Are you listening?
The Listening Project is a new partnership between the British Library and the BBC and it's turning traditional history on its head ... and opening up its ears! Dr Rob Perks, Curator of Oral History at the British Library talked with Comfort Club about the BBC collaboration, and we, of course, listened avidly...

“The Listening Project, which was set up in March, is about recording everyday life as historical evidence for future generations,” he explained. “We're aiming to capture the nation in conversation to build a unique picture of our lives today.” A mammoth task, but with over 80 studio conversations being recorded each month, and many conversations sent direct to the project via the website , the archives are beginning to swell.

“Inspired by the US-based StoryCorps project which has recorded 40,000 conversations since 2003, the idea is simply that people who know each other have a conversation about something they both find interesting or something important one of them wants to share,” explained Rob, “and because they are familiar with each other it's more intimate than if it was an interview conducted by a professional. It's effectively eavesdropping on a conversation which could be between a couple who have been married 50 years, a father and son or a child and grandparent - and it really does open up a different historical perspective.”
If you're interested in oral history go to the Oral History Society's website at where there's lots of useful advice and details of local OHS activities and projects. For funding for local oral history projects Heritage Lottery Fund is always keen to hear about new ideas. Go to and follow the relevant links.
Participants are encouraged to record their own conversations or to get in contact with their local BBC radio station, where they can 'pitch' their idea to the Listening Project producer, who invites some to make a studio recording. With a producer present but stepping into the background to allow the conversation to freeflow, intriguing insights and powerful emotions can come to the fore. The full recordings are passed to the British Library for archiving and these will be available for anyone to listen to online from early next year. Some interviews make it to the weekly Radio 4 programmes, where you can listen to little gems including Elaine discovering how mum Betty managed to raise ten kids, and Graham interviewing his 70-year-old gran Beryl about finding love with his granddad Stan.

“What makes this project even more exciting for me is that it really does put the spotlight on oral history,” added Rob. “The Oral History Society was set up in 1969 as a challenge to the traditional focus of history, which was all to do with 'great men and women'. In the '60s and '70s there was a realisation that the history of ordinary people's lives wasn't being collected and could easily be lost.” Oral historians set about filling this gap, setting up projects to capture voices and already the work they started in those years has created a lively picture of these memorable decades - and every one after.
“Over the years oral history has gone from radical alternative to mainstream and that's because history is all around us, we live next to it and amongst it,” added Rob, who is hoping that the Listening Project will encourage a little more nattering across the nation and more archives for his expanding British Library collection.
Step by step guide
• Who will be in your conversation
  and what will you talk about?
• Decide how you are going to
  record your conversation - on
  computer, mobile phone or audio
• Make a list of questions.
The conversation
• Pick a quiet place where you
  won't be disturbed. One-to-one
  is best.
• Make sure there will be no
  background noise.
• Begin your conversation with
  basic information about
  yourselves and then start to chat.
What next
• Upload your unedited
  conversation to the Listening
  Project - there's lots of help and
  advice on the website about how
  to do this.
Rob's tip: “Don't worry if you go off topic when you talk, spontaneity can often reveal the unexpected and create really interesting and emotionally charged pieces.”
Find out more about the Listening Project at the BBC's website.
Radio 4 the listening project