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Manitoba History: Documents and Archives: Oral History at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba

by Jocelyn McKillip
Provincial Archives of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 9, Spring 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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In this century the tape recorder has made it possible to record permanently the first-hand experience of individuals in their own words. Its possibilities for historians and archivists are only beginning to be realized.

Imagine the boon to researchers had Emile Zola been able to record the actual voices of the miners he interviewed at Mons, and whose life experiences survive only in fictionalized form in his novel, Germinal. Similarly, the great French historian Jules Michelet might have added his extensive interviews of peasants and working people to the National Archives whose collection and arrangement he pioneered. Many of the written records on which modern historians have depended for a glimpse of daily life in another age—such as the private and parliamentary social enquiries of nineteenth century England—are themselves based on oral communication which was written down, often in an abbreviated and interpreted form, by an investigator. How much more complete, immediate and reliable these accounts would be if the original voices and verbatim conversations could be recovered.

Although the use of oral sources is not new, in recent years “oral history” has been rediscovered and developed as a technique for investigating the past, and for enriching and supplementing existing documentary records. [*] Its significance is not as a separate branch of history, but as a method that can be used in many fields, and in conjunction with other sources. Its special strength lies in its ability to capture the vividness of the spoken word and to document people and subjects that were previously absent from the historical record. By giving “ordinary” people and their everyday experience the centre of the stage, it has opened up new areas of enquiry, and has gone hand in hand with a fundamental change in the way history is written and understood. Childhood and family, work and leisure, local tradition and lore, living conditions, the individual’s relation to community, employer and government, the common experience of historic events, and the beliefs and attitudes of a wide range of people can all be illuminated by the active participation of the “subjects” in recording their own past. It is in these areas of first-hand experience, where the individual is the true expert, that oral history has proved most fruitful.

As original source material, the tape-recorded interview has naturally extended to the province of the archivist. Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Recreation, through the Provincial Archives, has recently established an oral history programme as part of its general mandate to identify, acquire and preserve records relating to the experience of the people of Manitoba, and to make these records available to the public. This mandate includes significant primary records from both the public and private sectors of society, and in all physical formats, whether textual documents, films, photographs or sound recordings.

The oral history programme’s main objective is to encourage the creation and collection of new source material of permanent value, and to augment existing records. This work need not be limited to professional researchers. In fact, oral history projects are ideally suited for trained individuals and groups in a variety of contexts, from community centres to museums and archives. The programme is designed to assist these individuals to develop expertise in oral history methods and to encourage common procedures and standards, in the belief that these will benefit all collectors and users of oral history. Basic training is provided in the form of workshops. Technical advice and help in planning projects are also offered. The final objective of the programme is to provide a permanent repository for oral history tapes where they can be properly preserved and described, and copies made available (subject to any restrictions) for public use. New facilities in the Manitoba Archives Building for the storage, preservation and research use of oral history tapes are nearing completion.

*See Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford, 1978).

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