Oral history in the digital age

Oral History Victoria's Annual Symposium kicked off the Queen’s Birthday weekend with an engaging and topical series of presentations. From websites to apps to hard drives, this year’s Symposium explored the many opportunities and challenges facing oral historians in the digital age.

After an introduction from OHV President Al Thomson, we ventured into the world of online oral history with Judy Hughes (Monash University). Considering the sheer scale of material that oral historians collect – interview recordings, photographs, primary research – Judy advocated websites as a fantastic way to curate and present oral history projects. She demonstrated how websites and web-based applications allow oral historians to produce high-quality, accessible histories at little to no cost, and without the need for purchasing extra equipment. The following discussion, led by Rachel Goldlust (LaTrobe University), presented a complementary vision of the internet’s role in oral history. Drawing on her PhD research into homesteaders, Rachel argued the importance of face-to-face interviews and their associated reciprocal benefits.

The first half of the morning was rounded off with a presentation from Al Thomson, with two exciting developments from the Australian Generations Oral History Project: the recent publication of Australian Lives: An Intimate History, and the digitisation of its interview recordings on Trove. As a group, we listened to one interview while reading the edited version – an exercise which reinforced the dual qualities of readability and human connection in oral history.

After a short break, John Francis spoke on the changing face of technology in oral history work, as well as the finer points of location, sound quality and shot composition. John thrilled us with his personal collection of recording equipment, which ranged from a Tandberg portable tape recorder to his handy iPhone 7 Plus. This caused great excitement for those who recalled the older tech, as well as for those who had only seen them in museums! Following John, André Dao presented his new book, They Cannot Take the Sky, produced with Michael Green from the Behind the Wire project. André shared his experiences interviewing people formerly and currently in detention, highlighting the inherent risks in undertaking such a task. His discussion of political refugees detained on Manus Island was particularly moving, and emphasised the need for discretion when publishing interview content.

The Symposium ended with a fascinating talk from our keynote speaker, Mike Jones, on digital preservation (University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria). After hearing from so many amazing oral history projects – each incorporating different technologies – Mike reminded us the importance of staying ahead of the technology game. Backing up work on external hard drives, and regularly replacing those hard drives, were just a couple of his suggestions for ensuring longevity of interview recordings and accompanying digital material.

It was a captivating and inspiring day for all who attended, and testimony to the generosity and passion of the oral history community. 

Museo Italiano in Carlton. Image from http://www.museoitaliano.com.au

Museo Italiano in Carlton. Image from http://www.museoitaliano.com.au