The art of recording voices, David Clarke

Talking History: A Short Guide to Oral History
Megan Hutching,
Bridget Williams
Books, $17.95

Talking History provides a valuable short reference book for those contemplating venturing into the fascinating art of oral history recording, and those who have already done so. I call oral history an art for if there is one thing that Megan Hutching reiterates in her book, it is the need for the specific preparation, skills and equipment required to create a good oral history interview.

The Maori use of oral tradition is well established, and word‑of‑mouth information has been passed from generation to generation. Until recently, Pakeha oral history has been confined largely to family history, and historians have been divided on the reliability of the evidence that oral histories provide. A new era of professionalism seeks to differentiate between anecdote and fact, to eliminate bias and to process the material gathered into an accessible form.

Ready accessibility ensures that the recording of oral history is given more credence by historian and researcher. Unfortunately, it remains a problem. How often do the voices remain silent in the cassette case? Is it always possible to produce a public show like Helen Frizzel’s ‘Shirakee’, or a publication? The availability of finance provides the answer.

As the director of an institution that is actively involved in recording oral history, I find this book essential reading. The Lakes District of Central Otago provides fascinating subject matter for oral history recorders. Such topics as gold mining, agriculture, shipping on Lake Wakatipu, the development of tourism, skiing and mountaineering give insights into a region that has always confronted issues and controversy, that is steeped in romanticism and innovation. To date, Lakes District Museum staff have obtained over 100 hours of recordings from informants ranging in age from sixty to ninety‑six.

Like Hutching, I was trained by the two foremost practitioners of oral history in New Zealand, Judith Fyfe and Hugo Manson, and Hutching largely follows their advice. The book is concise, well laid out and written specifically for New Zealand application. The first chapters look at the initial planning and research stage, making contact with the informant, choosing, using and caring for recording equipment and detailed analysis of interview techniques. Pointers are given throughout on how to achieve the best results. Subsequent chapters deal with transcribing and abstracting the interview so that it can be used in the written form, ways of presenting the interviews to the wider public, and storage of the completed material.

The two appendices are especially useful in that they provide a series of model questions and also the National Oral History Association’s code of ethical and technical practice.

To avoid the book becoming merely a textbook, Hutching has interspersed photographs and transcripts of actual interviews that are both informative on technique and interesting to read. Given the upsurge in oral history recording, this guide, if followed, should help create professional uniformity and consistently good results.


David Clarke is director of the Lakes District Museum in Arrowtown.



Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category