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Uni Archives’ Oral History Program

At the University Archives we’re excited about the re-commencement of our oral history program. With the help of trained volunteers we intend to create a series of recorded interviews with individuals who have had significant associations with the University of Adelaide or its affiliated institutions. The result will be an enhanced collection of considerable value to future researchers, and one we will endeavour to make available online.

A well conducted oral history interview yields a unique and valuable historical record. In addition to drawing out facts and their interpretation, an audio record preserves a voice, an accent, even a personal manner that is not usually evident or able to be inferred from written documents.

The oral history form is also able to draw out subjective responses and contextual information often not present in other kinds of evidence of an event, decision, or discovery. Likewise the spontaneous evocation of an era that sometimes emerges during an interview – the sense of what it felt like to live through a particular period – can add significantly to the quality and texture to our understanding of the past.

In terms of the relationship of an oral history to more traditionally accumulated archives, we can consider the oral history both as a stand alone record, and as a means of adding value to the records collected in standard archival series. An oral history sheds light on the past, not least because the interview is usually conducted some time after the period being discussed and with the attendant benefits of hindsight.

At the same time many researchers/interviewers will testify to the unconscious distortions in recollection that appear with the passing of time. The original documents can act as a counterbalance to this tendency. This is why historians treat traditional archival records and oral history recordings as complimentary and interdependent, with each informing the other.

(Those curious about these and other issue will enjoy the upcoming Oral History Association of Australia Conference. She Said, He Said: Reading, Writing and Recording History will be held in Adelaide in September.)

The first interviewer for the University’s program is Stephen Beaumont whose extensive knowledge of the University is a by-product of a long career with the Barr Smith Library. So far he has conducted successful interviews with Emeritus Professor Joe Wiskich, formerly Professor of Botany at the University of Adelaide, and Dr. Alan Brissenden, formerly an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Adelaide.

Initially our main focus will be on academic staff, but if possible we would like to expand the program to include administrative staff and students. If you have a suggestion of an individual who you think would make an interesting interview subject, or if you have an interest in conducting background research and/or interviews, please get in touch.

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