State Library of South Australia

Oral history

Oral history is the recording of memories of peoples' unique life experiences. It is a record of information gathered on tape as the result of a planned interview, and is a means of documenting the past by asking questions of people who have lived through a period or an event of interest. Through oral history the past comes alive as people share their lives.

JD Somerville Oral History Collection

The JD Somerville Oral History Collection was established in 1987 as the central repository for unpublished oral history tapes and transcripts in South Australia. The collection is intended to provide an oral record of all aspects of the South Australian experience and particularly of those who are poorly represented in documentary records, such as low income earners, people of non-English speaking background, women, and country people. The collection also provides a representative sample of the various uses of oral history, such as academic, commissioned, local history, community arts, school and family history.

The foundation collection was a Jubilee 150 project 'S.A. Speaks' consisting of interviews with 45 men and women who were broadly representative of South Australia in the first decades of the twentieth century. Since 1987 the community has responded with enthusiasm to the Somerville Collection and the Library receives more than 300 hours of recordings each year from practitioners including genealogists, local history groups, post-graduate students and professional historians.

Projects have included:

  • interviews with the 'Barwell Boys' who emigrated to South Australia from Britain in their teens under a farm labourer scheme in the 1920s (OH 169)
  • an Italian language interview with the matriarch of the Taddeo family who emigrated to South Australia in 1934 (OH 237)
  • interviews relating to the development of the Christies Beach Women's Shelter from 1975-1981 (OH 255)
  • interviews with returned servicemen and their wives who were soldier settlers at Loxton after the Second World War (OH 550).

The State Library either commissions or conducts a proportion of interviews each year which are designed to complement material in other collections within the Library or to fill gaps in the collections. Such projects have included interviews with prisoners, officers and administrators at the Adelaide Gaol before its closure in February 1988 (OH 19); older members of Aboriginal families in the South East of South Australia (OH 198); and eminent sculptors John Dowie (OH 524) and Silvio Apponyi (OH 562).

The collection also includes other unpublished sound recordings such as live performances, speeches, South Australian folk performances and material from Radio 5UV and the Adelaide University. These recordings include Writers Week events during the 1960s, South Australia's folk music scene in the 1970s and 1980s and 5UV's Musical Brunch program (OH 488) featuring interviews with Adelaide identities.

Access to the JD Somerville Oral History Collection

Details about the tapes and transcripts in the JD Somerville Oral History Collection can be found via the State Library's catalogue. The material can be accessed via the number OH 1 etc, interviewee's name, the subject, the project, and the interviewer's name. Word searches are a useful means of identifying entries across the whole range of material in the collection. These index terms lead researchers to detailed entries about each interview in the collection, and information about the various projects.

Tapes/CDs and transcripts can be requested by researchers for use in the Reading Room. Copies of tapes/CDs and transcripts can be ordered via the Reading Room and copying charges apply. Interlibrary loan is allowed for material that has no access, copying or publication restrictions. This includes material which has copyright assigned to the Libraries Board. Interlibrary loans do not apply to material that has access, copying, or publication restrictions unless appropriate written permission is obtained by the researcher or borrowing institution. It can then be used on site.

Oral History Services provided by the State Library

The State Library's Archival Field Officer - telephone 08 8207 7260 - provides advice on designing and managing an oral history project and ongoing support once the project is underway. One day introductory oral history workshops are run each year which explain the stages involved in organising an interviewing program, conducting interviews and developing documentation for the interviews such as labelling, summaries, conditions of use forms and transcripts.

Copies of the Oral history handbook by Beth Robertson can be purchased at the Copy Centre in the Library or by sending $28 to the Oral History Association of Australia - SA Branch Inc, PO Box 3113, Unley SA 5061. Copies are also available through interlibrary loan at local public libraries. This is an excellent publication for anyone working in the field of oral history.

High quality field equipment is available for loan, and training sessions are provided on the use of the equipment. The loan period is usually one week but longer term loans are available to country based projects. Borrowers sign a lending agreement in which they undertake to reimburse the Library if the equipment is lost or damaged, and agree to deposit the original recordings in the Library for inclusion in the Somerville Collection if they meet its collection development policy.

Other oral history resources:

Oral History Association of Australia - SA Branch : includes oral history interviews and information about the Association.

Australia's oral history collections: a national directory is published by the National Library of Australia, and there is an online catalogue of ScreenSound Australia (formerly the National Film and Sound Archives) in Canberra.

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