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Oral history, the recording of people’s memories and reminiscences, is one of the oldest forms of surviving human history.  Herodotus (c.484-c.424 BC) in The Histories often names his sources, although he seems to take these sources at face value.

It was, however, Thucydides (c.460-c.400 BC) in his History of the Peloponnesian  War (431-404 BC) who first stated that he was using oral history sources and, more importantly, checking and verifying these sources. In his introduction he states “And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war, I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.  Not that even so the truth was easy to discover; different eye-witnesses gave different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories………..My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”

From this it can be seen that the importance of oral history has long been recognised.  It was, however, the introduction of reel-to-reel tape recorders in the 1950’s which meant that, for the first time, there was an easy and practical way to record memories and reminiscences.  The arrival of the cassette recorder in the early 1970’s made recording even easier and this led to many organisations and individuals building up collections of oral history material.  Sound recordings often compliment the printed word, written word and other traditional sources of information but there are still many gaps in these traditional sources of information which can be filled with the use of oral history.

In the late 1970s a public meeting was held in Manchester and, from the support shown, North West Sound Archive was established in 1979 to 'record, collect and preserve sound recordings of the life, character, history and traditions of the north west of England’.  After several homes in Manchester the Archive moved, in 1982, to Clitheroe Castle, where it was based until 2015.

From these early beginnings, although the recording of oral history was a principle objective, it soon became evident that there were many other sound recordings worthy of permanent retention including dialect, music, local radio and the sounds of the region (textile machinery, railway engines etc.).  The Archive, and its collections, continued to grow steadily and by the time it closed in 2015 over 140,000 items were held making it, probably, the largest collection in the United Kingdom outside London.

Preserved, amongst others, were the memories of cotton mill workers, engineers, canal workers, railway workers, colliers, wartime memories, even conversations with prisoners at Strangeways.  Important collections include the Survey of English Dialects, Jodrell Bank Radio Astronomy collection, Manchester Jewish Museum Oral History collection and an extensive collection of 78 rpm shellac gramophone records.

As well as the collection of sound material, another important facet of the Archive’s work was the collection of dialect and technical words and terms from the region.  The database comprises more than 25,000 words.

The Sound Archive carried out its own oral history recording programme as well as encouraging organisations, groups and individuals to undertake recording in their own specific field of interest.  These projects ranged from a local history society recording general memories of their area to an individual recording memories of a specific industry or workplace. NWSA offered comprehensive training and advice in oral history recording techniques and methodology as well as advice on suitable recording equipment and the various legal aspects involved.

Because the vast majority of oral history recordings were with ‘ordinary’ people much of what is recorded is necessarily relevant to the study of local and social history.  Famous individuals have had their stories well documented through the various forms of media but it is the ‘man in the street’ whose story needs to be told and preserved in order to capture the essence of the era.

The NWSA clsoed in 2015 and its collections have been transferred to other archive services in the North West.

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