By Alice Garner

On Sunday 20 June, we held our annual symposium, ‘Plan or Perish: Ensuring the survival of community oral histories’. Uncertainty due to changing CoVID-19 restrictions meant that the event took place online.

The aim of the symposium was to explore some of the challenges facing community-based oral historians seeking to preserve their recordings and ensure they remain accessible into the future. We invited speakers from community history groups as well as from major institutions that collect oral histories. The event came on the heels of a vigorous national campaign for improved funding for the National Archives of Australia.

A recording of the symposium will soon be made available on OHV’s YouTube channel. 
Shirleene Robinson, Curator of Oral History at the National Library of Australia, was our first speaker. Shirleene was able to draw on her long experience with the community-based Pride History Group as well as in-depth knowledge of institutional collection policies and procedures. The Pride History group, of which Shirleene is President, recorded about 150 interviews, and created a website to share curated audio excerpts, organised thematically, as well as a selection of full interviews with timed summaries. Some of the challenges facing the group will be familiar to many OHV members: limited resources, varied levels of technical and oral history expertise as well as the need for knowledge transfer and careful succession planning within the group. The biggest benefit of remaining an independent community creating and managing their own collection included the all-important mutual trust amongst all those involved. The project’s “liberation of stories”, as Shirleene described it, cemented connections between LGBTQI+ community historians, activists, archivists and students.

Shirleene contrasted the Pride History experience with her work at the National Library of Australia which holds over 55,000 hours of oral history recordings. There are many factors to consider when the NLA (or any institution) receives offers of OH materials. They need to consider the carriers and formats of recordings, whether there are existing finding aids, timed summaries or transcripts, how and where recordings have been stored, what condition they are in, and of course consent forms (or the lack thereof) covering access to and future use of the materials. There are no guarantees that institutions will accept oral history collections, but if they do, the donor has to consider the implications of losing some control of the recordings

Following Shirleene’s presentation, we moved into a session on Community history. We heard from Noni Plunkett, whose childhood discovery of an escapee turtle led her in later years to interview people involved in the nearby Murchison World War II Internment camp. Noni briefly outlined her project, which arose from postgraduate history studies with John Lack, as well as her experience of donating her tapes to the Australian War Memorial. One piece of advice arising from this was the benefit of having others make requests to collecting institutions for donated material, which can help speed up the accessioning and digitisation process.

Lorna Hannan then talked about the Hotham History Project, an OHV institutional member group which initiated an oral history project in the 1990s, as a way of bearing witness to daily life in North and West Melbourne pre-1990. Lorna reflected on lessons learned from the interviewing experience, in particular how power relations shifted depending on how questions were framed. She noted that the carefully designed release forms could be daunting for participants and in some cases they were never completed, leading to access problems. Being asked to sign a consent form often changed the way people saw the project and the nature of their own contributions. Lorna also talked about the difficulty of finding a home for their collection. They had used a variety of technologies to record and had debates about whether, in order to make the collection accessible, they should focus on sharing transcripts rather than the voice recordings which posed more technological difficulties. Lorna’s description of the oral histories as “homeless” resonated with many of the Symposium participants.

After Lorna, Jillian Hiscock took the Zoom floor. Jillian is Collections Manager and Volunteer Coordinator at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, which supports over 300 local historical societies. She elaborated on Lorna’s “homelessness” observation, noting the range of societies the RHSV works with and their differing capacities to house and maintain oral history collections along with all their other archival materials. Societies have limited funds and need to prioritise their spending carefully. The digitisation process can be complex and expensive. The Drill Hall in A’Beckett Street has a cupboard full to bursting with recordings in many different formats but digitisation is only one step in the process of preserving these. A replacement or refreshment program needs to be planned and budgeted for as well. If the original carriers are retained, where should they be stored? Once digitised, should they be stored in the Cloud, on a hard drive or network? Should the first step be the making of transcriptions? So many questions… and everyone, from individuals to major collecting institutions, is grappling with them.

Our final session was an opportunity to hear from the State Library of Victoria’s Greg Gerrand and Jenelle Colston-Ing. Greg is Senior Librarian at State Library Victoria, specialising in Victorian and Australian Collections within the Collection Curation and Engagement team and Jenelle is Head of Collection Development and Description. Having just faced the longest closure in the State Library’s 160-year history, Greg and Jenelle were keen to talk about new directions in the Library’s new Collections strategy. There will be a strong focus on First Nations materials, with Digital-first and Diversity the keywords in generating new materials. Improving accessibility and discoverability of the collection is also high on the agenda, and where Legacy materials are concerned, there are important discussions being had about copyright policy covering consent forms from an era when people did not anticipate the development of the internet as a platform for dissemination.

Digitisation is a priority for the library, but it is not without its challenges. The library has ordered a FRED, or Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device, to enable to conversion of analog to digital. Meanwhile, analog carriers are held in the Mawson and Scott Cool rooms, and there is no longer any public access to these physical items; instead, digital copies are being made available. The library is also in the process of updating its digital viewer system, which will enable us to listen to recordings and use summaries or transcripts to locate excerpts of interest.

The Library is embarking on a new ‘Focus on Country Victoria’ photographic and oral history collecting project, for which they are raising funds. An oral historian will be employed as part of this project. There was much interest among Symposium participants about this possibility, alongside comment on the necessity of preserving and making accessible the collections that already exist out in rural communities.

Al Thomson ran the Q&A which ranged across problems of copyright, engaging young Victorians in oral history making, how to manage large personal oral history collections, problems of description (making sure that the SLV has an ‘oral history’ category in their collection search tools, for example), ethical issues surrounding the uploading of audio content to different online platforms, whether it might be possible to develop a national directory of oral history collections, perhaps through Trove, and also template release forms for use by community historians, as well as how to bridge the gap between community and personal OH collections and public-facing web-based platforms like Trove.

In many ways the Symposium raised more questions than it answered, but it demonstrated clearly that we need to continue sharing our knowledge so that we can develop robust, ethical and affordable ways of preserving and making discoverable the rich oral history collections that abound in our communities. We also need to ensure that OHV stays in regular and meaningful contact with the institutions that care for our state’s oral history collections. We can all learn from each other.

If you attended the Symposium and have not yet completed the feedback survey, please take a moment to do so, to help us plan for future events.
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If you were unable to attend it would be helpful for us to know why. If you can please send a short email to contact.oralhistoryvictoria@gmail.com