The reason why we should be talking about awareness and access and usage is simply because nobody knows that the treasures are there.
It is one of the extraordinary things about the 6,000-odd oral histories thought to be in the national collection at the moment that almost no use is made of it because almost no one knows about it. I mean historians, broadcasters, authors, educationalists, curriculum developers, all who should in fact be able to exploit its riches simply don’t know it’s there.
And I think that one of the most important things to be done in the next decade, for our National Film and Sound Archive is, in fact, to make people aware of it: an active campaign to promote its use: particularly in niche markets like education, where you know it can be used.
I sympathize with the National Film and Sound Archive over the inaccessibility of it and the difficulty of finding it even on the website because – I’m talking particularly of the current incumbents of the archive – the collection and the website have grown, bit by bit, with different rules. I think over many years it was really for professional use: it was never thought of as being a publicly accessible, lively, place. But today it’s not fit for that purpose.
I would love to see the archive draw a line – as they must – under say the year 2012 2013 and say from this point on we are going to reform the website so that oral history is prominently stated and easily accessed: and begin the job of actually marketing many of the oral histories under topics and so forth. I think that would be a welcome outcome even with the limited income and funding that the archive continues to get from government.
I mean what’s the point of recording histories if you’re going to hide them? What’s the point of asking people to generously offer days of their time- to give years of their life – to a recording, if it’s not there for posterity. There’s simply no point in it. Therefore, with a sense of frustration, sympathy but urgency, I do hope in the next decade there’ll be a positive articulated campaign to get oral history known and used.
I hope it doesn’t sound too obvious but one of the key reasons is the scarcity of resources in the archive. The archive is now in its 10th or 12th year – like other not-for-profit institutions of the Commonwealth Government – of the severest budget cuts and attritions. It has recently lost many -many – key staff and, as any librarian will tell you in any other field, the business of collecting and accessing and then marketing is people heavy. You need experts to do it. So, without the funds to employ the people then it’s difficult.
So that’s one thing and I’d say that’s the obvious thing about funding which can be an excuse but in this case is a reason.
The other reason is that i think oral history is generally – in the public domain – not well known anyway. For instance, when people think of the National Film and Sound Archive, I think they think of Film, Sound and Archive. They know those terms but they don’t think of Oral History because it’s not much talked about. In specialist circles for a long time, oral history was regarded as the poor cousin of ‘proper’ history: of history and books of history; in essays of postgraduate theses and so forth.
My contention has always been that oral history with its unique intimacy and its ability to find hidden meanings in people’s lives, is as valid a primary source for historians as conventional history.
So, one of the attendant problems to that, is that people would look at an archive and I think the first thing they think of is the visual. Because the visual thing is the most prominent thing in our minds. We see to understand. Less so do we think of sound. And sound is interesting because in fact I believe it’s more powerful than sight. I think that sound in film and in recording is more powerful than what we see because it’s the only abstract element in it: because it’s primal. Sound is absolutely primal. And sound excites the emotions; excites understanding more quickly and more powerfully than sight does. And I think that one of the tasks of archivists is to acknowledge that, and talk about it and say “Look: it may not be obvious, but in these oral histories you’re going to hear some remarkable things.”