This is the first of our posts regarding three vital topics – the extent to which potential users of our national archives are actually aware of the existence of oral history, access to the collection and its usage.
Hidden Treasure: 6,000 memoirs
The NFSA’s oral history collection of over 6,000 stories is unknown to the Australian public and largely unknown to its key potential users.
The memories, stories and opinions, provided by 6,000 members of our industries in the hope that they might be useful to posterity are largely hidden from view and unheard.
Worse, the collection is also hard to access and its website difficult to navigate and erratic in its data descriptions.
As a result – and worse again – it is hardly ever used by its potential stakeholders – researchers, historians, authors, educators, students, broadcasters, journalists and the like.
Our attention focuses on NFSA simply because it is the peak archival body for our industries and holds in its hands the fate of those 6,000 voices and that of every interviewee AMOHG adds to the collection.
Few stakeholders are more understanding than AMOHG members are of the extraordinary financial and staffing constraints that NFSA has suffered budget after budget at the hands of various Australian Governments – because we have witnessed at first hand the unrelenting reduction of its funding for decades. It tempers every concern we hold about the priority and operation of the oral history collection.
The NFSA is not the only peak body to face such difficulties. Alarmingly, the recently released ‘Tune’ Review of the National Archives has highlighted another key federal government organisation that has been inadequately funded and starved of resources which, in turn, has harmed its service delivery.
We keep asking ‘What is the point of recording interviews if they are destined to a vault of lost memories as if they had never been recorded?’
What is it about oral history that seems to consign it to the shadows?
Over and above any questions about policy and strategies or stories of budget crises and arguments about priorities, we acknowledge some overarching cultural reasons why oral history may not be front of the curatorial mind and not much known by the public or by potential professional users..
We suggest two main reasons for this.
First, the abstract nature of sound makes it elusive.
- Experientially, film is physical and visible. It is more immediately dominant and registers more readily as a source of entertainment and information.
- Experientially, sound however is abstract and invisible. It is not as readily recognised. For instance, when people think of the National Film and Sound Archive they appear to think mainly of ‘Film’ and also of ‘National’ and ‘Archive’. That is understandable. Those people who do think of sound, think mainly of music and broadcasting. Few people think of oral history.
Secondly, the unique conceptual nature and role of oral history is not well understood, and therefore not promulgated.
- It was once regarded as a poor cousin of historical research – suspect in terms of truth and objectivity. But oral historians have long known that its very subjectivity is its power because it can often be more reflective than the visual record, more concerned with concept than deed. It is not only an eyewitness account, it is also a thought witness.
- Its contemplative nature is also enhanced because oral history is not inquisitorial. The interviewer’s job is to help and guide the interviewee. In a sense the conventional journalistic roles are reversed. The interviewee is in charge of the story. The interviewer is a facilitator.
- With no distractions of bulky recording equipment and no pressure of time to rush to deadlines – interviews can take three hours or much more – the relationship between interviewer and interviewee is intimate. And so it tolerates, even welcomes pauses and silence because silence itself can bring forth ideas and memories otherwise inhibited in a formal interview; it is more likely to quietly reveal new insights; it is well able to convey subtleties of character and personality. At its most relaxed and reflective it encourages candour. It is a kind of unguarded history.
- Oral history makes room – ample room – for reflections on theoretical and philosophical argument that would be boring on news or current affairs programs – even on long-form documentaries – but which often reveals priceless observations and facts.
- There is one unique aspect of oral history that makes it an invaluable resource for researchers – oral history is unedited history.
- Interviewers, interviewees and archivists alike are bound by an inviolable principle that, with sensible exceptions, it remains untouched in its original form as recorded.
- No other method of recording history – not even conventional autobiography, so protects and preserves the candour of the moment. In this way, oral history can be a useful and a unique complement for researchers to place comparatively beside all other sources.
The principal tool for researchers of oral history is the transcript, in which useful passages can be identified without having to listen through many hours of recording. We suspect that the main end-use of oral history is probably in print – for instance in theses, books, journals and feature articles.
Oral history can be used in sound or screen broadcasting but it is not recorded with the intention that its long passages should be refined or honed for that purpose. That said, for the broadcaster, as with any other researcher, it is a tool whose main technique is psychological – it is about a relaxed state of mind whose ruminations can offer up from among its meanders some nuggets of unique material that can indeed be suitable in its recorded form for sound broadcast.
At all times, oral history remains a vital, detailed, extended, autobiographical resource for researchers in diverse fields. These are the unique qualities and nature of oral history – precious tools for historians, broadcasters, journalists, authors or students. They should be made widely known, not hidden away.
_______________________________________________________________________ⓒAMOHG March 2021
- Read the second part of this set of posts: Access – Inviting discovery.
- See Storry Walton’s interview on this topic.
Some previous thoughts on the NFSA’s hidden treasures and detailed tips on searching the collection: