Oral history has been a crucial part of our profession for several decades. Since the 1970s, historians have increasingly sought to include personal experiences and disparate voices in narratives about community and place. It was therefore a great opportunity to work on ‘Yarra Talks’ – an investigation into oral history projects undertaken and focusing on life within the City of Yarra.
What began as a simple gap assessment and recommendation project evolved into something much more fascinating. As we delved deeper into Yarra’s oral histories, it became clear that the more pressing concern was accessibility. While many of the interviews are woven into publications and websites about Yarra’s history, the recordings themselves are not always accessible to researchers.
Fortunately, many of the interviews had already been transcribed and it was just a matter of matching the script to the recording. And with the right equipment, converting cassettes into digital files can be easy. But one of the more serious matters with oral history is that of permission. These days, it’s common practice for historians and interviewees to draw up a contract outlining how their conversation will be used, and whether any conditions apply. If there was no contract, and the interviewee has since passed, does this mean their life story never sees the light of day?
The Yarra oral histories are full of colourful individuals and touching anecdotes about life in Melbourne’s inner east. There are shared experiences, surprises and plenty of references to AFL and Squizzy Taylor! What emerges the strongest is a sense of community spirit which has prevailed to this day.