6.1 In accordance with its national heritage responsibilities, the Library records and collects oral history interviews with Australians of national standing, social history interviews which document the experiences and encounters of everyday life, and field recordings of Australian folklore.


6.2 Oral history materials may be defined as interviews recorded by specialist interviewers (‘oral historians’) with selected interviewees who speak from personal experience on subjects of historical interest. Such interviews are usually recorded in audio format, i.e. as sound recordings, and may also be transcribed. At the Library, sound recording equipment is also used to collect Australian folklore. In this context, folklore (‘traditional expressive culture’) includes songs, music, tales and stories, customs, beliefs, forms of speech and other forms of cultural expression learned orally, by imitation or in performance, i.e. without formal or institutional instruction.


6.3 The Library began acquiring interviews and other recordings in the 1950s. At first, these were acquired from external sources. In 1970 it introduced its own interviewing program, contracting interviewers and occasionally using members of staff. The primary objective of the oral history program was to supplement the Library’s holdings of contemporary personal papers. Consequently, the collection is strongest in the fields of politics, public administration, literature, the performing and visual arts, the history of Indigenous Australians, intellectual life, multiculturalism, science, journalism, law, religion, environmentalism and conservation. Other significant areas include diplomacy, tertiary education, historiography, music, industry and commerce, employment and labour relations, communications, technology, librarianship and sport. The interviewees are almost all Australians, including many migrants. Some interviews have been recorded with expatriate Australians, mainly in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The Library continues to acquire a limited amount of material from external sources.

6.4 In the 1980s, the Library began to broaden its collecting activities by initiating or supporting oral history projects aimed at recording particular aspects of Australian social history. Some projects have concentrated on specific periods, events or phenomena, such as life in Australia in 1938, the 2003 Canberra bushfires, the whaling industry in Western Australia and HIV-AIDS. Others have focussed on the experiences of particular groups, including trade unionists, the unemployed, ethnic communities, members of religious orders and rural women. Recent collecting in the field of multiculturalism includes interviews with members of the Chinese, Greek, Polish, Maltese, Vietnamese and Khmer communities. Key project partners have included the Commonwealth Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, the Commonwealth Department of Health, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the State Library of Western Australia, the State Library of South Australia, the Chinese Australian Museum, the Powerhouse Museum and the NSW Labor Council. The most recent and remarkable of these partnerships is the Bringing Them Home Oral History Project (1998–2002): a project specially funded by the Commonwealth Government which contains over 300 interviews with Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons involved in the process of child separation. Social history projects help to ensure that recordings are made with persons whose lives are not well documented and who may therefore be marginalised or 'left out' of Australian history.

6.5 A similar cultural concern underlies the Library’s folklore collecting program. The folklore collection has been developed over many years by acquiring formed collections and by contracting experienced collectors to carry out fieldwork. In this way, the Library has developed the most significant collection of its type in Australia, containing original recordings made by many of Australia’s best-known folklorists including John Meredith, Alan Scott, Peter Parkhill and Rob Willis. The collection also includes the Wattle Archive, which forms the basis of the Wattle Recording Company’s historic traditional releases. Folklore recordings have been conducted for the Library in all Australian states and territories. Holdings are strongest in the area of traditional Australian music and song (‘the Anglo-Celtic tradition’). Nevertheless, a significant amount of material has been recorded from Indigenous Australian performers; and many recordings have been made with performers or informants who have migrated to Australia from countries such as Germany, Italy, France, Crete, Greece, Holland, Poland, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Syria, Lebanon, Malta, Laos, India, Samoa, China and Vietnam.

6.6 The collection contains some significant original sound recordings acquired by the Library through its manuscript and music collections. Materials received through the manuscript collection include tapes of political speeches, poets reading their own works, taped diaries, letter-tapes and taped drafts of literary works. Materials received through the music collection include the collections of leading composers such as Don Banks, Larry Sitsky and Keith Humble.

6.7 The collection contains a limited number of historical broadcasts, public addresses, occasional lectures, talks, conferences and seminar proceedings. Holdings in these areas are not extensive. Earlier materials, such as the historical broadcasts, were acquired before the development of a formal collection development policy. Later materials, such as conferences and seminars, are chiefly recordings of significant Library functions or events. They are acquired very selectively, according to their cultural and historical significance.

6.8 At present, the entire collection consists of some 38 000 hours of original material. It is growing at a rate of approximately 800 hours each year.

6.9 In its future development of the collection, the Library continues to seek a balance between biographical interviews with Australians of national standing, interviews that document aspects of Australian social history and recordings that document aspects of Australian folklore.

6.10 The Library’s program to record oral history interviews with distinguished Australians complements the acquisition activities of its other Australian special collections. The Oral History Program’s chief objective is to build on existing collection strengths. At the same time, it will record some interviews in other important areas of Australian life. The program specialises in recording historically focused, wide-ranging interviews, with an emphasis on frank communication and original content. In some cases, follow-up interviews are recorded at later stages of an individual’s life and career.

6.11 In the field of social history, the Library regularly collaborates on approved projects with community groups and specialist organisations. By undertaking oral history interviewing projects relating to important social movements, issues or events, the Library adds to the range of original source materials available to scholars and other researchers. Frequently, conventional records and reports will require supplementation if valuable information about the past is not to be lost or overlooked.

6.12 Subject areas where the social history collection has depth and which the Library continues to develop include: the effects of increasing urbanisation, changing work and employment practices, recreational activities and other aspects of popular culture, generational differences, environmentalism, the impact of globalisation, Indigenous Australian issues, immigration, refugees, and the feminist movement.

6.13 The Library continues to collect a range of folklore material reflecting Australia’s regional differences and ethnic diversity. Field collectors working in areas of relevance and importance to the Library’s collection carry out particular projects, in some cases in collaboration with other libraries, archives, galleries, museums and research institutions. In this area of collecting, the Library seeks to document aspects of Australia’s contemporary folklore as well as its rich folk heritage.

6.14 Sound recordings that form part of manuscript and music collections will continue to be housed in the oral history and folklore collection. The Library considers acquiring such sound recordings from other sources, provided they are of high significance to its collections and that such acquisitions are made within a framework of consultation between collecting institutions.

Access to the Collection

6.15 Information about those recordings that have been catalogued is available from the Library's Online Catalogue. Currently incoming acquisitions are catalogued and retrospective recordings are catalogued according to agreed priorities. Recordings and transcripts are available for use according to conditions of access determined by the interviewee.

6.16 Use of recordings is dependent on whether an access copy has been made. The Library aims to produce preservation and access copies of all new acquisitions. Older material that has not yet been made accessible has been prioritised and is receiving preservation and cataloguing attention. Because of the nature of this material and emerging technologies, material may become unplayable unless action is taken within a relatively short time frame. Priorities for this type of material take account of the condition of the material, the information value of its contents, and current and anticipated demand for access.

6.17 Priority for preservation and access copying is normally given to material considered to be the most significant.

6.18 Although sound recordings are considered to be the primary documents of oral history, transcripts have long provided a convenient way for researchers to gain access to their contents. The Library’s current transcribing policy is to prepare transcripts of all interviews with Australians of national standing, and transcripts of most interviews in the field of social history. All transcripts are prepared as verbatim records of interview. Editing is limited to correcting any mistakes in the text. While a significant number of interviews acquired in earlier years have not been transcribed because of resource constraints, the Library has dramatically enhanced access to current recordings by requiring interviewers to supply time-coded summaries of all incoming interviews.

6.19 Subject to access conditions determined by interviewees, recordings and transcripts can be accessed at the Library or supplied to researchers on interlibrary loan. Increasingly, copies of transcripts are available in electronic format. Digital delivery of audio materials is being implemented.

Relations with other Institutions and Individuals

6.20 In developing its oral history collection, the Library occasionally acquires interviews from other institutions or individuals. The value of oral history material depends heavily on the interviewing and technical skills of interviewers, as well as their subject expertise and the quality of their recording equipment. Many interviewers in the research community use recording media that have short life expectancies. When considering the acquisition of such recordings, the Library critically assesses the quality of the interviews, the physical condition of the recordings and the adequacy of documentation. Recordings it decides to acquire are transferred to digital storage. The Library does not necessarily undertake transcribing due to the high costs of this activity. All decisions to acquire interviews from external sources are measured against existing Library priorities and the relative significance of the materials being offered.

6.21 As resources are limited, the National Library can only carry out a relatively small number of interviews in any one year. It is frequently unable to take up suggestions of possible interviewees, even though it is likely that the recorded reminiscences of the people concerned would fill gaps in the documentary record. The policy of the Library is therefore to cooperate directly with projects it considers a priority; to encourage societies, professional organisations and community groups to initiate their own oral history projects; and to supply information on the technical standards followed by the Library. In cases where the Library does agree to act as a project partner, costs and skills are usually shared, with the Library contributing technical expertise, recording equipment, blank recording media, archival preservation of original materials, cataloguing and storage.

6.22 At the national level the Library cooperates closely, in particular with the National Film and Sound Archive. The Library also consults regularly with the National Museum of Australia, the National Archives of Australia, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and the Australian War Memorial. The State Libraries of New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia have active oral history programs and the National Library consults with them, both to avoid unnecessary duplication and, when appropriate, to undertake particular interviews jointly. The logistical problems of interviewing throughout Australia make it strategically effective to use specialist interviewers engaged locally, for example by state libraries, rather than send Canberra-based interviewers on extended field trips. On occasion, the Library collaborates on projects proposed by other libraries, archives, museums and regional research institutions, where such projects are able to demonstrate national significance. Unlike other unpublished materials, once sound recordings have been archivally preserved, they can be easily duplicated (provided interviewees have given their permission) and, as a general principle, it is recommended that copies of recordings be housed in more than one institution.

6.23 In determining levels of cooperation with other institutions, the Library keeps in mind its overall policy of interviewing individuals of national standing and recording interviews about major social trends and developments. Many oral history projects are focused on local communities or the history of particular companies, schools, churches, societies, clubs or other bodies. The Library does not usually participate in such projects, apart from providing some general advice.