5 Questions About: Australian Lives: An Intimate History

We’ve asked creators of non-print and media projects reviewed in the pages of Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should explore them. In our next installment of this series, Anisa Puri discusses Australian Lives: An Intimate History,  co-authored with Alistair Thomson and published as both a book and an innovative e-book with audio playback.

Read Virginia Millington’s review of Australian Lives: An Intimate History, in the forthcoming issue of OHR, 47.1. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Australian Lives: An Intimate History was the major publication outcome of the Australian Generations Oral History Project, and was published as both a paperback and e-book. The book illuminates Australian life across the 20th and into the 21st centuries by showcasing the diverse experiences of fifty narrators born between 1920 and 1989. Australian Lives illustrates how the interviews enhance understandings of a range of historical topics, and it evokes change and continuity within and across time.

The e-book uses innovative oral history technology developed by the National Library of Australia (NLA) during the Australian Generations Project. This technology enabled the creation of a distinct URL for each small segment of every online interview, and linked each interview transcript with the audio file, so that an online user can click on any part of the e-book text and hear the correlating audio segment. The e-book pioneers a new approach to oral history publication and use: it turns readers of oral history into listeners, so they can hear the rich meanings of voice and expression that are often impossible to capture in written transcripts.

How does oral history contribute to your project?

Our e-book wouldn’t exist without oral history. The NLA’s digital technologies enabled us to experiment with new ways of making a very large oral history collection accessible and discoverable to diverse audiences, including students, researchers, and the public. We focused on how the e-book could provide a curated entry point to individual interviews and the wider collection, how it could facilitate secondary analysis of oral history interviews, how it could blur traditional boundaries between the ‘archive’ and resultant ‘outputs’, and how it could invite users to engage with the aural aspect of oral history.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

So many things! But perhaps most apt here is how oral history enables ‘big picture’ histories—about topics like childhood, war, or migration—to be communicated through individual experiences. Oral history highlights the diversity of lived experience. Narrators interviewed for the Australian Generations Project were so generous in sharing their experiences; working with their stories is a privilege. Focusing on how to connect an audience to the intimacy and layered meanings of the voice was an exciting and rewarding part of the e-book project.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in the project?

We hope oral historians will be interested in the ways we’ve used new digital technologies to create an e-book that redefines how readers and listeners might engage with books and oral history archives. Australian Lives opens up an oral history collection for exploration by users anywhere in the world, and we hope that the e-book invites further exploration of the original interviews. Users can also search by word across the book or use the index to find and play all the extracts on a particular topic. For instance, we indexed emotions, so you can listen to stories that evoke regret, anger, shame, joy, laughter, and so on.

The e-book is also a resource for teaching Australian history in schools and universities. We’ve created an online video that shows how teachers might use the e-book as a rich resource for student learning and research projects.

What is the one thing that you most want the audience to remember about the project?

That the e-book uses new opportunities created by technological advancements in our field to re-imagine the process of what it means to engage with an oral history book. Listeners can directly experience the rich aural sources themselves, which in turn creates a new set of opportunities: to hear narrators articulate their own experiences and lives, to question our interpretations, to experience the wider context of an individual interview, or to even begin one’s own exploration into the archive.