Interview with an oral historian

Dr Melissa Walsh spent seven and a half years completing her thesis at The University of Melbourne, making the gradual academic move from sport historian to oral historian. I met Melissa in her office over a cuppa to learn about her passion.

‘The thing that makes oral historians different from say, an ethnologist or a sociologist is we’re primarily interested in the past. The other thing is when we engage with an informant or a narrator it’s very transparent. We record the interviews and the person is very much understood as being a partner not simply a subject.


An oral historian goes into an interview understanding that it is a dialogue not a survey. Then we’re taking the material and we’re interpreting it. That’s challenging because we’re working with living, breathing people who may not like the interpretation we put on their words.


Unlike other historians, we are totally implicated in the making of the evidence. We’re actually there in the moment the evidence is being created. I can’t think of any other field of history where that happens.


I actually started doing Law/Arts and I worked out pretty much from day one that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. That’s when I did my Honours in history and went and trained as a history teacher and went on from there.


(For my thesis) once I decided I was going to do interviews, I then went away to read some key oral historians and the ones that really struck a chord with me and impressed me the most was Alessandro Portelli, an Italian, Luisa Passerini another Italian, and Alistair Thomson, an Australian. Those were the three that really opened my eyes to what oral history was, it wasn’t just asking a question and sticking a microphone in front of someone.


The type of oral history that I like is really political in the sense that it is interested in people who aren’t considered ‘important’ historical actors. But what it does do is say your story, the spectator’s story, is valuable and it’s important, partly because of what it reveals about culture, but partly because what it reveals about yourself. Go into it willing to be a good listener, learn about the craft by reading and by listening to experts and then practicing and reflecting. Having a go.


The oral history skills are something that I definitely do take with me in my work. At the moment I work as a facilitator in the Big Issue (Magazine) classroom. I work with the guest speakers, who have all been homeless, to help them shape their narrative and tell their stories.


I also work three days a week at an organization Young Christian Workers as an archivist and historian and one of the reasons they’ve employed me is because I’ve got an oral history background. We’re running a national oral history project to gather people’s life stories about their membership of this organisation.


I’m also blogging every week now on a Sports History Blog and it’s really good because I’m mining some stuff from my thesis in that and I’m enjoying the discipline of writing for a general readership.’

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