National Oral History Meeting

Rick Kuhn

Large cultural institutions now take oral history seriously. The national Oral History Meeting at the National Library in late February was a clear sign. Universities, State and National libraries, archives and museums were well represented, while the Oral History Association, Royal Australian Historical Society, the Society of Genealogists and the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History represented individual historians. The approaches to oral history of some of the .larger institutions overlap with labour historians particular interest in oral history as one of the few tools for gaining access to the experiences, thoughts and activities of individuals, especially workers, who don’t make headlines in their own right. but whose collective action makes history. Other big public bodies still lean heavily towards simply recording what dribbles from the lips of the powerful (or the once powerful).

In one of the sessions of the Meeting, sound recordists from three national institutions tried to deal with the problem of “conflict between standards of technical excellence and the need to record history”. There was a lot of technical information, some of it useful. But ‘the main problem was defined out of existence by specifying possession of an Uher reel to reel tape recorder $1 000 tax free) as the baseline for reasonable sound quali ty. Where does that leave the .individual labour, local and social historians with limited or non-existent research budgets? Some comments on recording technology, standards and equipment for under-$2000 cassette recorder would have been welcome by many present. Perhaps the workshop at the June 1985 Oral History Association Conference will be more useful in this regard.

A pratical consequence of the Oral History Meeting may benefit all those interested in oral history, whether recordings of great or small folk on great or small machines. The Meeting asked Barry Cohen, Minister for the Arts J. Heritage and Environment, to provide money to fund a register of current oral history projects. At the moment no-one knows who is doing or has what, though written reports to the Meeting were a promising first step. The Minister, who emphasised the importance of oral history in his speech, listened to out arguments for the register and funding after he had (hopefully not ominously) closed the meeting.

A debate over the relative merits of the National Library and the new National Film and Sound Archive hung in the air over the Meeting and may even have been one factor in deciding that it take place: Oral history seems to be disputed territory between the two bodies.

Apart from the formal side of the Meeting some encouraging news for labour historians emerged from the conversations and reports from the participants. The Museum of Australia will be paying considerable attention to the home and workplace in its policies. The Mortlock Library of South Australiana will burst into being late this year, constituted by South Australian material in the State Library in Adelaide and other collections. The Australian War Memorial’s oral history program will pay particular attention to social history.

The National Library is to be congratulated for convening the Meeting.