What is Oral History?
Oral history has been described as "a picture of the past in people's own words". It is told by the people who are often overlooked in "official" documented history: those who were actually there and involved.
Unlike the written word, oral history comes to life in the colour, passion and inflection of the human voice. It tells us about relationships, perceptions and social & political climates of the past. It gives a voice to minority groups and the disadvantaged.
In this way, oral history complements the formal written record by giving in addition the personal, intimate, human and social account of events. It revolves around what a person believes to be the real story. Their version of an event may differ from another's, or even from the documented history, but it is no less valid. After all, all historical records, including written words, photographs, paintings and maps, may contain some degree of error and bias. Oral history can also overcome the bias of some traditional history sources towards big events and high-profile participants.
There is now broad agreement amongst historians that oral history has a legitimate role to play in historical investigation and reporting.
Why does RMS conduct Oral Histories?
Roads and Maritime Services (previously the RTA) has a rich heritage suitable for oral history study. The Oral History Program was initiated in 1996, under the guidance of the RTA Heritage Committee. The first project undertaken was a 1997 study of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Maintenance Cranes, prior to their imminent removal.
The Oral History Program is administered by Environment Branch, and forms a part of RMS's broad interests and responsibilities in the heritage field. Information obtained in oral history interviews provides a useful background resource and assists in the achievement of the aims of the Heritage Strategic Plan.
Oral history need not necessarily relate to a physical item - it may be about the development of a technology or procedure, a construction process or perhaps an important event.
A list of topics for future oral history investigation is held in Environment Branch and updated regularly, after discussion within the Heritage Committee of suitable topics and their priority. Suggestions for oral history topics from staff and the public are welcome, and can be made by emailing Heritage@rms.nsw.gov.au.
Assessment of potential oral history projects involves consideration of both the reasons for undertaking the particular topic and the objective of the project. For example, it may be intended to:
- mark the anniversary of some important event
- form part of a larger historical undertaking (e.g. a history book)
- gather material for public display purposes
- collect supporting information for inclusion in the RMS Heritage and Conservation Register
- record information on some rapidly-disappearing item/skill/procedure (e.g. Sydney Harbour Bridge Cranes; steel hull riveting; specialised bridge carpentry).
Consideration of these items will dictate the form of the finished product.
The RTA Oral History Program involves two distinct streams:
1. Thematic oral history
A thematic oral history is based on interviews with individuals who have had some involvement with the topic or theme under investigation, and records various facts, comments and opinions on matters relating to that topic.
The thematic oral histories undertaken to date are:
- Sydney Harbour Bridge Maintenance Cranes (1997)
- NSW Vehicular Ferries (1998)
- Development of the Pacific Highway and the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway (1999)
- Developments in Vehicle Regulation, Driver Testing and Licensing (2000)
- Construction of Gladesville Bridge (2001)
- Developments in Concrete Pavements (2002)
- Road Location and Design (2003)
- Traffic Management Initiatives (2003)
- Pavement recycling and stabilisation (2004)
- Lawrence Hargrave Drive (Part 1) (2005)
- Lawrence Hargrave Drive (Part 2) (2006)
- Remembrance Driveway and VC Rest Areas (2006)
- Sydney Harbour Bridge – Celebrating 75 years (2007)
- Euston to Robinvale Murray River Crossing (2007)
- Our town now - Town bypasses of Goulburn, Armidale and Karuah (2008)
- Gerringong to Bomaderry upgrade the Princes Highway (2009)
- Innovations in Australian road safety (2010)
- Sydney Harbour Bridge Tolling (2011)
2. Eminent individuals oral history
RMS supports Engineers Australia in its oral history project based on the career highlights of certain eminent engineers and other professionals, rather than on particular themes. Click here to go to the web page of the Engineering Heritage Committee of the Sydney Division of Engineers Australia.
The following Action Plan has been proposed for the RMS Oral History Program:
- keep a watching brief on emerging areas of heritage interest, as a pointer to potential future topics
- be prepared to initiate an oral history at short notice in response to critical deadlines, e.g. the demolition or removal of some significant item; the anniversary of an important event; imminent departure of a staff member with significant career achievements
- maintain dialogue within the RTA Heritage Committee on the progress of the Program, future topics and areas for improvement
- bring the existence of the Program to the attention of RMS staff
- be receptive to staff suggestions for future topics
- where relevant to a particular existing entry, utilise oral history material in the RTA Heritage and Conservation Register (Section 170 Register)
- use oral history information to assist in the identification and assessment of potential additional RMS/RTA heritage items
- make extensive use of oral history material in the preparation of RMS/RTA historical articles and publications, public displays, brochures, etc. where appropriate
- maintain active membership of the Oral History Association of Australia and contribute to conferences, journals, etc. as appropriate
- maintain close liaison with Engineers Australia concerning the joint "eminent individuals" oral history program
- share oral history information and expertise with other Government agencies, associations and private organisations as required
Australia's Oral History Collections - A National Directory, National Library of Australia, 1997
The Heritage in People - Oral History in Engineering: - Michael Clarke; First International and Eighth Australian Engineering Heritage Conference, Newcastle, 1996
Oral History Handbook (Third Edition, 1997) - Beth M. Robertson, Oral History Association of Australia (South Australian Branch)
A Guide to Commissioning Oral History Projects - Oral History Association of Australia (pamphlet)
ScreenSound Australia (formerly the National Film & Sound Archive)