The Stories They Tell: An Introduction to Oral History

Remember those stories your grandmother or great grandfather used to tell you? Or the yarns the old bloke who worked at the factory used to spin? That’s oral history.Oral history records our stories, our knowledge, experiences, anecdotes, observations and achievements. Oral history collects the stories of ordinary people in their own words – the workers, the community, the clients, the onlookers — The people who were there when it happened.

Oral history brings out the richness, the humour, and the emotion of times past, and results in a wealth of recorded knowledge that otherwise may be forgotten. The spoken word gives different information in a different style to the historical accounts that are based on written documents and academic research.

When I was a kid, I spent every day after school with my great grandmother. She was an elegant, intelligent woman, a heavy smoker of Capstan cigarettes, an acclaimed pianist, and the Catholic matriarch of the family. She was known as having shunned non-Catholics marrying into the family, though somewhat inconsistently accepting those she liked – those with some ‘character’. She loved people with ‘a bit of fun in them’ and didn’t suffer fools gladly.

Mem Mem, as she was known, grew up on a remote farm at Porters Retreat, in the high country south east of Oberon, NSW. She was in her eighties and early nineties when I knew her. Her memories stretched back to the last decade of the 19th century.

We’d sit together in her lounge room, the afternoon sunlight beaming in through shafts of her cigarette smoke, and Mem Mem would tell me stories of her youth on the farm, of passing swagmen sleeping in the hay shed, stock horses, the twice annual trip on a horse drawn cart to Bathurst to pick up bags of sugar and tea, and other supplies. She would re-tell stories her parents told her of the earlier years – in the 1850s – when the first European settlers arrived in the area, after their crossing of the Great Dividing Range. Mem Mem’s family, the Mahoneys, were amongst them, with their large carts laden with their chattels from Ireland: furniture, linen, silverware and crockery, and even, their piano.

As happy and enthralled as I was in Mem Mem’s company, it never occurred to me how valuable these stories were. Inevitably over the years I’ve forgotten many of them. ‘If only you’d recorded her!’ my family used to say. The stories were an insight into the lives of these people, not only what they did, but also their values, their humour, music, loves, and fears.

`When I was twenty two, Mem Mem died. She’d been a window through which I could see into another time. Of the few stories of hers I remember, the nuances and the details have been lost. I resolved to interview and record my remaining elders, and went around to them all with my cassette recorder spending hours listening, asking questions, laughing and crying.

Years after my mother died I listened back to the interview I had done with her in the nineteen nineties. It was like she was suddenly back with me, and it rocked me. As sad as it was, it was also a joyful experience to hear her voice. There’s something about a recorded voice. It seems more potent, more full, and can carry more meaning, more intimacy than a video. Perhaps it’s the isolation of the aural sense: You’re just listening to a voice, and it’s like it’s a keyhole into a person’s soul

 

As well as capturing family histories, oral history has an important place in recording the histories of communities and organisations, of society, politics and religion: those that aren’t found official or academic history documents. In 2012, I attended the International Oral History Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina and heard of oral history’s role in documenting, interpreting and presenting the stories of political organisations, communities and the oppressed. I heard stories of the struggles of unionists against factory owners, civil rights campaigners against oppressive military regimes, and indigenous people against timber companies.

Oral storytelling also has a place in the healing, therapeutic journeys of those suffering the trauma of witnessing violence and murder, such as happened to the survivors of the 2006 shootings at Virginia Tech in the US:

“ These trauma oral histories help make meaning of what happened on that day and in the aftermath. By contributing their narratives to the collective memory, survivors become agents of history rather than victims of catastrophe”. – Tamara Kennelly, conference paper, International Oral History Association Conference, Buenos Aires, 2012.

At the conference, Stephen Sloan’s Colliding with History: Narratives from Holocaust Liberators presented gripping accounts of the experiences of American serviceman as they entered Holocaust camps in 1945. They were interviewed sixty five years later for the project, and the accounts, and the emotion still held by the interviewees were compelling.

I love hearing people’s stories – it’s a pleasure and privilege. Oral story telling is as old our species. In an age when communications technology regularly changes how we communicate, the passing of stories through the spoken word has endured.

 

Two examples you might enjoy:

  1. Kathleen Golder
  2. Leo Cripp

Tips on oral history interviewing:

If you’re interested to do oral history interviews, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Think about why you’re doing the interview. Who will be interested in it in the short term, and in the more distant future? What sort of things will they want to know? How can your interview best draw out that material form the interviewee?

2. Make sure you have reasonable quality recording equipment. A pair of microphones and table stands is a worthwhile investment. Get used to using the gear before you do your first interview. Think about audio file formats. How big will the files be? How/where will you store them?

3. Interviewing is a skill and it’s worth reading up on it before you start. Prepare for your interview with some set questions, but allow for the conversation going in unexpected directions. Make sure the interviewee is comfortable. Take breaks if necessary. Listening attentively and being genuinely interested in the conversation is very important.

4. Make sure the interviewee is informed about why your doing the interview, who will get to hear it, where it is stored etc. Depending on the situation you may want to have a release form prepared for the interviewee to sign.

5. Sometimes the interviewee may reveal personal information that they hadn’t anticipated would be part of the interview. Check in with them to make sure it’s OK to include that in the recording. It can be quite delicate work and as an interviewer there are responsibilities within an ethical framework.

6. For more information and resources, check out the Tasmania Oral History Association, or the equivalent association in your state/territory.  The Oral History Company can assist you to prepare for oral history interviews.