Oral History Collection: The Edwardians

Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: Module 3: During the Research
Book: Oral History Collection: The Edwardians
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Thursday, 6 May 2021, 6:54 PM


 Oral History Collection: The Edwardians

1. Introduction

The Edwardians: Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 was a pioneering large-scale oral history project in the UK, headed by Paul Thompson of the University of Essex. More than 500 interviews, open-ended and averaging 4 hours in duration, were recorded in the early 1970s on audio tape. Full transcriptions and detailed content summaries were created for the majority of interviews, which were also coded thematically. The original paper/microfiche records were digitised in the early 2000s in order to enhance access to the data and increase re-use.

2. The Archive and Digitisation

[The interviews were] for the book, was the original idea. But I think we fairly quickly realised that we had, really, fallen on an extraordinarily rich material, and we couldn't possibly exhaust it with one book. And that was how the idea of creating the Archive came. And this was a completely independent decision. We knew of nobody who was doing anything in that way, creating an archive like that... But the way we sorted it out, the Archive is usable by lots of people with totally different questions. Paul Thompson, interview, 1997

The research materials were divided into separate collections for preservation and access purposes at a very early stage. The audiotapes of the interviews - which had been recorded on reel-to-reel machines both for recording quality and long-term durability - were deposited at the British Library for safe keeping. Meanwhile, the transcripts were archived at the University of Essex. The original paper and microfiche versions were deposited with the National Social Policy and Social Change Archive at the University of Essex during the 1990s. Although the digitisation project superseded this pre-digital collection for most likely research uses, it is still housed in the University Library's Special Collections.

ESDS Qualidata was established at the University of Essex in the late 1990s to provide a national service for the acquisition, dissemination and re-use of social science, qualitative research data, with a strong emphasis on improving access to data for re-use, an early priority of the collection creators.

Edwardians Online was ESDS Qualidata's first major digitisation project, which took place in two phases. The goals of the project included

  • the provision of a multimedia resource for research and teaching
  • provision of the resource in non-proprietary formats for preservation, interoperability and data interchange
  • provision of content-based search tools and integrated metadata

The Qualidata website has extensive additional documentation for both the original project and the digitisation project, as well as a catalogue of interview summaries, sample of transcripts, audio clips and gallery of images.

The Website can be found here.

3. The Data Collections

Audio recordings

  • Location: British Library Sound and Moving Image Archive.

  • Title: Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 (C707)

  • Collection record

The collection comprises 537 interviews.


The collection record states only "tape reels mono" (ie, reel-to-reel audio tapes). However, item records show that many of the interviews have been migrated to a digital format (mp3 files are listed for listening purposes). No information is provided about the digitisation, but it is likely that it was part of the BL'sArchival Sound Recordings digitisation programme.


Interview records include extensive information: biographical details for the interviewee (name, occupation, date of birth, etc); interview information (date, location); content summary (extensive in some cases). Copies of the transcripts are also held at the BL.

However, unlike many online library catalogues (including others at the BL), the Sound and Moving Image catalogue does not appear to have any options to export catalogue records in standard formats for reference managers and bibliographies. (For Zotero users, a browser icon to import a reference is displayed, but it generated an error on use.)

Restrictions on access and re-use:

Not all interviews appear to be available in electronic format. Digital audio files may only be listened to at the library; none of this collection has been included in the BL Sounds online archive. Permission from the copyright holder is required for any third-party copies "for publication or broadcast".

Textual dataset

  • Location: UK Data Archive
  • Title: Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 (SN2000)
  • Collection record

The dataset comprises 453 transcriptions, summaries, and a coded version for quantitative analysis.


Transcripts: .rtf (rich text files)

Quantitative data: .tab (plain text, tab-delimited)

Documentation: mainly .pdf, collection summary list also in spreadsheet form (.xls)


Detailed catalogue entry includes: abstract, categories and keywords, bibliography, version information and specific citation guidance. All of the catalogue information is supplied with the dataset download. Extensive collection and item level documentation/metadata includes:

  • Excel spreadsheet/PDF listing basic information about all interviews
  • PDF user guide (original project design and process etc)
  • interview summaries in a single 960 page (!) PDF document

Restrictions on access and re-use:

The UK Data Archive is not an "open" data repository (although there is no charge for data for non-commercial purposes). Registration is required for access to data; the service has a strong emphasis on UK higher/further education use, and although people without a UK HE/FE institutional affiliation can apply for user accounts, registration is a less straightforward process. After registration, it is also necessary to register specific data usages of data outlining the uses that will be made of the dataset(s). The terms and conditions of use are highly restrictive, including a bar on giving access to data to anyone who is not also a registered user (with some limited exceptions for teaching).

Further information: UK Data service - How to Access

4. Changing Circumstances

The early decision to archive the audio collection and transcripts at separate locations was quite a rational response to the technological constraints of the time. The audio and text were very different kinds of material, and the split had the advantage of ensuring specialist curation and care for the audio collection. It also reflected a perception, related to the practical difficulties of making direct use of the reel-to-reel tapes for research, that interest in the sound collection was most likely to come from broadcasters (Paul Thompson interview, p. 26).

In the digital age, differences in preservation needs and barriers to accessing sound data are both rather less pronounced, and the separation has more evident downsides. The collections are subject to different institutional priorities, and preservation and access strategies are not co-ordinated. Links between the collections are difficult to maintain. The BL catalogue contains no reference at all to the ESDS Qualidata dataset or web resource; the UKDA documentation and ESDS resource briefly mention the BL sound archive deposit, but provide no further information.

Digitisation took place with separate agendas and for different purposes. At Essex, in projects supervised and guided by the data creators, the transcripts were treated as a priority collection for digitisation and enhancing access. At the British Library, however, the audio collection is one among many; it is not even clear what proportion of the collecon has been migrated to digital formats, or whether this is an ongoing process.

In addition, this case study provides a useful reminder that archival institutions are not static in their structures or priorities over time, and this may affect digital resources. Recently, ESDS Qualidata has been merged into the larger UK Data Archive, which is not a specialist service for qualitative research. It is unclear what the implications of this change might be for this particular resource. There is no question about the preservation of the core dataset, but the status of the Edwardians website, which contains important contextual information and is enhances the visibility and accessibility of the archived dataset, raises more concerns. The catalogue of interview summaries on the website is not at present functional. The webpages all carry a warning message whose wording ("will remain during the transition") implies that they might disappear at some stage. (Some other ESDS Qualidata webpages seem to have already been removed, and it is not clear whether all of these have been transferred into the UKDA website, or where to find them if they have.) At one time, Qualidata had plans to digitise its own copies of the audio collection; this no longer seems to be under consideration.

The conscious efforts and investment in making the data accessible for research and broadcasting were important and effective. And yet, from the changing perspective of the digital era, there are regrettable limitations on access to both collections. The digitised audio collection at the BL has not been included in the new BL Sounds collections to increase public access, which seems unfortunate for such an important resource. Meanwhile, the transcriptions dataset is subject to the general restrictions on access and sharing imposed by the UK Data Archive.

The dataset is readily and freely accessible to academic researchers, and its creators' aims to encourage its reuse have certainly been successful within that sphere. But it cannot easily be opened up to other groups and new digital forms of re-use, something now of growing significance. For example, at the time of writing, there are extensive plans for digital, educational and community projects to mark the centenary of the First World War, for which both the textual and audio collections would have obvious relevance.

The Edwardians represents an important case study for long-term data management in oral history, as technological change has radically altered possibilities for preservation and access. It highlights that data management needs to be an ongoing process of renewal, replication and transformation, and indicates the complexity and challenges that this process can create.