PHA NSW CPD February 2013 at Surry Hills Library (Photograph: Pauline Curby)

About a dozen of us gathered at Surry Hills Library on Saturday 16 February 2013 to hear Kate Waters’ presentation on doing oral histories with Aboriginal people.

Kate is a professional historian of long standing and has been a member of the PHA NSW, which included a stint on its executive, for many years. She ventured down to the inner west from Katoomba on an extremely wet morning to tell us all a great deal about what we certainly need to know about working with Aboriginal communities in the particularly sensitive area of oral history.

It was a genuinely enlightening talk based on years of practical experience working for diverse clients and projects including NPWS and native title claims. Her approach is one of openness, sensitivity and flexibility with communities and she readily adapts her projects to suit the needs and requirements of the people she deals with.

Just some of the many complex issues Kate raised were: recognise that all projects are potentially problematic and embedded in contemporary politics; in an oral culture the past is always present and structure of stories will be place- rather than time-based; importance of recognising key families, who has authority, community meetings and maintaining relationships after the completion of the project; consent and moral ownership are probably the biggest issues.

This is in no way a concise summary of Kate’s talk but I hope suggests the depth of the insightful information conveyed on the day. We were all left with the sense that there was so much more territory to cover and a second CPD on the subject might not go astray. Thanks Emma Dortins for organising the event, and thanks Kate for your very generous sharing of your knowledge and experience.

Margo Beasley

Postscript from Emma: Literature on Oral History and Ethics

I just came across a really interesting edition of the WA History Journal edited by PHA (WA)’s Cathie Clement: Ethics and the Practice of History (University of Western Australia, 2010 http://www.cwah.uwa.edu.au/publications/journal/26 ), with three fascinating chapters on oral history that touch on some of the issues we began to discuss at CPD on 16 February.

I mentioned an article on the day, in which Lorina Barker talks about being an insider and an outsider at the same time when it came to interviewing Aboriginal people at Weilmoringle – ‘”Hangin’ out” and “yarnin'”: reflecting on the experience of collecting oral histories’, History Australia, v.5, no.1, (2008).

The Oral History Association of Australia journal has included some really interesting papers on matters ethical too. Our own PHA NSW member Sue Andersen contributed ‘Oral History and Autobiography: Some Observations Recording the Life Story of Dr Doreen Kartinyeri’ to issue no. 25 (2003), and another paper I found really interesting was Meg Kelham’s exploration of interviewer-interviewee relationships and the idea of community of experience, ‘Creating and confronting community: Suicide stories in central Australia’ in issue no. 34 (2012).

Happy reading!