• Grace Millar

Talking Oral History in Belfast and Glasgow

Updated: Nov 30, 2020


The ‘On behalf of the People’ project has had a panel accepted for the 2019 Oral History Society Conference in Swansea. We were very excited to learn the theme of this year’s conference is ‘Recording Change in Working People’s Life’ — as it captures what we are trying to do in this project. We’re looking forward to learning from other researchers. The conference is jointly organised by Llafur, the Oral History Society and Britain at Work.

Last year’s Oral History Society conference was held in Belfast, in conjunction with the Oral History Network Ireland and Grace Millar represented the project there. Earlier that week Andrew Perchard, Ben Curtis and Grace Millar represented the project at a joint summer institute held by the Scottish Oral History Centre and the Concordia Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.


At the summer school we met oral historians working on a wide range of subjects, from how the Cuban Missile Crisis is remembered to trans people’s life narratives. Kristin Hay, an MA student, has written a fantastic blog post about the event, from the perspective of a post-grad student attending her first academic conference. One of the recurrent themes was deindustrialisation. Oral history can be at a crucial way of understanding how people have experienced changes — and presenters were innovative in their methods. Angie Arsenault had done a project in Cape Breton involving objects that had belonged to employers who had now left. Our contribution to the seminar was a paper on our project — we focused on some of the ways that mining was remembered and forgotten.


After the summer school, many of those who had attended made the trip from Glasgow to Belfast for another oral history conference. The theme of this conference was Dangerous Histories. Belfast is an appropriate place to be reminded of the danger of speech and some of the most powerful papers were from researchers working locally. Peter Hodson talked about his research into Belfast shipyards and included silences around intimate partner violence. Nancy Hansen discussed disabled people’s experience of the peace process. The team from the Prisons Memory Archive discussed the difficulty of creating an on-going home for their oral histories of those imprisoned and involved imprisonment — coming against the problems of the peace process, the Irish government and GDPR.


Grace Millar presented a paper about the implications of social media on oral history work and used material from this project. There are many facebook groups where people discuss their memories of coal and the mining industry and we have made contact with people for oral histories through these groups. Some of these are private; some are open; some welcome researchers; others do not. While other disciplines have begun to grapple with the ethical issues involved in social media research, oral historians are only beginning to think about these ideas. As well as the ethical issues, there are also methodological ones — often oral historians emphasise the importance of our work by pointing out that unless we capture people’s voices they will be lost. In a digital world, people are remembering in text, but whether or not their text survives depends on the decisions of huge technology companies. We will continue to grapple with these issues as we’re working on the project.

Some mining related tweets used in Grace Millar’s presentation


One of the keynote speakers was Phil Scranton, a criminologist. Perhaps appropriately for a conference whose theme was dangerous histories, he was not able to talk in any detail about his work on Hillsborough, because David Duckenfield was currently in front of the court. The cumulative impact of people talking about danger from so many different angles was a reminder that there’s no such thing as safe oral history. Interviewers are learning people’s stories as the interview progresses. A question like ‘tell me about leaving school?’ is not particularly emotionally charged for most interviewees, but after you’ve asked you can learn that it is very difficult for the person you are interviewing to answer.


There is a lot of danger in people’s history of their work, both in the past and in the present. The next oral history conference at Swansea will build well on the last conference in Belfast. Arthur McIvor, a member of our Advisory board, is giving a keynote speech. We encourage people interested in work, oral history or the themes of this project to attend.

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