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Oral History

Oral History has been used for imparting historical knowledge for thousands of years. In Tasmania Aboriginal people certainly imparted knowledge to their children by word of mouth. Indeed most Tasmanians can point to family lore handed down by oral means.

However, it is only in recent times that oral history has become a respected means of finding out about history. It was the invention of the tape recorder and its reduction in price in the 1960s that made it possible for interviews to be conducted by almost anyone. There then followed a period when the acceptability of the method was severely tested in Australia, with some academic historians (notably Patrick O'Farrell) pointing out the very real possibilities of uninformed hearsay being put forward as historical fact.

Eventually those who favoured the method showed that it is also impossible to accept everything written as incontrovertible fact; all evidence must be tested rigorously before being accepted. With this understanding, oral history has been able to take its place as an important means of investigating the past. Insights can be gained from those who participated in events, be they politicians, business people or other community leaders. However, one area where oral history has proved especially fruitful is in the lives of 'ordinary people'. This is particularly important as diaries and letters, so often used in the past for similar information, have become almost non-existent.

In Tasmania oral history gradually became more used from the 1970s onwards, with the work of historians such as Peter MacFie and Alison Alexander. Numerous community history books based on oral evidence have also been published around the state. The formation of a Tasmanian branch of the Oral History Association of Australia in 1990 encouraged the raising of standards by offering workshops, providing a forum for the discussion of issues including ethics, and encouraging the deposit of interviews in a central locality. In 1992 the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery appointed an Oral Historian, and that institution now holds over 1000 tapes and CDs. The Archives Office of Tasmania also holds several hundred tapes.

Further reading: The Oral History Association of Australia journal, SLT, especially 1982–83 for the debate on oral history.

Jill Cassidy