NLA - New head of Oral History


Hearty congratulations to Oral History NSW & ACT President, and prominent oral historian, academic, author and public commentator Dr Shirleene Robinson, who will be taking up one of Australia's most senior oral history posts as the Senior Curator Oral History and Indigenous Programs at the National Library of Australia (NLA).

Dr Robinson starts at the Library in mid September 2018. An Associate Professor, she comes to the Library from Macquarie University where she has been the Vice Chancellor's Innovation Fellow in the Discipline of Modern History since 2011. She was a Rydon Fellow at King's College, London in 2013 and has also spent time in Hohhot, China as a Visiting Professor of Australian Studies. 

Dr Robinson has managed or participated in a long list of significant oral history projects, including some in partnership with the National Library, such as the very successful, The Past in the Present: Australian Lesbian and Gay Life Stories.

Her work has extended across a range of areas in social history, public policy and contemporary Australia. Her PhD was in the field of Indigenous history after which she worked in the Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy. 

She lists her research interests as:

  • the history of sexuality (including the construction of homosexual identities and homophobia)
  • histories of HIV/AIDS (including volunteering)
  • the history of LGBTIQ people in the military
  • the history of childhood in national and transnational context (including the experiences of Aboriginal children)
  • oral history as a method and practice.  

Ruth Melville - Oral History conference, Belfast 2018

Ruth Melville was the recipient of Oral History NSW's grant, which enabled her to attend the Oral History Society and Network Ireland Annual Conference in Belfast in June 2018.
She shares with us her experience of attending and presenting at the conference:

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Preserving memory is a stubborn act.  So said Rama Lakshmi, journalist for ThePrint, India, in her plenary address at the 2018 Annual Conference of the Northern Ireland Oral History Society and Oral History Network. Rama was speaking about the Bhopal Museum, a site dedicated to preserving the memory of thousands of people who died and the estimated half million others exposed to toxic gas from the Union Carbide gas leak in 1984. Why must we remember Bhopal? Because, Rama said, the cost of not remembering is enormous.

The two day conference in June was held at Queen’s University, Belfast and took as its theme Dangerous Oral Histories: Risks, Rewards and Responsibilities. 

I was fortunate to be the recipient of an Oral History NSW grant which enabled me to travel to Belfast and present a paper about my work as a writer with the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. In my concurrent session Tamara Kennelly described her experience working with students involved in the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy. And Trisha Logan reflected on oral histories of the Indian residential school system in Canada. 

In several sessions throughout the conference the theme arose of oral history abutting other interests, including those of government and other institutions. Rama worked with others to prevent ‘the official hijacking’ of Bhopal memories by those keen to present an image of India’s positive economic and social growth. This survivors’ museum is seen by some as inconvenient to the public perception the government wishes to convey. 

Many delegates throughout the conference returned to the question of ownership of interview and story in oral history. Just because we can – investigate, interview, publish – should we? Issues of consent, the right of interviewees to amend, retract, redact, and withdraw their consent at any time presented practical and ideological challenges for many projects.

The Northern Ireland Prisoners Memory Archive (PMA) was one such. Its archive dates to 2006 when recordings were made with people who had a connection with Armagh Gaol and the Maze and Long Kesh Prison during the Troubles. Prison staff, prisoners, educators, chaplains and visitors took part in audio and video interviews. The PMA shares ownership of the recordings with participants who have the power of veto over material. This has led to the withdrawal of significant material over the years and highlights how issues of preservation, access and engagement can change over time. The PMA’s stated commitment is to an ethical protocol intended to establish trust in a society emerging from violence where political and personal sensitivities remain tender.

Australians were well-represented at the conference and apart from engaging in the many sessions and social activities could be seen assiduously avoiding the sun while those from cooler climes happily baked. 

To end with the beginning. For those undertaking oral history interviews, the importance of knowing where the story will eventually be stored can guide the way to a project’s starting point and its shape. While it isn’t possible to predict the wide scope of future technologies and the ways in which people’s words offered in one context might be used in another, knowing where the words will live is important. 

What will happen to your material? Who will listen to it and by what likely means? How will it be stored? Is it enough to put your interviews – carefully named and catalogued – on a USB device? Or cloud, server, hard drive, in the National Library. Whether in its entirety or excerpts the material must be thought about and its content – including context and responsibility to interviewees – cared for. 

Asking the question in the beginning goes some way to preventing trouble in the future. 

Doug Boyd from the University of Kentucky writes a blog: Digital Omnium: Oral History, Archives, and Digital Technology. He also leads a team that developed and implemented the open source and free OHMS system, which synchronizes text with audio and video online making work easier to search and thereby open to a wider audience. His website is worth looking at for lots of practical advice and suggestions. It’s at 

Seamus Heaney went to Queen’s University. There’s a portrait of him in City Hall. I thought of him during the conference, and in particular his poem A Call which starts like this:

‘Hold on,’ she said. ‘I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.’

Check out the rest of it. Poetry, like oral history, is a stubborn act. 

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New president for OH NSW

OH NSW has a new president, Dr Shirleene Robinson. Dr Robinson is an historian and Associate Professor at Macquarie University. She is passionate about oral history and the histories of Australian LGBTIQ people and their contribution to our society. She has published many books, including the co-authored Gay and Lesbian, Then and Now: Australian Stories from a Social Revolution. She is also the President of Sydney's Pride History Group. In 2017, The Conversation named Shirleene as one of Australia's top fifty thinkers.

Departing president Anisa Puri has stepped down as she is relocating to Melbourne. Her calm efficiency, capable management and vision for meeting the needs of the expanding OH NSW community will be greatly missed. In a letter to OH NSW members she writes 'It has been a pleasure and privilege to serve as Oral History NSW's President, and to work with our active, vibrant and diverse oral history community in New South Wales and the ACT. I wish each of you, and the organisation, every success in the future.'

New Oral History NSW award launched - applications open now

Oral History NSW is excited to announce a new annual award for community-based oral history projects, the Oral History NSW Excellence in Community History Award. The $500 award is designed to acknowledge the work of individuals or community groups who are recording the histories of their communities. Eligible projects may include the development of new oral history collections, digital and multimedia projects (including websites or podcasts) and printed publications based on oral history interviews.

The prize is open to community-based oral history practitioners. This includes members of volunteer organisations, professional historians and freelance workers. The winner will be chosen by a committee of three oral historians based on the project’s contribution to understandings of community history and the quality, originality and/or significance of project outputs.

Applications are open now, and close on June 30. All details can be found here.

And the successful applicant is ...

Ruth Melville has been selected as the recipient of the Oral History NSW conference grant of $1200.

'I’m grateful to be the recipient of the Oral History NSW grant, which will enable me to attend the Oral History Society and Network Ireland Annual Conference to be held in Belfast in June 2018,' Ruth says. 'The conference theme is Dangerous Oral Histories: Risks, Rewards and Responsibilities and I will be presenting a 15 minute paper that reflects on writers’ experiences working with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I look forward to reporting back to our members about the conference and its many interesting sub-themes.

Queanbeyan Heritage Festival

The Queanbeyan Region Heritage Festival, running April 4—May 6, offers a full and engaging program of events including the Queanbeyan Region Heritage Awards, an open day at the Queanbeyan Museum, family history workshops in different locations and an exhibition of mechanical musical instruments at a farm in Jembaicumbene. Most events are free though in some cases bookings are required. One event that will fill up early is an oral history workshop on Saturday April 28 with a panel of oral historians: ANU's Dr Alexandra Dellios, Bill Stephens OAM who has created many recordings in the National Library of Australia’s oral history collection, John McGlynn of Queanbeyan Museum and Marion Meiske who is currently collecting stories of Gundaroo. Details here; full program here.



New grant opportunity

Oral History NSW is delighted to invite applications for a new grant, designed to support  the use and practice of oral history in regional areas. The Oral History NSW Regional Engagement Grant  offers $1500 biannually, to help successful applicants bring a project to fruition through additional training, meeting project costs or mentoring assistance.  Details here.

Community Heritage Grants - applications open now

Community Heritage Grants is a federally funded grants program, operating since 1994, which offers grants of up to $15,000 to assist in preserving cultural heritage collections of national significance. Not-for-profit organisations, such as historical societies, regional museums, public libraries and Indigenous and migrant community groups throughout Australia, are encouraged to apply. The round opened on March 5 and closes on May 7 2018. More information and application details here.

New Zealand oral history conference 2018 - details announced

The National Oral History Association of New Zealand (NOHANZ) invites abstract submissions for its biennial conference, to be held at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, on November 28-29 this year. The conference theme is "Te Waha Kairongorongo e": The Voice in Time and Space. It focuses on the sweet sound of the voice, the singers of tales (te waha kairongorongo), storytellers, and the resonance of the voice through time and space. Abstracts need to be submitted by Friday June 29 - more information and application details here

Australia Day accolade

Congratulations to Kevin Bradley, currently the National Library's Acting Assistant Director General; Collection Management, who received a medal for public service in the recent Australia Day Honours list. The award recognised his work in oral history and digital preservation - read the citation below:

For outstanding public service through the digital preservation of audio visual heritage material. Mr Bradley has been the driving force in the development of innovative approaches to preserving, and providing Australians with access to, the National Library of Australia's significant collection of unique oral history and folklore recordings.

He has developed a fifteen-year plan to digitally preserve the National Library's audio collection, recognising that the imminent obsolescence of play back equipment risked the future loss of unique heritage. No other cultural institution is as far advanced in digital preservation of its audio collections, and the National Library's outcomes have been achieved entirely within existing resources. He is a world expert in the preservation and digitisation of audio visual archival heritage material and was President and Executive member of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) and UNESCO's Memory of the World Subcommittee on Technology and Information for All Programme Technical Committee. As Vice-Chair of the IASA Technical Committee, and with their input and support, Mr Bradley edited and wrote much of the content of the 'Guidelines for the production and preservation of digital audio objects' which has become an international standard.