Oral History NSW
Giving Voice to the Past
Giving Voice to the Past

RAHS/OHNSW Seminar - August 18: Introduction to Oral History

by | May 28, 2016


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Presented by Oral History NSW President Paula Hamilton. Details here.

Beyond the interview - an OH NSW seminar

by Sally Zwartz | April 16, 2016


Catch up on OH NSW's first seminar of the year, 'Making digital history', with presenters Hamish Sewell and Bronwyn Murphy - full audio now available.

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‘Digital projects have made us rethink the scale and depth of what we can do’, OH NSW President Paula Hamilton told the audience in her introduction to OH NSW’s first seminar for the year, ‘Making digital history’. The seminar was the first in a series that aims to explore oral history’s development in different directions and its uses in the public sphere, she said. It also hopes to inspire oral historians in their own practice, particularly in looking beyond the traditional focus on the interview and the archive.

The two speakers at the seminar were Bronwyn Murphy, sound recordist/editor and co-ordinator since 2013 of the National Film and Sound Archive’s oral history program, and Hamish Sewell, oral historian/radio producer and founder of Soundtrails, an app which uses recorded stories and sounds as a way to bring places to life.

I attended this event, held on March 12, and fully intended to keep detailed notes. But the speakers were too engaging and their subject material too interesting, so in the end I just listened - an option now open to all, as the speakers have generously allowed recordings of their presentations to be made available through the OH NSW website, here

A few moments from the presentations: this is Hamish explaining the experience of following a soundtrail - LISTEN [at 13.09 in the full audio], and here is a link to an earlier project he initiated, based on Story Corps in the US, which invites participants to be their own oral historians - this is the Uralla Story Project.

And here is Bronwyn talking about the first full NFSA oral history interview put up on SoundCloud, with Doc Neeson - LISTEN[AT 12.43 on the full audio]. You can find that interview here. This link takes you to the NFSA's site and an example of an online exhbition in which oral history interviews feature as part of a rich range of materials including scripts, film clips, music, photographs and other images. And here is another component of the work done in the NFSA's oral history program - this is an index of brief video interviews with oral history interviewees, usually done at the end of a longer interview session, which are posted on YouTube and publicised via twitter and facebook as a way to enhance the program's accessibility and promote its activities overall.

The NFSA wesbite, portal to the activities of the oral history program, is currently being rebuilt. Bronwyn is optimistic about the new opportunities it will provide to access and share the content. And Soundtrails is also at a crossroads, as Hamish explained in concluding his presentation: hamish_sewell_5.mp3 [at 34:20 in the full audio] - more opportuntities, more challenges. 

Listen to the full audio of the presentations here, and come along to the next seminar in this series, 'Oral history and migration stories', on June 25.

New events on the OH NSW calendar

by | April 6, 2016


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Just scheduled: Capturing Memories workshop May 14 (details here) and a seminar: Oral history and migration stories June 25 (details here).

New from the Australian Generations project

by | April 2, 2016


The Australian Generations project provides the content for the latest issue of Australian Historical Studies.

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The latest theme issue of Australian Historical Studies (AHS), edited by Katie Holmes and Alistair Thomson, features seven articles by members of the Australian Generations team in which we use the project’s oral history interviews to illuminate a range of topics in Australian social history, and to discuss innovations and issues in oral history. The open access online editorial on ‘Oral History and Australian Generations’ by Katie and Al introduces the project and the articles. Katie and Al also discuss the articles in this video clip on the AHS Facebook site. Use this link to access all the articles. To view individual articles click on any of the following links (note that if you are not an AHS subscriber you will need to view through a local, state or education library, or pay for access):

Class, Social Equity and Higher Education in Postwar Australia (Christina Twomey and Jodie Boyd);

Talking about Mental Illness: Life Histories and Mental Health in Modern Australia (Katie Holmes);

Australian Generations? Memory, Oral History and Generational Identity in Postwar Australia (Alistair Thomson);

Telling Families and Locating Identity: Narratives of Late Modern Life (Kerreen Reiger);

Creating an Oral History Archive: Digital Opportunities and Ethical Issues (Kevin Bradley and Anisa Puri)

Oral History in the Digital Age: Beyond the Raw and the Cooked (Michael Frisch)

The Radio Documentary and Oral History: Challenges and Opportunities (Michelle Rayner) 

This journal theme issue is the major academic outcome from the ARC-funded Australian Generations Oral History Project, a collaboration between historians at Monash University and La Trobe University and colleagues at the National Library of Australia and ABC Radio National which produced 300 life history interviews with Australians born between 1920 and 1989. 

Later in 2016, Monash University Publishing will publish Australian Lives: An Aural History by Anisa Puri and Alistair Thomson. This book uses interview extracts to illuminate the lived experience of Australian history across the 20th century, arranged in chapters on Ancestry, Childhood, Faith, Youth, Migrations, Midlife, Activism, Later Life and Reflections. The book will be published as a paperback and e-book, and e-book users will be able to listen to each interview extract as they read – an ‘aural history’ first!.

You can also listen to ten Australian Generations radio programs produced by ABC Radio National, or access the interviews via the Australian Generations website. 


New publication: Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia

by Leonard Janiszewski | April 2, 2016


Academic and co-author Leonard Janiszewski provides some background on the evolution of the project that became Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia (pub. Halstead Press).

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About the project

In 1982 Effy Alexakis commenced a detailed and ongoing research project investigating the historical and contemporary Greek-Australian presence, both nationally and internationally. I joined her in the following year. The project, ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’, is now recognised as one of the most comprehensive visual, oral, and literary archives on Greek-Australians. Our initial aim was to break down the pre-existing stereotypes of Greeks in Australia – such as the ‘urban stereotype’ of Greek café, milk bar and fish’n’chip shop proprietor, and the ‘folkloric stereotype’ of Greek festivals and dancers in traditional costume. These were dissolved within the broad and diverse plethora of occupational pursuits and socio-cultural activities engaged by Greek-Australians, both past and present, and on a national scale. A sweeping, fresh panorama of a people’s migration, settlement and identity emerged. Exhibitions, publications and film documentaries followed.

Yet, whilst Greeks did enter a wide variety of occupations over the last two hundred years since their initial arrival in Australia, Effy and I understood that they nevertheless had played a large part in Australia’s food-catering industry, particularly through the Greek café. The occupational stereotype of the Greek café existed because of their abundant numbers, their popularity, and as the enterprise was the most common social and business point of contact between British-Australians and Greek-Australians. The importance of the Greek café was also recognised in memory by the institution’s proprietors, staff and customers. Unfortunately though, the Greek café had only received a thimble measure of recognition within the seminal publication on the history of eating in Australia – Michael Symons’ One Continuous Picnic (1st edition 1982, 2nd edition 2007).  Symons’ relative silence on the Greek café provided an irresistible opportunity for Effy and myself.

From the mid-1980s Effy and I had started to recognise that an American element of influence was clearly present in regard to the Greek café. Early historical photos featured Greek café window signage declaring ‘American Ice Cream and Chocolates’. Interviewees had spoken of Greek migration to American and then Australia, of the consequent ‘American style’ of Australia’s Greek cafés, or of their personal enjoyment of ‘American Beauty’ sundaes and ‘American milkshakes and sodas’, and how the cafés captured a sense of ‘Hollywood’ as seen in the cinemas, or was their first introduction to Rock’n’Roll. We pursued this theme further within both our field and archival research, and were well rewarded. The ‘Greek café project’ became a major area of investigation within the overall ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’ project.

 So, over the course of three decades, having completed hundreds of field trips and almost 2,000 interviews across five countries, we can now, in detail, begin to confidently negate Symons’ failure. What has arisen is an Australian story, but one with significant international components.

The book and exhibition


Utilising oral reminiscences and literary-based documentation to provide a narrative context, Greek Cafés & Milk Bars of Australia interplays historical and contemporary images. Structurally, the work is divided into number of thematic chapters – very loose groupings of sub-themes appear within the chapters. A historical over-view is provided by the opening essay. Readers should not feel obliged however to read the publication as a rigid linear narrative. We encourage that the reader’s journey through the work, like an exhibition, should be self-determined (at least in the first instance) – wandering at will from one story to another, both within and amongst the chapters. Such a random manner of reading will emphasise change – changes in time (forwards or backwards), place, circumstance, outlook and emotions will confront each other suddenly rather than appear to gently evolve as in a smooth progression of a linear narrative. Most readers should then be tempted by this process to find out why and how such changes occurred. A curiosity, which, it is hoped, will lead them deeper into the publication’s content.

Most archival material (oral, visual or literary) used in this publication, unless otherwise specified, is held within our project’s archive. The qualified statements of interviewees – both proprietors and customers – dominate the textual component of the work. Indeed, their statements, their voice, should – this is their story. Most interviews were conducted in English. Those undertaken in Greek have been translated as closely as possible to what was said. All transcripts attempt to reflect the language style and structure employed by each interviewee. The English spelling of given and surnames of Greek interviewees are provided in a manner which they utilised, or are spelt phonetically. The names of Greek historical identities are spelt in English based upon the most common spelling in documents, or according to the manner preferred by descendants. At times, multiple spellings are provided if each has equal currency of recognition. 

The book is also a companion publication to our touring exhibition Selling an American Dream: Australia’s Greek Café, which opened at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, in 2008. The exhibition has continued to tour around the country ever since – a tribute to the popularity of the subject. Both Effy and I hope that Greek Cafés and Milk Bars of Australia will potentially lead to another volume on the subject – particularly given the vast and diverse array of information at our disposal.


Leonard Janiszewski

Macquarie University, 2016 

OH NSW grants - applications open now

by | April 2, 2016


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Oral History NSW is pleased to announce that two grants of $600 each may be awarded to any member undertaking research based on, or concerning, oral history and who will be attending or presenting a paper at the National Oral History Association of New Zealand (NOHANZ) Conference Tell Me More: Sharing Our Stories, October  2-24 2016 in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Grant applicants are not required to present a paper at the conference in order to apply for this grant. All grant recipients will be required to write a 1000-1200 word post on their experience at the conference for Oral History NSW’s blog. Conference proposals must be submitted by Friday 8 April 2016. See the NOHANZ Call for Papers for full details - here. And find the grant application form here.


Community Heritage Grants 2016

by | March 20, 2016


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Closing date for applications - May 9. Details here.

National Oral History Association of New Zealand - 2016 conference

by | March 20, 2016


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- call for papers. Deadline Friday 8 April - details here.

International Oral History Association journal - call for papers

by | March 17, 2016


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- deadline April 15. Visit here for details. 

Podcasting oral history as ‘radio’ documentary

by Siobhan McHugh | January 22, 2016


Award-winning oral historian, writer and broadcaster Siobhan McHugh on new ways to present oral history, and a new critical platform, RadioDoc Review.

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When people agree to record their life story, and we do them the honour of listening deeply to it, most people are proud and keen to have others hear it too. That after all is the point of oral history – to create a record that will furnish posterity with the multiple subjectivities of a community, event or era. But who has the time to listen right through an infinite number of four-to-five hour recordings per individual? Almost nobody. The answer, I suggest, is to by all means preserve the original recordings as a ‘raw’ archive – but also, to serve up a digest of the interviews in a palatable format that marries superbly with audio – the radio documentary, a variant on what Michael Frisch calls the ‘cooked’ form, and one that can now easily be shared as a podcast. Later, some pointers on a new outlet for critical analysis of radio documentaries that will help beginners and experts alike see how and why the best radio documentaries have such power and impact. But first, a historical digression.

As a new migrant to Australia in 1986, I was charged by the newly formed Social History Unit (SHU) of ABC Radio with the weighty and wonderful task of charting, in sound, the history of the mighty Snowy Mountains Scheme. This huge hydroelectric project remains Australia’s biggest infrastructure project, to be overtaken only when the NBN is complete. But its role as a feat of social engineering is to me even more fascinating than the miles of tunnels blasted through mountains and the enormous dams and power stations constructed between 1949 and 1974, impressive though they are. That’s because the Snowy was built by migrants from over 30 countries, recently arrived from war-torn Europe, and it became a living crucible for the testing of multiculturalism – an experiment that was a resounding success. I interviewed about 100 workers of 25 nationalities, and consulted some 200 others. The original interviews are preserved at the State Library of NSW, and over the years, scholars and researchers have delved into them for insights into immigration and settlement, occupational safety, family history and other topics. They were the basis for a six-part radio series I made for SHU, broadcast on Talking History in 1987 and a book, The Snowy: The People Behind the Power (Heinemann 1989), which won the NSW Premier’s Award for Non-fiction and provided the deposit for my first home. The book, I am happy to say, is still in print (republished by Harper Collins 1995), but the radio series, though digitised, languishes in the ABC archives, where few will ever hear it. This pains me, because the tapestry of ethnic voices contained in those three hours, and the eloquence with which they describe their transformative journey from ‘bloody Wogs and reffoes’ to proud New Australians, is a rich, moving account of the coming of age of contemporary Australia, and resonates just as loudly 30 years on.  The book is of course a valuable record, and print trumps audio when it comes to analysis and information, but nothing, to my mind, surpasses the ability of audio to connect us emotionally with another human being.  As someone once said, a transcript (print) is a map – but audio is a landscape. Anyone who doesn’t believe that, just listen to this three-minute clip I recorded with an Australian journalist describing an incident she witnessed in the Vietnam war. In an article recently published in the latest edition of the Oral History Reader, I analyse why the audio is so much more moving than the same words on the page. Most of you won’t need convincing.  For a less academic consideration, check out a talk I gave at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, The Affective Power of Audio.

Nothing surpasses the ability of audio to connect us emotionally with another human being.

 We’ve come a long way since the dark days when Columbia University, perish the thought, used to delete and re-use tapes of interviews and preserve only the transcript. Oral historians have been aware of the importance of orality for a long time (Sandro Portelli writes beautifully about it in The Oral History Reader, in a chapter from 1967), but it is only fairly recently, as technology has enabled more ‘lay’ people to obtain good quality audio recordings and use simple editing software such as Hindenburg, that oral historians are going the extra mile and crafting a narrative from their raw interviews. We’ve heard the results on programs such as Hindsight on RN, and with the new ease of podcasting, literally anyone with access to the internet can post an audio work for global listening, using Soundcloud or a similar outlet.

But the question now becomes: which of the myriad audio documentaries and podcasts out there are worth listening to? In fact, what makes one radio documentary compelling, and another not so engaging?

 I’ve been making radio documentaries since 1981, and many have attracted acclaim, but beyond a crash course in logging and editing interviews, no-one taught me how - I evolved my own style through a mixture of instinct, collegial feedback and listening to how others did it.  My very first rookie attempt, a program reporting on what was then a rare species, immigrants to Ireland, was recently placed online and I listened, with some trepidation.  Though I am somewhat mortified at the clunky use of music (why did I not let Bob Dylan SING!) to my surprise, it stands up – because I had a good topic, chose interesting, diverse interviewees, asked pertinent questions, delivered a sprightly narration (in a melodious Irish accent that 30 years in Australia have flattened) and edited the results together in such a way that the program retains pace and texture. Some three decades and 60 radio documentaries on, my multilayered production technique has become more sophisticated, but the other elements remain basically the same. Yet it occurred to me that for all the wonderful – or otherwise – radio documentaries being broadcast, there was very little evaluation or analysis of the form. Just think of the screeds of reviews you can find about films, books, art exhibitions or theatre. But the best radio documentaries of the year?  Apart from the odd newspaper piece, and an occasional scholarly article, very little had been written.

What makes one radio documentary compelling, and another not so engaging?

 That’s why, in 2014, I founded RadioDoc Review. It’s a free online journal published twice a year, with in-depth reviews of some of the world’s best audio documentaries and features. How do we know they’re the best? Because they’re voted for by an international editorial board of top radio producers (most have won audio’s most significant award, the Prix Italia, or equivalent) and eminent academics.  The reviewers are equally highly credentialled. From feedback on social media from both audio makers and listeners, these reviews are highly valued. They free audio from using the language of film criticism, help us understand and appreciate the invisible architecture of the built audio feature form, and deconstruct how it varies across cultures and ethnicity. We’ve reviewed some 20 programs from Australia, US, UK and Europe, in English and other languages (transcript provided). We include the audio link in the review, which you can download as a pdf. And we usually do TWO reviews, to test different perspectives.

 Take the US radio documentary, The Hospital Always Wins by Laura Starecheski.  It was a ten-year investigation, which included several interviews with a man who was a patient in a mental hospital outside New York. He told Starecheski – in graphic detail - how he’d killed his mother, because he was at the time an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.  But now, years on, he was medicated and selling his art to the public, and she wondered why he was still detained (he is very charismatic on tape). 

Reviewer 1, Sharon Davis, a multi-award-winning  Australian investigative producer, was mostly positive, but points out how formulaic it is in some ways – she would have gathered more acoustic scenes to bring the hospital itself to life. Reviewer 2, Michelle Boyd, an African-American academic from Chicago, is a sociologist who has fallen in love with audio and uses it as a way of researching black men’s experiences of police brutality.  She mainly gives it a thumbs up – but she asks why is RACE never mentioned? Because Issa, the patient, is black, and the psychiatrist who won’t let him be released calls him ‘narcissistic’ – a variant on the uppity black, Michelle reckons. So you can see how this level of critique can really deepen appreciation of both the form and its impact.

 I recommend working through the canon of programs – listening to the works and then reading the analysis. All, by definition, are good, but some, that sit at the radio art end of the documentary/feature spectrum, may be of less interest to oral historians – the abstract will provide a clue. Ones that loosely have oral history or at least long-form interviews at the core and which I recommend are:

Poetry, Texas: an exploration of a small rural community (US/Denmark)

The Change in Farming by Adam Goddard and Steve Wadhams (CAN): an innovative play on the interview form itself

Will Kate Survive Kate by Masako Fukui (AUST): the impact of anorexia on Kate and her family

Little War on the Prairie John Biewen’s playful auto-critique of his own This American Life show, which investigates a mass execution of Native Americans in his Minnesota home town in 1862.

Crafting audio narrative out of oral history works best with strong, emotive personal narratives

 Crafting audio narrative out of oral history works best with strong, emotive personal narratives and I’ve brought oral history and radio documentary into conversation in many works over the years. Some I am proud of include Beagle Bay: Irish nuns and Stolen Children, about the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families: when it aired on RN the day before the Reconciliation Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the stories were so moving, people wrote in asking why they’d never heard the personal experiences before, just academics and politicians discussing it as policy; Minefields and Miniskirts, in which 25 Australian women recount their hitherto overlooked and often extraordinary experiences of the Vietnam war; and Marrying Out, a two-hour series based on 50 oral history interviews with people who experienced bigotry from being part of a ‘mixed marriage’ in an earlier Australia, when the Catholic vs Protestant divide was much like the Muslim vs Western binary of today. The original Marrying Out interviews are preserved at the National Library of Australia, as part of their excellent strategy of making unexpurgated time-coded audio available to browse online, subject to rights and permissions. 

So, go forth and podcast your oral histories as beautifully wrought audio narrative! For more of my musings on oral history, check out my website

Below: Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator National Museum of Australia, Prof Ian McLean, art historian, University of Wollongong, and Dr Siobhan McHugh, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, University of Wollongong researching a forthcoming oral history of contemporary Aboriginal art. 


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