Accessing the national oral history collection – easy or not?

This is the second 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

The intrinsic integrity of each oral history and the life it represents is, in the end, its inviolable value. But its utility is also important – how, as an artefact, it can be handled, listened to and its insights turned into discovery, delight, information and use for generations to come.

With these postings we are working with renewed effort to get oral history known and used.


Inviting discovery?

With the need for greater public awareness of the national oral history collection goes the need for the collection to be easily accessible. Currently, it is not.

The Search the Collection section of the NFSA website, designed many years ago, probably for curatorial use, is not user-friendly.

AMOHG urges the NFSA to re-purpose it for public and professional research and resist any temptation that might arise to withdraw it from public view.

There are bright good models in Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision – the New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound, and in the Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid – the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.

Closer to home is an excellent example of clarity, ease of access and exceptional navigability –  the University of Western Australia’s Historical Society website.

We accept that it is entirely impractical to re-write all the currently inadequate or inconsistent NFSA catalogue entries for oral histories.  So as far as oral history is concerned therefore, our suggestion is that a line is drawn under a recent date, say 2018, and that thenceforward the NFSA’s oral history catalogue sites are revised to new standards and kept up to date.

In any case, if the previous CEO’s (Jan Müller) vision for inter-connectivity of major national collections comes to fruition, the NFSA online design and accessibility will become visible to bigger audiences and provide a strong motive to make changes for clarity and compatibility.

So why not start now?

We believe the following aspects of the general website and the Search The Collection site need priority attention.

NFSA website: Oral History – where is it?

Although the NFSA website does have an Oral History page, it is impossible to find it via a search on the NFSA’s website beyond a search that yields ‘Oral History – Directors’, ‘Oral History – Actorsand ‘Oral History – Journalists’. But none of these pages contain links to the main Oral History page, and the only sure way of finding the main page is to exit the NFSA website and conduct a Google search for ‘Oral History NFSA’, which results in

Once the site visitor reaches this Oral History page, the sub-heading ‘About the Oral History Collection is followed by a minimalist three lines of description with no links. The ‘Contact’ paragraph on this page consists of email addresses for the Oral History Program, NFSA’s Access branch, and a link to the AMOHG website via the words, “The NFSA works collaboratively with the Australian Media Oral History Group”. At the bottom of the page are currently links to extracts from a small selection NFSA-held oral histories with ‘Famous Faces at the NFSA’ (all of them celebrities from today or the recent past), ‘Oral History – Musicians’ (three well-known musicians of the present), and ‘Damon Herriman’(a well-known actor of today). Even this ‘Oral history’ description page does not acknowledge the existence of oral histories or provide a link to how to search for them – and there is little to indicate the extent of the collection behind the 2 to 3-minute clips from the selections shown, let alone how to search it or access it.

A productive example of what might be possible for the NFSA’s oral history profiling is provided by this State Library of NSW page – sound – which provides information on getting started, how to request a digitised file version of a SLNSW-held oral history, and information on how the collection is used. An additional ‘Getting Started’ series of links at the left of the page provides such rewarding further information as ‘Collection Highlights’ (thematically listed) and ‘Other Resources’ related to the library’s oral history collection.

For the NFSA website, the first priority should be to add a prominent link to the site’s Search the Collection function which is the public face of the NFSA’s collection.

Search the Collection: Oral History – where is it ?

If, accidentally, the Search the Collection page is found, there is no mention of oral history. It is, in fact, hidden within the broad category of ‘unpublished recording’ – a category which, among many other types of sound recording, also includes bird calls, ethnographic music, radio sound effects, and folk festival concerts.

Oral History is not an incidental adjunct to sound recording. It is a historical discipline in its own right. It deserves to be separately and prominently identified.

Vital information – the Title Search page

The inconsistencies, errors, anomalies and navigation confusions are many and complex and we acknowledge that it would be a huge task to rectify them all.

We give just one example (Holdings) of a problem which would be easy to fix with every accession from now on and for every recording of the past as needs dictate.


This sub-heading rarely lists the existence of NFSA-held relevant documentation – transcripts, logs – and, (where they are supplied by interviewee or interviewer), indexes, curriculum vitae and other documentation in support of the oral history.

Sometimes these items are unobtrusively mentioned in the Summary (usually because they were supplied by interviewers as part of the body text of their summaries). AMOHG believes that relevant documents need also to be separately and consistently listed under Holdings, where they can be immediately and clearly seen by researchers.

The existence of a transcript reassures (for instance) book or journal researchers that a written record is already available, and they will not have to incur the cost of transcription.

The existence of a time-coded log (in conjunction with the duration) indicates to researchers that there is a kind of index to thousands of words of recording. It allows them to identify in advance those oral histories that are the easiest and least expensive to browse for their preliminary checks of relevance, as distinct from those that – without logs – can take hours of listening to discover any relevant material – therefore incurring a potentially high fee for just for browsing. (Each 5-hour search per recording at NFSA advertised rates of $60 per hour for instance would cost $300 each – a high cost for a student.)

AMOHG’s position is that the existence of all documentation should be separately shown under ‘Holdings’.

We suggest that a protocol checklist be created whereby accession of an oral history is not marked complete until the existing sub-headings, including ‘Duration’, plus the  following additional items have been entered on the website under Holdings: transcript, log, cv, and any other supplied items.

AMOHG encourages NFSA to update and develop the site to promote awareness of and access to the Archive and its oral history collection, including, for instance: news about and excerpts from newly accessioned recordings; information on NFSA oral history resources related to current affairs in Australia – and particularly to secondary and tertiary current curriculums (a pro-active program); articles on technical and creative matters relating to oral history; information about conferences; reports from conferences; and news from other Archives.

AMOHG is happy to offer suggestions for posts and articles.

AMOHG is also happy to use its own website to promote NFSA events related to oral history. Our new website attracted 3000 views last year: although modest, this number is rapidly growing as we increase the updates on the site, and we think it is nevertheless reaching an informed audience. We would be glad to assist in promoting NFSA’s oral history stories and information. We can also offer links to NFSA sites and projects.


We understand that there has been debate at NFSA over the past two years about the necessity of transcripts, exacerbated by successive budgetary cuts to NFSA and the flow-on to the oral history budget.

AMOHG’s position is that transcripts are essential to easy access of oral history and should be mandatory.

We believe that most researchers finish up with the written record as their reference because it is quicker to scan than listening to hours of conversation, and because most oral history is published in print media, not sound or vision. The transcript is therefore a prime resource.

AMOHG encourages NFSA to test and apply new technologies as they develop.  

Our own experiments with voice recognition technology for transcripts show that its efficiency and accuracy is improving rapidly and that its costs are extremely reasonable – sufficient to suggest that it is already at acceptable standard.

AMOHG believes that time-coded logs should be mandatory.

Imagine a reference book without an index. The log is the equivalent tool and therefore essential to easy and efficient access to oral history recordings. Without a time-coded log, researchers can be condemned to listening to hours of recorded conversation with no idea, minute by minute, hour by hour, whether the interviewee is of the slightest use to their project. And at the NFSA’s currently advertised fees, it can be very expensive just to browse. The lack of a log is a disincentive to access.

AMOHG’s position is that indexes should not be mandatory, but not discouraged when offered.

Indexes are time-consuming to compile even with indexing apps. They are useful and very helpful for access to topics when the interviewee covers big stretches of historically important time, many important events in numerous fields of endeavour, and speaks about many famous people.


Read the third part of this set of posts: Using the national oral history collection – the ultimate prize.

Footnote. Our observations about the NFSA’s website were accurate when checked earlier in 2021. We understand, however, that the site is constantly updated and some of our observations might no longer be warranted.

_________________________________________________________________ ⓒAMOHG.March 2021                                                                        

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