Oral History NSW
Giving Voice to the Past
Giving Voice to the Past

OHA's new president shares 'first thoughts'

by Al Thomson | September 26, 2017

From Oral History Australia President – First Thoughts - 23 September 2017

I’m both honoured and delighted to be elected President of Oral History Australia at the recent AGM. First of all I want to pay credit to Sue Anderson for her stalwart work, in many capacities including President, over the last several years. As our journal editor and international representative Sue will continue to play a key role.

I thought I’d use this first email to highlight my first thoughts about OHA priorities over the next year or so. These thoughts are underpinned by my passion for oral history; my enjoyment in the diversity of our practice (community groups, professional historians, cultural institutions, academics from many disciplines, media workers, artists and performers, and so on); the thrill of the imaginative ways we record people’s stories and create histories in many ways and forms; but above all the fact that we all like asking people to tell us their story and then making those stories into extraordinary histories that make a difference.

First, I’d like to help the national OHA COMMITTEE to be a fun, effective and collegial group which works together to make things happen. Perhaps our main role is to support the state and territory oral history associations, and their members, who are the heart and soul of oral history activity around the country. By working together we can ensure that each association benefits from and contributes to the others, that we don’t all reinvent the same wheel. We can do that through the national committee and by communicating effectively with state committees; and we can do that through our website, journal and biennial conference – and perhaps in news ways using emerging means of communication. We are all volunteers on Oral History committees, and all have other hats, so I’m mindful of ensuring that none of us is over-burdened or over-stressed by our OHA voluntary work.

Second, I’ve always believed the BIENNIAL NATIONAL CONFERENCE is a essential event, and by rotating in turn around the states and territories we share the work but also ensure that each region gets a chance to showcase its work and boost membership and enthusiasm for oral history in the host state. At the recent AGM it was agreed that national committee needs to make a significant financial contribution towards the state-run conference, but also that the national committee will help coordinate a national conference program committee that will develop the conference program and work alongside the state host association which manages local arrangements. I am very much hoping our Queensland colleagues will agree to host the 2019 conference, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to help out and make it a success. Just a week or so after I returned from England to live in Australia ten years ago I attended the last national oral history conference in Queensland (in Brisbane), and for me that was a wonderful home-coming to the vibrant and welcoming Australian oral history movement. I look forward to returning in 2019!

Third, we’ll work with our new national web officer Judy Hughes (a coopted member of the national committee) to improve the NATIONAL WEBSITE, to coordinate the links between national and state websites, and to consider ways of generating a more dynamic and participatory online presence for Australian oral history.

Fourth, we’ll support Sue as best we can to increase submissions to and raise the profile of our ORAL HISTORY AUSTRALIA JOURNAL.

Fifth, where appropriate we’ll be a NATIONAL ADVOCATE FOR ORAL HISTORY, for example if a state collection or institution is threatened, or by showcasing and celebrating wonderful and innovative Australian oral history work. A few months ago the national committee agreed to initiate two Oral History Australia prizes, a book award and a multimedia award. We’ll now work on the process and criteria for the awards with a view to presenting inaugural prizes in 2019.

Finally, those of you who attended the fantastic recent OHA conference in Sydney – thanks OHNSW! – may have heard me talk in the New Directions session about the risks and challenges of FUTURE PROOFING ORAL HISTORY. We all know that our analogue oral history reels and cassettes are slowly dying, though we’re perhaps not quite so alert to the risks for digital (or digitised) interviews. In short, even digital records are fallible, and as digital platforms evolve old digital formats can become unusable. In recent years I’ve begun to believe that only the major state and national archival institutions can future-proof oral history collections so they will last for hundreds of years, if not for ever. For the most part, only they have the resources, expertise and stability to ensure the long-term future of digital records. I’m also aware there are many wonderful oral history collections around the country (in local history societies, in local libraries, with community groups, in academics’ studies etc) that may be lost. I’d like to start working towards an Australian Voices project  - ‘Saving Australia’s Oral History Heritage’ - based upon an equivalent current project in the UK, that will bring together key stakeholders (national, state and local) to raise funds, to identify at risk oral histories, to develop plans and protocols for their survival, and to ensure that oral histories recorded in the future have the best chance of survival. I’d like to imagine that in 10 years we will look back and say that Oral History Australia helped make that happen.

Exciting times! I look forward to working with you all.

Alistair Thomson, President, Oral History Australia


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