Talking, listening, recalling and recording are pleasurable activities for the historian more usually constrained at a desk in front of a winking screen. But, as with all techniques for gathering information, these particular skills need to be reﬁned. It may be easy to listen as someone else relates important moments in their life, but how do you, as a historian, use the information so gathered? Are you collecting a lot of undigested detail that requires considerable work to understand, or are you creating a primary document? Two things should be clear from the start. There is the question of technique – how you interview, what you do with the tapes you gather, how you ﬁnd your subjects. These technical questions keep bobbing up because you must decide whether your funding will allow you to transcribe the tapes, whether you will always give copies of them to your interviewees, whether you will be able to deposit them in a library. Then there is the historian’s eternal problem – how you think about the material, how you manage raising the questions you would like answered, how you approach the friendships you may make, how far empathy is necessary for successful interviews. Through a consideration of both sets of issues, I explore in this chapter how oral testimony can be used as a source for writing history. I work in Australia. Most of the interviews I discuss here were recorded in
Western Australia in the late 1980s and during the 1990s. They resulted from various projects in which I was employed so they range across a number of historical subjects. When working with individuals and their memories the historian comes face to face with the intractable nature of our discipline. We must remain alert to context and to other information, even when conﬂicts arise. As I heard one Holocaust survivor indignantly ask another historian, ‘how can you possibly write about this when you were not there?’ But that is what historians do: we write about things we did not directly experience. Oral history techniques are a part of our armoury, although the practice of oral history has changed over time. For one thing, technology is swifter, digitized, more eﬃcient than it was 20 years ago and practitioners are realizing that they must understand how their recorders work before they begin. Once equipped most oral historians set out knowing where to put a microphone, if not always realizing the time it will take to collect the memories of a single person. But the approach is about more than recording techniques.