interviews; Stéphanie talked about the challenges she has faced in finding interviewees among Cuban medical practitioners, the difficulties of securing their trust, and the ethical implications involved; and Kathleen shared her experiences of conducting oral history interviews in Uganda, including working with translators, and the challenges this can bring. A really rich and interesting question and answer session followed where we discussed.

Our final event of the week took place on the 16th, where we were very luck to be joined by Nathalie Nguyen of Monash University who presented her oral history research with Vietnamese diaspora in Australia. Her talk, and the discussion that followed, touched on many interesting areas, such as the importance of generational difference in the interviewer/interviewee relationship and the role of language in the shaping of a narrative. It was a great end to a really successful week and we look forward to another ‘Oral History Week’ in the spring!

Angela Davis, University of Warwick