Oral history is a picture of the past in people’s own words. It involves an audio or video recording of peoples’ memories of their unique life experiences in a planned, structured interview. It is an excellent way of documenting the past by asking questions of people who have lived experience of a particular time period, place, occupation, or event of interest.
The State Library of South Australia collects and preserves the oral history of South Australia in the J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection. The Collection contains over 9,000 interviews, making it the largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind in any state library in Australia and the major archival repository for oral histories in South Australia.
The Collection was established in 1987 and named after James Dugald Somerville, whose daughter provided a large bequest to SLSA in his honour. The Collection provides an oral record of all aspects of the South Australian experience and particularly of those people who are poorly represented in documentary records such as low-income earners, people of non-English speaking background, women and people living in rural areas.
Interviews in the J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection may include audio or video recordings of the interview, with accompanying transcript or timed summary. Some interviews have additional material, such as photographs of the interviewee or of topics covered in the interview.
The Collection also includes other sound recordings such as live performances, speeches, South Australian folk performances and material from Radio 5UV and the University of Adelaide.
Selected oral history collections are available on the State Library's Digital Collections website.
S.A. Speaks: an oral history of life in South Australia before 1930 (OH 1): a set of interviews with 45 men and women who were broadly representative of South Australia in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Adelaide Gaol Oral History project (OH 19): a project to record the way of life of the last generation of prisoners, prison officers, and administrators associated with the Gaol prior to its closure in 1988. Interview with a conscientious objector to the National Service Act, Robert Martin (OH 19/16), is available online.
Barwell Boys Oral History Project (OH 169) – a set of 12 interviews with ‘Barwell Boys’ who emigrated to South Australia from Britain in their teens under a farm labourer scheme in the 1920s (OH 169). One interview from the set is available online: John Bowditch (OH 169/5).
Radio 5UV Folk Co-operative Collection (OH 188). Excerpt from an interview with Canadian poet and singer Leonard Cohen (OH 188/14) is available.
Oral History of Women's Political Activity (OH 250): a series of interviews with 25 South Australian women involved in a broad range of political activities. The interviewing program was developed as part of the State Library of South Australia's celebration of the centenary of women's suffrage in 1994. The interview with Sister Elizabeth Nghia (OH 250/3) is available.
'Women and War': Zonta Club of the Riverland's Australia Remembers 1945-1995 Project (OH 371). A recording of edited excerpts from speeches made by fourteen Riverland women at a public function at the Berri Town Hall organised by the Zonta Club of the Riverland to recognise women's contributions to the Second World War.
A Place of Their Own: Oral Histories concerning War Service Land Settlement at Loxton after the Second World War (OH 550). A set of 39 interviews of which the interview with Melva Guyatt (OH 550/6) is available online.
South Australians at War Oral History Project (OH 644). A series of seven interviews with South Australian veterans and others involved in conflicts and Australian peace-keeping activities since the Second World War, including Korea, Vietnam, Malaya, and East Timor. Six of the interviews are available online: OH 644/1; OH 644/2; OH 644/3; OH 644/4; OH 644/5; OH 644/7.
Interview with Ruth Russell (OH 670), who was a ‘ human shield’ during the war in Iraq.
Treading out the Vintage oral history project (OH 692): a set of 179 interviews with members of the Australian wine industry.
Aboriginal Veterans Oral History Project (OH 719). The interview with Gil Green (OH 719/1) is available.
Interview with Geoffrey Barnes (OH 801) who was a National Serviceman in the Vietnam War.
Living in Woomera Oral History Project (OH1123): interviews with seven people who lived and worked in Woomera are available.
Women Pioneers Oral History Project (PRG 727/2/1): excerpt of an interview with Ellinor Walker, who helped organise and was active in women's organisations such as the League of Women Voters. She was a trained kindergarten teacher, and ran her own kindergarten.
Italian Market Gardeners (OH 872): interviews with members of Italian families who originated from the north of Italy in the Veneto region worked market gardens in the area know as St James Park from the late 1920s, now the suburb of Kidman Park, Adelaide.
To find oral history items, simply search the Library Catalogue for the names of interviewees and interviewers, the reference number of the interview (e.g. OH 1/1) and keywords related to the subject of the interview or projects. Most records contain a brief summary of the interview and approximately 14% of interviews have transcripts that can be downloaded from the relevant catalogue record.
Selected recordings and transcripts are available online at the Library’s Digital Collections website.
Oral history recordings and transcripts can be requested from storage from the Information Desk or by phone.
Material will be sent to the Somerville Reading Room for access.
Some interviews have access restrictions and can only be used once you have obtained the appropriate written permission. The catalogue entry for each interview provides details of any restrictions on access or use.
Copies of items may be made provided any copyright or donor conditions are met; please discuss with staff. Copying charges apply.
Some material has copying or publication restrictions and you may be asked to refer to the Donor or Copyright Permission Checklist for requirements.
The Library provides advice on designing and managing an oral history project and ongoing support once the project is underway. Information about this is included in the Oral History Toolkit, which all potential interviewers are encouraged to read.
One-day Introduction to Oral History workshops are run twice each year in conjunction with Oral History Australia SA/NT. The workshops explain the stages involved in organising an interviewing program, conducting interviews, and developing documentation for the interviews such as summaries, transcripts, and conditions of use and copyright forms.
High-quality digital field equipment is available for loan from the State Library of South Australia for individuals and groups who have completed the Introduction to Oral History workshop, and whose proposed project meets State Library collecting criteria. Individual training sessions are provided on the use of the equipment. The loan period is usually a week, but longer-term loans are available for country-based projects. Borrowers sign a lending agreement in which they undertake to reimburse the Libraries Board if the equipment is lost or damaged and agree to deposit the original recordings in the State Library for inclusion in the J.D. Somerville Collection Oral History Collection.
Copies of the Oral History Handbook by Beth Robertson can be purchased from Oral History Australia SA/NT. Copies are also available through interlibrary loan at local public libraries. This is an excellent publication for anyone working in the field of oral history.
Oral History Toolkit: a toolkit designed for individuals and groups who are considering recording oral history interviews and donating the interviews to the State Library of South Australia. It provides a summary of the process of recording oral history interviews and advice on how to apply to the Library to lodge interviews in the Collection that meet the Library’s requirements.
Oral History Australia - SA/NT Branch: includes oral history interviews and information, as well as online booking for workshops.
A National Library of Australia catalogue search allows you to listen to many interviews online.