The Oral History Program
Knowledge held in the human memory is one of the most important sources of historical information. Historians use many sources for their work in writing about and analysing history. Most of these sources are documentary. Consequently, collections of documents and photographs such as those held by the Northern Territory Archives Service (NTAS) are essential elements in this work. But human memories of facts, people, places and ideas are often never recorded in documents or photographs, so a record of spoken memories becomes another very valuable source of information for historical research. Increasingly writers of fiction and makers of films also draw from this rich source of human experiences.
In 1979 the Northern Territory Government recognised that there were many important recollections of life and time in the Territory that should be preserved for posterity, and so established an oral history program within the Chief Minister's Department. In 1985 this work became the responsibility of a unit of the NTAS. By now, 2011, over 2000 sound recordings of interviews had been deposited with the NTAS. A printed transcript has also been made for most of these interviews.
Many of the people interviewed have also deposited documents or photographs at the archives as they feel these should be safely preserved together with their spoken memories. The Oral History Unit has therefore encouraged many significant additions to the archives collections.
Aims of the Oral History Unit
The most important aim of the Unit is to establish an oral history resource for research purposes. Another vital task is to locate other historical records and assist in the process of depositing them with the NTAS.
In addition, the Unit provides professional advice to help with private and community oral history projects, and can assist with recording equipment and documentation of interviews, and offers custody of the final materials at the NTAS.
Although the Unit prefers to speak to older people whose memories of the Territory go back a long way, interviews are often conducted with more recent arrivals in the Territory. The Unit adopts a very broad approach and has collected interviews with people from such diverse backgrounds as stock-hands and former Administrators. Interviews do cover Territory recollections from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. Among many topics there are significant holdings on particular aspects such as the Second World War, particularly the bombing of Darwin; the history of the pastoral industry; and the development of regional centres, as well as life in remote or isolated towns and settlements.
Initially, a recording is made of interviews, more often these days in digital rather than analog format. The audio recording is deposited under permanent, safe storage conditions in the NTAS repository in Darwin.
In the process of planning its interview program, the Unit welcomes information from researchers and the community in general on potential interview subjects. Please use the Oral History Program Nomination form included in our Oral History Unit information leaflet to alert NTAS of potential interviewees.
Accessing Oral Histories
Interview subjects always determine the conditions of access by others to their interviews or other personal records. These are set down in a written agreement. Whilst most are available for inspection by registered researchers without restrictions, sometimes access may not be allowed at all for a number of years; alternatively, the interview subject’s written permission may be required. Different access conditions apply when publishing or exhibition is intended and permission to publish must be obtained from NTAS.
Material available for research use may be consulted in the search room at the NTAS in both Darwin and Alice Springs. Most researchers use oral history transcripts rather than the audio recordings, but the sound recordings are available, generally on compact disk (CD).
Copying of oral history materials is subject to conditions of access and provisions relating to copyright. Details of charges for copies may be obtained from the Archivist, Access and Promotion.
Researching Oral Histories
Information about all interviews held at the NTAS is recorded in a database. Computer-based searches of the summaries and content listings are provided in the NTAS Darwin and Alice Springs search rooms.
Oral histories are arranged in series of recordings and transcripts. The main series of Oral History transcripts is NTRS 226.This series consists of typed transcripts of oral history interviews and is arranged numerically with a TS prefix. This is only one of the numerous lists available so please consult NTAS staff for further details and for a more complete search.
You can also search for oral histories in Archives Navigator using the interviewee's surname.
Finally the Northern Territory Archives Service Oral History Unit liaises with other programs throughout Australia, particularly where these contain material relevant to the Northern Territory. Visiting the Oral History Association of Australia webpages will help you find more information about the various programs in place in Australia.
Use of Oral Histories in Research
For an example of how the oral history collection can enrich your research, see Victoria Haskins’ article “The Beautiful Boys” – Aboriginal houseboys in Darwin. Victoria found a wealth of information in the archives’ oral history collection for her research about Aboriginal houseboys in Darwin in the first half of the twentieth century.
Please contact us for more information.