Fifteen excellent reasons to use oral history – part 2

In my previous post, I presented five reasons to record and use oral history. Here are the next five reasons.

Oral history is an excellent way to:

6. Learn about old processes

The way we do many, if not most, activities has changed dramatically. Consider cooking, housework, factory work, and other jobs.  Equipment that was once commonplace is not used any longer.  Many unsafe practices are no longer allowed. Oral history can be used to record those memories, before we forget how things were done or how particular items of equipment were used. 

Quarry at Meadows, not dated.  Courtesy of Prospect Hill Museum.
Quarry at Meadows, not dated. Courtesy of Prospect Hill Museum.

In the first example, Geoff Watson talks about how stones were crushed for roads in Meadows in the 1930s.

People with horse and dray would take the stone from the quarry and put it on the side of the road, and then men would be given a job of using a napping hammer – a napping hammer is a small-headed hammer, rounded on both ends, and they used the wood out of a willow tree for the handle because of its flexibility. It hits a rock and springs away, where a normal hammer handle will jar. And when they finished cracking it down to the required size, they’ve got to shove it into a neat heap measuring three yards by two yards, coming to a ridge at the top, so that it could be measured; and then the Council would pay them what they’d cracked… The metal was put on the roads. The metal was always cracked down and put on the roads.”

Quote courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, OH829/15

In the second example, timber worker Harry Portlock describes working beneath a circular saw in a timber mill.

Things that would be totally unacceptable now. I had to use the saws and cut up the firewood, but I also had to clean out the sawdust from under a saw and I was working within inches of a circular saw, an open-bladed circular saw, working underneath this pit, and I would dig the sawdust out from underneath the saw pit while they worked up above, because they wouldn’t stop while you were doing that, and one mistake – – –. I can remember once going a bit far with a shovel and it cut the handle clean off my shovel on this open saw. Mr Wilson didn’t dock it from my pay – I thought he may, but he didn’t; he just handed me another shovel and we went on with it. But that was things acceptable, that’s things that you did, extremely dangerous and would not be allowed now, but that was my job and I rather enjoyed it.”

Quote courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, OH829/5
Mr Wilson at the timber mill, driving a wedge into a log, 1940s.
W.J. Wilson and Sons timber mill at Meadows. Mr Wilson is on the right, driving a wedge into a log, 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Local History Centre, Mount Barker Library.
7. Learn about businesses of the past
Stan Ellis in his Meadows General Store in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Lois Watson.

Businesses today are very different from those in the past.  Who knows what shops will look like in future, or if they will exist in a form that we would recognise?  Oral history interviews with people running business are an excellent way to document how they have worked over the decades, and how their business has changed. For example, in this interview, there is a wonderful description of an old general store, and the diverse range of products and services it offered.

8. Learn about old pastimes

Hobbies and pastimes have changed greatly, and oral history interviews are a wonderful way of finding out how people spent their leisure time.

For example, country dances were once popular in towns, but articles in local newspapers often only named the dances, with no details about what those dances were like and how one danced them. At the time, this would have been common knowledge. It is not common knowledge today, but oral history interviews can help provide that information. In this post, Joy Craill, Barry Ellis and Harry Portlock describe some of the dances popular in the 1940s, what the atmosphere was like, and how people behaved.

9. Ask people about specific objects or photos.

If you happen to be researching documents in an archive, there is unfortunately rarely any opportunity to ask the author of those documents any questions you may have. However, in an oral history interview, there is the opportunity to ask people about interesting objects they have, how they were used and how they acquired them. We can also ask for more information about photos they have, and what they show.

The main Transmitter Building at Belconnen, showing two of the three towers (red and white) supporting the low-frequency aerial, c2006. Photo courtesy of Eddy Mol.

For example, the photo above shows two of the three towers (in red and white) which supported the huge aerial of the low-frequency (44 kHz) transmitter at the Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station. Oral history interviews with former workers at the Station provided details about how signals were sent using the aerials, what precautions had to be taken because of the power, and some of the unusual consequences.

Bill Williams worked at the Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station in the 1950s and explained how the low frequency aerial was earthed.

This was a very good point about the LF [low frequency] transmitter at Belconnen, in that part of its construction consisted of an earth mat. It really encompassed the whole of the three masts, and was a large mat of not very thick wires that were buried in the ground to facilitate the relationship between the antenna and earth. That is the basis of any aerial transmission, is the relationship between the aerial and the earth. And at some time prior to the modification to the transmitter, the farmer who had agisted sheep on the aerial farm – and they performed a very useful function because, during summertime, if the grass was just left to grow you had a real fire hazard, so the sheep helped keep the grass down – but at some stage – I guess it was known by some members of the staff but certainly wasn’t known by me; it occurred before my time – the farmer had actually ploughed the area where this earth mat was. It wasn’t buried very deeply and he’d cut it in many, many places. And that is, I think, the major reason why the transmitter behaved in the way it did, setting fires and causing that arcing down through the base.”

Extract from oral history interview with Bill Williams used with the permission of the Australian Government Department of Defence.

In this oral history interview excerpt, Gabby Hayes recalls the insulators at the base of the towers being struck by lightning:

Yes. One day we were inside the building and a huge storm come over, I think that was in early ’87, and there was a huge crack of lightning and followed very shortly afterwards by a very loud bang, and we went outside and one of the insulators from the 600-foot mast had been smashed on one end by this lightning strike and it had fallen 600 feet and just missed the OIC’s car by about three feet and embedded itself in the tarmac to its full width. It was probably ten inches wide, and that was fully embedded in the tarmac. So luckily nobody was standing underneath it, or the Warrant Officer’s very expensive Morris 1100 wasn’t underneath it, because he would have wasted 300 bucks, I guess. (laughs)”


Extract from oral history interview with Colin (Gabby) Hayes used with the permission of the Australian Government Department of Defence.
10. Bring history to life by using the recordings to make a more interesting product

The audio file from an oral history interview can be used to bring history alive in a way that a written description cannot. Hearing someone talk about their experiences can make history far more accessible and engaging. We can empathise with an individual telling their first-hand experiences.

Here are some of the myriad ways in which audio from interviews can be used, with links to some examples of each:

  • embedded in a website such as this one,
  • used in e-books (such as the Australian Lives e-book, which includes hyperlinks to interview audio files),
  • included in museum displays (e.g. here, here, here and here),
  • used in podcasts and documentaries (see a list of oral history podcasts here),
  • used in theatre productions, (read a paper about verbatim theatre here), and
  • incorporated into walking tour apps (such as this Jetty-to-Jetty walk in Broome, Western Australia).

How have you found oral history useful? Have you found interesting examples of oral history being used, for example in theatre, walking tours or exhibitions? Please write about them in the comments below.

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