3 December, 2013

Voices of Science: a new British Library oral history archive

A major oral history project to gather the life stories of British scientists has culminated in the launch of a new online archive by the British Library. Voices of Science is drawn from a  programme ‘An Oral History of British Science’, and features interviews with 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual.

The incredible resource includes many Cambridge scientists and features the British Antarctic Survey’s Joseph Farman – who helped discover the Ozone Hole – and Janet Thomson who was BAS’s first female scientist in Antarctica.

Remarkably few scientists have previously been interviewed at length about their life and work, and this archive remedies that absence while preserving their memories for posterity to be used by researchers now and in the future.

With interviews ranging across multiple disciplines, the archive seeks to represent a cross-section of scientific activity, including lesser-heard voices as well as key players in the British scientific landscape over the last century.

Over 1000 hours of unedited interviews, each lasting 10-15 hours, are being made available in full on the British Library’s Sounds website, while the Voices of Science site offers curated access to audio and video highlights from the interviews, as well as photographs, biographies and other contextual information. The project has been generously supported by the Arcadia Fund.

Examples from the archive include:

  • Joseph Farman telling the story of finding the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer using an instrument in a hut in Antarctica
  • Janet Thomson on how she became the first female scientist to work in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, in 1983
  • Dan McKenzie recalling his realisation that the Earth’s crust is made up of moving rigid plates (plate tectonics)
  • Geoff Tootill, last survivor of the team that built the world’s first modern computer, the 1948 Manchester ‘Baby’, remembers how they thought the whole world would only need a few computers
  • Mary Lee Berners-Lee recalls the importance of sellotape to programming some of the first computers
  • Professor Sir Colin Humphreys explaining how he has used his scientific mindset to investigate the events of the Bible

Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History at the British Library, commented, “Voices of Science” provides unique insights, not only into British scientific and engineering discovery and innovation, but importantly into the lives of the scientists and engineers themselves. What makes them tick? What in their childhoods and education made them scientists? Do they think and behave differently from the rest of us? How has the everyday practice of science changed over the past 75 years? As the collection grows we hope to document every facet of British science and engineering within living memory: creating an important human resource for schools, academics and anyone interested in the world around us.”

Entrepreneur, computer scientist and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley was interviewed for the project in 2010: “The length of the interviews allows you to go into some detail. Things came out that I wasn’t conscious of before and I recognise how holistic everything is. It also brought out new insights into the importance of networking. Science is like a pelaton in a cycle race: a group becomes a unity, people take turns to get in front. We do have to work together and sometimes you are privileged to be the first to know something.”

The collection also includes other BAS voices: Former Director, Professor Chris Rapley, Eric Wolff and Janet Thomson.

Notes to Editors

Voices of Science is led by National Life Stories at the British Library in association with the Science Museum, and with support from the Arcadia Fund. Dr Sally Horrocks from University of Leicester has acted as Senior Academic Consultant, Dr Thomas Lean was Project Interviewer for the ‘Made in Britain’ strand, and Dr Paul Merchant for the ‘Changing Planet’ strand. All are available for interview.

The Oral History of British Science Advisory Committee comprises:

  • Professor Jon Agar (UCL),
  • Dr Tilly Blyth (Science Museum),
  • Lord Alec Broers,
  • Georgina Ferry (chair),
  • Professor Dame Julia Higgins (Imperial College),
  • Dr Maja Kominko (Arcadia Fund),
  • Professor Sir Harry Kroto,
  • John Lynch OBE,
  • Professor Chris Rapley CBE (UCL), and
  • Dr Simone Turchetti (Manchester University).

Lord Rees of Ludlow acts as an Advisor to National Life Stories.

The project has so far received funding from the

The Voices of Science website can be found at www.bl.uk/voices-of-science.

For further information on the British Library’s oral history collections, please visit www.bl.uk/oralhistory.

The British Library has one of the largest sound collections in the world. It holds over a million discs, 200,000 tapes, and many other sound and video recordings. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound from music, drama and literature, to oral history and wildlife sounds. Collection material comes in every conceivable format, from wax cylinder and wire recordings to CD and DVD, and from a wide variety of private, commercial and broadcast sources. The British Library also operates a wide-ranging sound recording programme of its own. www.bl.uk/soundarchive.

Arcadia is the charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Since its inception in 2001, Arcadia has awarded grants in excess of $250 million. Arcadia works to protect endangered culture and nature. For more information please see http://www.arcadiafund.org.uk/.