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Aurality and the opening of oral archives

The most recent issue of the OHR includes an article about the Australian Generations Oral History Project and the importance of “aurality” to oral history. To learn more, we exchanged emails with Anisa Puri, a member of the project and President of Oral History NSW.

OHR: The article highlights the importance of the aurality of oral histories – of actually listening to the words as opposed to just seeing them printed on the page. In your work, how do you see this emerging awareness changing the field of oral history in general?

Anisa PuriI think this is a really important shift. As oral historians, we know how essential it is to listen to an interview in order to interpret it. By listening, we observe and interpret meanings that are often lost in an interview transcript or summary. Speech carries meaning—whether it’s the quickening of the pace, the softening of a tone, or a pregnant pause. The cadence and emotional qualities of a voice offer important aural clues for us to interpret. Appreciating the importance of aurality extends into how we present oral history in creative and immersive ways too, whether it’s via a website, podcast, digital story, art installation, audio walking tour, museum exhibition or heritage interpretation.

In terms of my work, I recently finished writing Australian Lives: An Intimate History (with Professor Alistair Thomson), which will be published as a paperback and ebook in early 2017. The book illuminates the everyday experiences of Australians over the last century, and highlights change, continuity and diversity of experience. It is organised by life stages and themes, and features fifty interviews from the Australian Generations Oral History Project, which are available online through the National Library of Australia’s catalogue.

In the ebook version, readers can read and hear interview extracts. By hyperlinking each extract featured in the book to the correlating interview audio, we encourage readers to listen to the excerpts. Readers will be able to hear meanings, read emotions and observe other aural clues that our edited transcripts can’t convey. This piece, from an interview with Kathleen Golder, who was interviewed in Hobart, Tasmania in 2012, is a poignant example. Here, Kathleen, who was born in 1920, recalls leaving London for sunny Queensland in 1953, in fear of the Cold War. Like many other British migrants who became known as Ten Pound Poms, Kathleen took up the Australian Commonwealth government’s subsidised ten pound passage to Australia. The edited transcript below also showcases the differences, and dissonance, between reading an edited transcript and listening to unedited audio. (You will need to accept the National Library’s End User License Agreement and wait a few seconds to hear the audio. The interview will continue playing after the extract ends.)

Maloja Ship, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Maloja Ship, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It was on the Maloja.  It was an old troop ship. It was a merchant ship coming out from Tilbury docks.  It was on November 5th.  There again, I was on the ship.  It was dark. It was evening.  I’d said goodbye to my mother and Maureen—my first daughter—because she stayed with my mother because of schooling and one thing and another, to come out later.  But I was on the Maloja and it was slowly going down the estuary from Tilbury docks and I had this new baby in my arms.  It was two weeks old.  He was born on 22nd October and this was 5th November.  I just bundled him up and he wasn’t, he wasn’t registered to come. So I had a bag. I popped him in a bag and hid him and got on the boat. And said nothing to anybody because they did not like you to travel with new babies or if you were past six months pregnant. The date for our departure did not come as early as it could have done and I was getting onto six months pregnant and I said, ‘I’ll get on that boat if it’s the last damn thing I’ll do.  I’ll get on.  I don’t care if I’m in labour, I’ll get on that boat.’ But I happened to have had the baby two weeks before we got on the boat.  So I got on the boat with this new baby.  And I was, stood—it was raining, as it would be in London in November—with this baby and I was crying, crying, ‘Oh dear me’.

I didn’t want to leave really.  You know, it was my home.  It was my family.  My brothers and every—all my family were there.  I didn’t want to leave but it was the best thing I ever did.  But I didn’t know it then.  One of the emigrants said to me later on that journey, ‘Were you that person crying on the boat at the back of that vessel?’  I said ‘It was, yes.’  He said, ‘I often, I did see you crying and I knew you had a new baby, it was you.’  I said, ‘Yes.’  So there was one witness to that very moment of my leaving.

By offering readers easy access to our primary sources, they can interpret the interviews for themselves. They can question our interpretation of the interview material, build on our analyses, or pursue different directions and develop new readings.  This challenges standard roles—of what it means to be an author, or an audience—as readers can click to listen to our evidence. Perhaps this approach makes authors more accountable for how they interpret their sources too.

In a sense, the e-book will function as a curated entry point into the archive. It will encourage students, researchers, and the public to go beyond the contents of the book and engage directly with the interview collection—whether it’s delving deeper into an individual interview, using the keyword search facility to explore topics of interest, or exploring ideas for new research. By enabling readers to read and hear the contents of the e-book, we hope to spark their interest in the wider collection.

More generally, I think that focusing on aurality—and access to the actual interview—is helping to get oral history out of the archives and back into communities. As digital technologies offer new ways to connect with wider audiences, oral historians seem to be using more creative, immersive and engaging methods of using interview audio in how they present and share oral histories. It’s a dynamic space and I can’t wait to see how it develops.

You can find out more about Puri’s work on her Twitter account, or by checking out Oral History NSW. Chime into the discussion about aurality in oral history in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image: Australia by Angelo Giordano, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Hank Greenspan

    Agree with a lot of points made, especially about the importance of being able to link transcript and interpretive narative to interviews. At the same time, I think issues go in many different directions. For example, I sometimes have students “reverse engineer” an archived interview (never transcribed) and _create_ a written transcription. In that activity, they typically hear much more and much better than via the archived interview alone–because they must slow it down, repeat sections, etc. to hear nuances of voice and, often enough, of meaning. I also did all my own transcribing originally, and I am sure that is how I learned to “hear” what was actually there (including all my own failures to hear initially).

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