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Understanding Unbelief

Unbelief in Life Story Interviews

National Life Stories at the British Library

Public Engagement Projects

Project Lead: Paul Merchant
Dates: 1 June-30 November 2018
Award: £30,648


This public engagement project is an innovative collaboration between the Understanding Unbelief programme and National Life Stories at the British Library. It applies Understanding Unbelief’s view of ‘unbelief’ as comprising diverse “beliefs, attitudes, experiences and practices” to listen to large public collections of life story interviews in an entirely new way. In particular, it explores three substantial collections of oral history interviews at the British Library- Millennium Memory Bank, City Lives and Lives in the Water Industry- to discover how individuals who claim no religious belief:

  • explain and attribute meaning to particular experiences;
  • understand significant life events and ‘turning points’;
  • talk about the deaths of others, and their own mortality;
  • discuss ideas such as luck, fate, consequence and justice;
  • conceive of the origin and nature of different phenomena that might in other contexts be called religious, spiritual or supernatural; and,
  • describe their non-belief (as for example lack of belief or possession of unbelief).

The collections at the British Library are substantial- the Millennium Memory Bank alone has 5429 archived recordings- and include unusually long and detailed interviews with individuals in all parts of the UK, and from diverse social, educational, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The project seeks to liberate from these archives a curated collection of audio extracts in order to a) promote public engagement with the material on forms of ‘unbelief’ and b) inspire further public exploration of these and other oral history collections.

The project with produce:

  • a detailed audio essay for the Understanding Unbelief website featuring clips from the life story material;
  • a research toolkit accessible to a broad range of users on the British Library’s new online catalogue of audio collections, launching in 2018-19 as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. The toolkit will include an illustrated ‘user journey’ sharing the innovative search and retrieval strategies used in the Unbelief in life story interviews project to support and inspire future research; and
  • a number of blogs and podcasts on the Understanding Unbelief, British Library and other websites.

Follow the project’s blogs here…

Read Religious unbelief in oral history collections – an audio essay here…

Learn more about National Life Stories here…