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excerpts from Paul Ashton’s discussion of the value of oral sources in constructing histories

Ashton, P. ‘On the Record: a practical guide to oral history’, North Sydney Council, North Sydney, 1991

excerpt one

Though the term 'oral history' was coined in 1949 by American academic historian Allan Nevins of Columbia University, the oral transmission of information regarding the past is as old as speech.

In terms of white Australian history, early chroniclers such as Judge Advocate David Collins often incorporated oral testimonies into their accounts of the colony. Subsequently, numerous historical undertakings and countless official reports were to utilise spoken accounts to portray aspects or versions of the past. In the early 1920s, for example, the Carruther's Commission, which was appointed to look into the Conditions and Prospects of the Agricultural Industry in New South Wales, took verbal testimonies — along with written submissions, no more or less reliable — from hundreds of farmers and graziers across the state regarding their experiences on the land; their current circumstances; and their likely future as they perceived it. Now, as then, this substantial collection of material, which was published in a separate volume in 1922, provides useful insights into life on the land, into broader historical processes at work and into continuity and change over time.

It was not, however, until the 1960s that 'oral history' as we know it today began to take off. Initially, practitioners were generally folklorists — such as John Meredith who began seriously collecting tape-recordings of Australian folk songs in the 1950s and Warren Fahey of Larrikin Records fame and non-academic local historians. At this time, academics in general preferred to leave 'oral history' to others. Some snubbed the emerging technique, arguing that it was a sure means to obtaining information of an unreliable and trivial nature. Sir Paul Hasluck, for one, once referred collectively to oral history practitioners as 'the "word-of-mouth" school of historians'.

With the reshaping of labour history from the 1960s and the emergence of women's history, among other developments, came a new generation of historians that wanted to write history from below — history about common people instead of 'great' individuals and portentous events. Oral history seemed a perfect vehicle to facilitate the documentation and examination of bygone workplaces, domestic life and a whole range of themes and subjects for which written records were either scant, unreliable or non-existent. Thus an increasing number of academics and other history workers joined the ranks of those who used oral sources to build history around 'ordinary' lives and occurrences.

Critics of oral history, however, continued to question the technique's value. One, writing in 1979, had this to say:

The basic problem with oral testimony about the past, is that its truth (when it is true) is not primarily about what happened or how things were, but about how the past has been recollected. That being said — hardly a startling revelation — at once all the claims made for oral history — accuracy, immediacy, reality — come under the most serious suspicion, and we move straight away into the world of image, selective memory, later overlays and utter subjectivity. Which is fine so long as we know where we are at... Certainly such oral testimony can become an illumination of past reality, though any title to be regarded as 'history' may then have been dispersed. Its worth would at that stage need to be determined by criteria other that historical, as something more poetic, perhaps 'philosophical'.

Such criticism was vigorously contested by exponents of the art who argued convincingly that this was not so. 'Every piece of evidence about the past', Bill Thorpe rightly contended,

oral or written, represents someone's recollection of events refracted through certain perceptions which are imbricated with various ideologies, 'world outlooks', material and political pressures. No written document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought — what he or she thought happened, what he or she thought ought to happen or would happen, or perhaps only what he or she wanted others to think about the event in question.

These now old arguments still linger on and fresh debate occasionally arises: the term 'oral history', for example — though now broadly accepted — has been criticised as a label for the craft. Some practitioners who choose simply to present large, uninterpreted slabs of transcript in their work prefer the title 'oral record'. But the stone throwing has generally ceased. Historians who utilise oral testimony recognise the potential problems of bias, distortion and selective or faulty memory…

The success of oral history — or, more importantly, what can be achieved with it if used carefully and sensitively — is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated that in Janet McCalman's excellent social history of white, anglo-celtic working class life in Richmond, Victoria, Struggletown.

Buried deep in her work, McCalman has this to say about part of the process of oral history:

All history is the history of the present, as each generation rewrites history in terms of its current values and preoccupations. And so it is with private oral history. We all construct inside our head an autobiography as we progress through life and, like written history that autobiography... serves to make sense of the past and define our evolving sense of identity.

In this way oral testimony is valid in itself and for the individual who is sharing their story with others. Further, as a 'private' or personal view of the world, oral testimony, as Portelli has noted, 'tells us less about events as such [that is, precise details, dates and so forth], than about their meaning'.

Oral history has been a major growth area in Australian history for some time and it is here to stay. Indeed, it could be argued that no historical work can be considered complete today unless it includes oral sources where they are available.

excerpt two

Transcripts should not be seen as the ultimate form for presenting oral evidence. Transcripts, tape recordings, photographs and any documents or objects borrowed from the informant or copied during the project could be used in a display or exhibition; articles for local newspapers or local history journals might be crafted from all or part of this material; a book or booklet may be produced based on the theme or subject of a collection of interviews; or if resources and skills permit, a piece for radio, film or television could be produced.

In the main, most locally based oral history projects will in part result in the publication or production of a written piece, whether a book or an unpublished manuscript. But just as contemporary history should include oral testimony where available, 'oral history' needs to be interwoven with other forms of evidence.

As has been argued in the introduction, the process or technique of oral history leaves the researcher with evidence – whatever the quality – which needs to be worked on with the historian's tools: this entails, among other things, interpretation. If these tools are not used — if oral evidence is presented in the form of freestanding documents – then we have an 'oral record', not 'oral history'.

Oral evidence can be used in a number of ways. It can at times be quoted at some length with great effect if the quotation is well chosen; it can be woven into conversation; it can be used to create case studies; it can subtly inform a text without being obtrusive – that is, it can provide a writer with information and ideas which can be imported into a piece of writing without being directly quoted; and it can be used in captions.

The following extract, taken from Laying the Foundations: A History of the House With No Steps (Sydney 1991), is based largely on the oral evidence of Lionel Watts, founder of the charitable organisation the House With No Steps. Watts, a young up-and-coming executive, was the victim of poliomyelitis in the 1956 polio epidemic:

Upon being discharged from hospital, Watts attempted to re-enter the work force. Initially, he vividly recalls, 'I hadn't really looked at my reflection, and in my own mind I still considered myself as being fairly able rather than disabled because I had the same thinking capacity and I didn't think my personality had been disabled in any way.' But he was 'rejected at every opportunity' by potential employers.

Negative, uninformed attitudes stigmatising the disabled, Watts believed, needed to be confronted. But he was disillusioned in his first approaches to other handicapped people, many of whom were ensnared in a vicious cycle of poverty:

I thought to join some embryo groups of disabled people at that time [the second half of 1958] and I found that this small beginning of disabled groups were ... fairly dishevelled. They didn't present well as individuals, they didn't have the money for decent clothing, they weren't mobile, they had defeated attitudes and so on. And it was like a mirror reflection to me that I found rather terrifying ... looking in the mirror and suddenly seeing that no longer are you fully able but are now one of those disabled people.

Between 1958 – the year of the first Pan Pacific Rehabilitation Conference – and 1962, Lionel Watts remained at home. While having to 'come to grips with the mental... and ...emotional problems of not being the breadwinner and being totally supported by... [his] family and the state', Watts enjoyed a close family life. During his reclusion, he continued to look for work without success. Constant rebuffals by employers, however, motivated Watts to begin reading widely on disability, rehabilitation and psychology and he undertook further studies in management, his area of expertise in business, through an external course at the University of Sydney. Watts was later to develop an interest in the stock market which led ultimately to the formation of a small but highly successful 'investment club' which enabled him to relinquish the invalid pension.

Other ideas for presentation can be gained from 'stack stalking': take a dozen books from the library shelf which utilise oral history and see how the evidence has been used. Audiovisual sections of larger libraries also contain examples of oral history productions, such as Tim Bowden's P.O.W.: Australians Under Nippon (ABC, Sydney 1984), which will provide ideas for projects. Current developments in 'hypermedia' and 'multimedia', where texts, images and sounds can be linked together in a variety of ways, has opened up a whole new range of possibilities for utilising oral records.

Reproduced with permission of North Sydney Council.


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