Generation Z: An exercise in telling the truth

New-Millennials. Naughties Babies. Generation Z. Who are the people born in the twenty-first century?

My oral history project idea takes place in 2040. I’m interested in interviewing 100 30-40 year olds about their life story so far. What’s been their experience of growing up in the new millennium? How has social media, a platform for shaping your own life story on a daily basis, influenced their ability to reflect on their life honestly?

Generation Z have grown-up at a time where online image is key. Teenage girls are crying in school nurses’ offices about their Facebook profile picture and 10 year olds are fighting over Instagram. Smart phones are nondescript. Put your hand in your pocket and take out a communication device which will snap a photo of your lunch, roll out your emails instantaneously and let you call your best friend all at the same time. Never switch it off. You need to know just what your friends are posting online at 1am, and then it’s your alarm at 6.55am. And then 7. And then 7.05… That hazy light might pollute the darkness of your room for hours afterwards, infiltrating your quality of sleep, but it was worth it to know what X wrote on Y’s new profile picture, wasn’t it?

That’s 2016. But how will these youngsters feel in their 30s and 40s? Oral history provides an accessible platform for expressing your life honestly, reflecting on past experiences. After a youth spent shaping the presentation of your life to others, creating an online ‘persona’ instead of just being you, how will Generation Z fare when given the opportunity to tell the real truth in an interview with a person they’ve only met once or twice?

I’m not really sure at this point. The beauty of oral history is that it is a chance to give voice to those who have been part of an experience, without needing to have some arbitrary existing record as ‘the great and the good’ connected to an aspect of history which has been politically chosen to be remembered for some notion or other. With oral history, power goes back to the people at the core of history as it happens. Everyday is history and we each create and hold our own history. Oral history is ideal for capturing living history. For a generation who have grown up talking about themselves online, it will be fascinating to find out what they have to say in person.


Oral History at the US Embassy

For my oral history project, I would like to interview an Englishwoman who has worked in the Community Liaison Office at the US Embassy since 1959. The Embassy will be relocating from Mayfair to the Nine Elms neighbourhood at the end of the year, leaving a Grade I listed building behind in favour of a state-of-the-art modern security fortress.

The American presence in Mayfair, Central London, has lasted nearly 250 years. The current building opened in 1960, seen as a Modernist architectural dream. Previously, the Embassy was located in a Georgian mansion across the Square. As this woman is unique among employees for her experiences in both embassy locations as well as in her nationality, I thought she would be a great candidate for an oral history interview.

The Mayfair area, long known as ‘Little America’, will be changed once the Embassy relocates. Interviewing a person who has witnessed so much change over six decades will present an interesting opportunity to attempt to preserve some memories of an area and building about to undergo a dramatic change.

‘I’ve heard this one before’ Oral History and Humour

Humour pervades almost all of our social interactions. We employ it in different ways, which are appropriate to different audiences. From breaking the ice at a party to discussing traumatic events from our past, we accommodate our humour to different circumstances. But how do we accommodate our humour in an interview setting? Relatively little has been written on the use of humour in oral history. Unsurprisingly, for my oral history project, this is an issue I would like to redress.


There is not a complete vacuum in terms of the writing on humour in oral history. The folklorist Elliott Oring discussed how he used humour in interviews to create a ‘spirit of play’ and elicit greater information from his subjects. More recently, Neal R. Norrick has attempted to open the discussion of humour in oral history. By taking oral histories from American retirees he isolated humorous passages, and analysed them from his perspective as a linguist. Norrick makes some very important contributions, but for my oral history project I would like to take a different trajectory.


Firstly, instead of taking generic oral histories and analysing their use of humour, I would like to ask interviewees to discuss, and be reflexive about their use of humour when discussing the past. Most likely, this would mean that people with an expertise in comedy, such as stand-up comedians, would be ideal participants for such a study. However, I am still hopeful that this approach will be appropriate for interviewee’s who do not have a specific background in comedy.


Secondly, I am keen to investigate the frequently used argument that humour is used to negate the reality of a memory. By going beyond this use of humour, the oral historian may be able to find a deeper and more accurate account. Caution here is clearly required. For on purely ethical grounds, it is not the place for the oral historian to attempt to expose serious psychological scars from an interviewee’s past.


Thirdly, such an analysis of humour in oral history is of interest to me, for the possibility of exploring a specifically British usage humour. It is with caution that I homogenise the humour identity of over sixty million people. Humour is heavily dependent on a variety of factors such as region and social class. But if there can be said to be any peculiarity to Britain’s humour identity, then this must be reflected in a more nuanced and specific analysis of humour within oral history.

The forgotten invasion of the British Isles

Ask someone about the Channel Islands, and apart from the few who perhaps went there during Easter Holidays with their families, many will look a little confused, or perhaps cite them as the tax haven of choice for UK millionaires. Despite them being as much a part of Britain as the Isle of Man is, their proximity to France means their prominence in UK history is almost non-existent. This is unfortunate due to their interesting and extensive past, most significantly of which was the occupation of all four islands, Sark, Alderney, Guernsey and Jersey, by the Nazis during the Second World War. This means that despite the overall euphoria of post-war Britain that comes with being the little island standing last and alone against the might of Germany, Hitler did actually manage to place the jackboots of his soldiers firmly on the ground of his enemy.

For me, this is hugely fascinating. To have a population of British citizens on British sovereign territory under the rule of Nazi authority, in the same way as their neighbours in France were for all those long years, is stunning to think of. It is incredible to think this given the way the history of the Second World War is presented in countless books, films, television and radio programmes and countless other media. It hasn’t been purposefully covered up from these outlets at all – on the contrary, the plight of the Channel Islanders was covered during the War itself regularly, as I discovered when investigating the topic during my undergraduate dissertation, which looked into the Jersey and British newspaper coverage during the war.  There has also been within the last few decades or so books and articles published which cover the Nazi occupation across the Islands, with historians such as Madeline Bunting, Charles Cruikshank and Gillian Carr leading the research in this area.

Oral history often investigates uncovered and neglected stories and lives, of which the Channel Islands are most definitely able to fall into this category. Although there have been interviews conducted for the work mentioned above, there has yet to be extensive oral research conducted pursuing the memories and lives of those who lived through the Occupation, of their experiences and own interpretations, rather than just their chronology of the war. It would be incredibly insightful to examine the patterns of remembrance that occur with the men and women interviewed on this period of their lives, especially as there are mythologies tied into the Channel Islands that are independent of those myths attached to the Second World War alone. These include the concepts of resistance from the Nazis which is a difficult topic even now to address, as well as the potentially uncomfortable suspicion of fraternisation and collaboration which have surrounded the Channel Islands since their liberation in 1945. An extensive oral history of say Jersey or Guernsey, the largest and second largest islands respectively, would contribute greatly to their own local history for future generations and interpretations, but also to the overall view of Britain during the Second World War. Associated with this of course are the benefiting effects oral testimonies will give to the historic record which other sources could simply not provide, due to the personal and deep-rooted nature of the issues concerning collaboration/fraternisation and also resistance. It would also be beneficial to conduct this important and influential research sooner rather than later due to, as is the unfortunate case with Second World War oral testimonies, the increasing age of the concerned populace.

Oral History of Public Libraries

Public libraries are considered an essential service by both their staff and those who frequent them. They are extremely important to the development of literacy among children and an invaluable tool for providing information and other services to their neighborhoods, especially lower-income individuals and families. Libraries enrich communities and they have been faced with massive changes since the shift from their original purpose as quiet repositories of books to the bustling hubs of digital, printed, and community services they offer today. Times have changed and libraries have adapted surprisingly well, where able. 

For my oral history project I would like to investigate the changes that public libraries and their staff and patrons have experienced over the last few decades. Libraries have seen intense developments ranging from the types of information they contain, to the massive technology shift experienced, to the services offered to the local communities.

By interviewing librarians, administrators, and patrons I would like to find out how libraries have changed over time and how they have adapted to the many challenges faced including funding cuts and censorship. The number of women working in libraries greatly outnumbers the men so I would also like to hear the experiences of women who have been in this field for many decades. I want to know how things have changed not just as a librarian but as a woman in the workplace. 

To gather this information I could use my knowledge as a public library employee and interview my former colleagues, administrators, and customers in Alberta or I could seek out a project about public libraries here in the UK using new contacts and get a British perspective. 

Reading in Suburbia


Photo by William Grierson, via Wikimedia Commons

According to historian Graeme Davison ‘the suburb has a claim to being one of the most successful and least loved inventions of the modern era’. As a potential oral history project I would like to use book clubs as a vehicle to explore suburbia and more specifically the lives of women in suburbia. There is a proliferation of book clubs in the suburbs and the overwhelming majority of people who join these clubs are women. I would either look at women from different generations who belonged to clubs to gain insight into how suburbia has changed for women or I could look at one club and explore the individual life of each woman in the club. The dynamics of these clubs and even the books that the members chose to read can show us things about women’s relationships with each other and popular culture.

This is clearly a large project and if I were to look at only one club then the information I would get would depend greatly on just which club I looked at. Nevertheless, I think it would be interesting to examine such an ordinary experience of being a member of a book club and use it to look at the history of women in suburbia. I would especially like to find out if, and how, gender roles have changed in suburbia. To make the project fit the constraints of the course I could look at one woman’s life and examine suburbia through her experiences, attitudes and memories.


The Devil’s Bridge

Devil's Bridge

Devil’s Bridge, Kirkby Lonsdale (c) Alexander P Kapp (licenced for reuse)


‘On a dark and lonely night, an old peasant woman was walking her dog along the banks of the River Lune…’

In Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, there is a Devil’s Bridge. Built in 1370, it is to this day a popular meeting spot, motorcycle hub, and occasional dangerous diving location. It holds a particularly prominent position in the hearts and minds of the people of Kirkby. It also holds a legend, about a woman, a dog, and the devil.

My oral history project would be to find out what that myth is to different inhabitants of the town, using a specific idea approach (rather than asking for life histories). I would interview people of different generations, genders, and social class in order to ensure an oral history of a broad cross=section of Kirkby Lonsdale’s society. In particular, I would ask how long individuals have lived in Kirkby and when they learned the myth, as well as from whom. The way they tell the myth could also tell me a lot about their relationship with it, whether they know it well or badly, were proud of it and told it regularly or had merely heard it in passing. In such a way, this project would be a case study for how myths diffuse, and what they become, particularly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

‘Devil’s Bridge’ is a moniker given to many bridges, mostly in Europe, and all have a similar myth. All, interestingly, are reasonably important bridges for their communities, albeit for a range of reasons. By investigating the Kirkby Lonsdale legend, I would also hope to provide insight into the importance of particular myths and locations which hold communities together. I would ask people about their relationship with the bridge, whether they go there often, and how they feel about the legend. It might also be interesting to talk to younger people who ‘tombstone’ (high dive) from the bridge, to see if they feel a specific connection to it. The history of the bridge would also be available from local historians, which would provide a view into how much the history of the community is held dear. Altogether, I would explore the place of the bridge and the legend as a part of peoples’ lives in order to comprehend the nature of the community and its distinctiveness.

‘… and a figure arose from the gloomy darkness’

Irish in London

In the years proceeding the Second World War, thousands of migrants from Britain’s existing and former colonies moved to the capital to fill in vacancies for labour-intensive jobs in factories and building companies. Irish immigrants moved to Greater West London to work in factories, including Walls and Nestlé, or to find other types of labouring work. West London was also a hub for commonwealth immigrants from south Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean and it remains a diverse area today. Within the local history of this area, the social history of Irish immigrants has been less researched than other migrant communities. I would focus my oral history project on the experiences of the Irish diaspora in west London, who left their family-run farms to find work in the big city. These migrants made up a large proportion of the labourers who reconstructed London’s buildings, railways, roads and airports after the Second World War. My grandfather was one of these workers, who toiled away to rebuild the Great West Road and Heathrow Airport in order to get England back on its feet.

Dominate historical discourses about post-war reconstruction, and the history of immigration in London can be diversified by conducting a oral history project into the domestic and working lives of the capitals largest diaspora: the Irish. It would be beneficial to hear the stories of Irish workers who did not necessarily comply with the patriot rhetoric apparent in England during the Second World War, but still laboured to rebuilt the capital regardless. This community is also sometimes overlooked in post-war immigration history, perhaps because the Irish were more easily able to assimilate into English life than other migrants at this time. I would interview each person separately and preferably in their own home. It think it is important to collect the testimony’s of both male and female workers to get an understanding of how experiences differed along gender lines. A problem with this project is that there may not be a large number of first wave of Irish immigrants still surviving however their children could be interviewed instead.

I would use a life story approach; firstly I would like to know about the narrators childhood in rural Ireland in order to get a sense of  the social and economic situation in the area at this time, how families and farm work was organised, what education was like, what the gender roles were within the family and the influence of religion in everyday life. Did people want to leave their farms or did the economic situation force them to? Secondly I would like to find out about the experiences of Irish migrants shortly after their arrival to London, for example whether they had friends who had already moved to England, what kind of work they expected to find and whether it was easy to find accommodation. Thirdly I would like to get an understanding of how immigrants brought up their families in a foreign country. Did their ideas of family values change while they were living in England? How did gender roles within the family differ?

I think this project would provide an insight into the social history of immigration to London that other sources cannot  provide.  The key significance of this project would be to get an understanding of how domestic life, family values, gender roles and the influence of religion changed within migrant families as a result from moving from rural Ireland to metropolitan west London.

Generational Transferring of Oral History

Reading about and discussing group oral history interviews last class got me to start thinking about alternative ways of conducting oral history interviews than the traditional one-on-one method. Although the group interviews had several downsides, including individuals being silenced by the rest of the group or topics being rapidly changed, they offered unique insights into how individual memory can be influenced, suppressed, and even altered by the power of collective memory. This alternative approach made me interested in how memories can be transferred across generations, from those actually experiencing events to their descendants merely retaining the accounts which they are told.

Both of my grandmothers have long had an interest in retaining and uncovering the family history. I grew up hearing stories about their lives, and stories that they remember being told by older members of the family, whether it was their parents or other extended family members. When I try to recall some of these stories, many of them are vague and seem very distant from myself. Others, I can almost quote word for word because they were told to me many times. Some of them I found more interesting than others, and will occasionally share them in conversation when topics make me recall them. However, I am stuck thinking about the accuracy of these memories. After all, we know that our own memories are fallible, and that they are constantly changing throughout the course of our lives. How much more would these alterations to memory build up if they are also transferred between multiple people? It is like trying to play the telephone game.

This research would not be an effective way of gaining information about a particular event, however, like the group interviews, it has an alternative benefit. Looking at how memories can be transferred between multiple people can help oral historians, psychologists, and sociologists to better understand memory retention and transmission levels of people who are not primary owners of the memory.  This can help to analyze how contributing factors, such as changing public perception and personal interests, influence the levels of retention. With the telephone game, the purpose is to see if, or to what extent, meaning can be transferred from the original individual to the last individual through multiple participating bodies. This would be interesting to see if the core meaning of memories can be effectively transferred, despite the fact that subsidiary details may be altered or tweaked by memory over time or the desire of the teller to increase the stories interest value for the listener.

London and the Swingin’ Sixties

Britain during the 1960s is a period that has famously been referred to as the ‘Swingin Sixties’, with an influx of fashion, music, culture and lifestyle for young people. Much of this is documented in photos and autobiographies of those who were a part of it. I feel as though this era has been overly romanticised.

However this prosperity has been contested by those who lived through it and by many economic historians.

Were the 1960s really ‘swingin’ for every young person through those times?

Was it really a time where the working classes could better themselves or have some kind of enjoyable social life?

Was it really a time where race, class and gender were less important limitations?

I would like to focus on a city, perhaps London, and interview a broad range of people who had lived in London from 1965 – 1970 and try to get more understanding of what life was like in London during this time.

I would interview people from different classes and of different ethnical backgrounds to find out what kind of people were really enjoying the 1960s in London and who faced economic hardship and exclusion.

Although many of these questions can be answered by economic historians using statistics etc, it would be interesting to hear a more human side.