Oral History

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.