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An Interview with Professor Emerita Heather Goodall

By Rindon Kundu

Heather Goodall (abridged as HG) is Professor Emerita of History, at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her projects using Oral History include those on Indigenous histories and environmental history in Australia and on 20th century decolonisation in the eastern Indian Ocean. She has worked closely in many collaborative projects with Indigenous people, particularly with women. She is researching the connections between Indian and Australian women in the 1940s and 50s with Associate Professor Devleena Ghosh.

Heather Goodall is the author of Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in NSW (1996) and Beyond Borders: Indonesian Independence in the eyes of the region (Forthcoming), the co-author with Allison Cadzow of Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal people on Sydney’s Georges River (2009); and co-author in collaborative biographies with Isabel Flick on The Many Lives of an extraordinary Aboriginal woman (2004) and with Kevin Cook on Making Change Happen: Black and white activists talk to Kevin Cook on Aboriginal, Liberation and Union politics (2013)Heather is co-editor of a number of books bringing together oral history and environmental history, including Echoes from the Poisoned Well (2006), Water, Sovereignty and Borders (2009), and most recently, Telling Environmental Histories, (forthcoming).

In this written interview, Rindon Kundu (abridged as RK) explores various theoretical underpinnings of Oral History and the complexity in its practice as well as the changing face of Oral History in the age of Digital Humanities. The interview starts with asking the fundamental question of what Oral History is and the definition of Digital Humanities.

Rindon Kundu: As I have told you that the guest editor of this issue of Café Dissensus, Intaj Ali, has asked me to request you to give an interview for the upcoming issue titled, “Digital Archiving in the 21st Century: Issues and Challenges”. I am very happy that you have agreed to give an interview on this topic.

Heather Goodall: Thank you Rindon for this opportunity. I would love to do it.

RK: First of all, if you could please tell us how you will define the category of Oral History in the context of the newly emerging discipline of Digital Humanities. Is digital approach towards humanities impacting upon and re-qualifying the terms that we use in oral history?

HG: Both Oral History and Digital Humanities can be seen to have a number of dimensions so I’ll go through them one by one. Both have strengths but also limits and problems. I’ll address the problems at the end.


a) The very simple answer is that Oral History for me is the spoken expression of the memory of personal experience of events and feelings from the past. I usually record this (now with a digital audio recorder but others use video or film – again usually digital today) but sometimes if it’s not appropriate to record I might take notes at the time or soon afterwards. And I’ll take down notes anyway immediately afterwards to record my impressions of body language, hesitations, emotions, and interactions with myself as interviewer and others present for all or part of the interview. BUT this of course opens up many questions.

b) Firstly, if what is spoken has been learned or experienced in a performative mode which has been transmitted or performed across many generations it is more helpful to think of it as ‘Oral Tradition’ which in societies which do not use writing is the way to record events, philosophy, genealogy, etc, etc. The key defining issue here is cross-generational transmission BUT again, Oral Tradition has many forms – from the form learned by rote because it saves lives, e.g. over-the-horizon navigation stories which allow safe travel in the desert or ocean – to the form of limericks or farce – these forms invite improvisation and creativity each time they are performed. There will always be different versions of things like genealogies too – even though they are supposed to be identical – but different lines of families will have slightly different versions. These come in handy if one line dies out or if there is dynastic conflict!

c) Interviews for Oral History might be individual (as they often are in the west and in controlled media conditions) but in the field and in many community settings, interviews will be recorded with a group of people present. So here the questions around influences and authority come into play, with sometimes enrichment as many people offer memories which expand and enhance the narrative, but also sometimes the silencing of dissenting or divergent views, because one member of the group feels they do not have the authority to tell a story OR because they feel their viewpoint will be ridiculed or criticized.

d) Thirdly, as above, this whole field of ‘Oral Tradition’ is like literature – it has many genres and some are more fixed than others, some are more innovative and improvised than others, etc. (see my comments about ‘narrative’ in response to a later question!). And WITHIN each interview, in my experience there are often small narratives – in the sense of stories which have a beginning, move to a climax and have a resolution – which will be shaped by the ways in which narrative forms operate in that culture. So particular types of heroes, particular types of tragedies, which are well-known across communities (perhaps incorporated into stories told in childhood or into big ceremonial events in adult life) which be drawn on to shape an individual’s interpretation of the fragments they hold in their mind/memory. This helps each of us as we remember things to make sense to ourselves of what we remember. So I have often tried, in editing, to look for these small stories and try to keep them intact as they help us to understand how the speaker sees or interprets their memories – i.e., it shows us what the story means to them.

e) Fourth, there is ‘community’ or ‘collective’ memory – see (a) above. This can occur even when an individual is recounting their memories in an individual setting. It might be of events in living memory and/or experience but rather than emerging from one person’s consciousness, it will have been talked over or absorbed from others in the immediate or wider community. Sometimes it will be influenced by films, radio and/or books or by the most authoritative or popular line. For example, in South Africa, it is very hard for Africans to admit they were passive under apartheid because the big celebrated narratives are about the freedom fighters. Most people however were not in that category – they were just trying to keep themselves and their families alive. So the ways people tell their story may have many influences.

f) Fifth, there is the question, which has over the years become of great importance to historians, of what ‘memory’ itself is. How does memory work? The answers include consideration of biology as well as of ‘standpoint’ – that is the political and cultural positioning of the observer/rememberer – which will shape their recalled memories and their interpretations of the images or sounds or other sensations which make up what they call their memories.

e) Finally – – although I’m sure it is not ‘finally’ – there is the question of audience – and to whom the teller wants to direct their story. The ‘narrator’ or ‘teller’ or ‘informant’ (depending on your discipline) will be making decisions as they speak – who do they want to hear this? How do they want themselves to be remembered and by whom? So they might withhold some things from close relations but on the other hand they might ONLY tell some things to close relations. They might be prepared to share some things with total strangers more comfortably than with close relations, etc. and/or they might not want things to be revealed in public for a long time or even never.

All this means we need to think of interactions between ACTIVE people – the interviewer exerts influences in their choices of questions or supportive silences, the teller is active in their interpretations and in their decisions about what to tell, and ultimately, audiences will make sense of stories in their own way – believing some people and not others according to their own positions or ‘standpoints’.


a) The capacity of digital technologies are firstly in allowing easier recording in either audio or video.

b) Internet or web sites can allow readier accessibility to either the whole digital recording, to edited sections of it or to transcriptions. One limit is that you have to have receiving equipment to get that accessibility! Another is that unedited audio/video is not searchable by digital means (YET) which relies on text. However, there are good programs now which allow access to segments of the audio and transcript together, so if a digital audio/video has been worked on (e.g., key words inserted into metadata etc) then searching is much more possible. This technology is improving all the time so you probably know of things which work even better!!

c) Web presentation of digital audio/video can allow access to the many dimensions of expression of memory – the ORALITY of oral history lies in its performative nature and its expression not only through words but with body language and emotional tones, hesitations, tears, etc. Whether it is a deliberate (enacted) performance or simple human communication, it is far more than transcribed audio can ever convey. So there are many people who feel that access via digital and internet capacity allows a better understanding of the many dimensions of human communication and therefore of memory and ‘oral history’.

d) For me the great significance of digital technologies in internet expressions – i.e., web sites, etc. – is LINKING – so that along with (c ) above, the stories people tell with words and gestures can be linked with images and with archival text sources like official records, diaries and newspapers/radio and with other stories (by that person or by other people). This capacity to LINK allows a far larger body of contextual or interpretive resources to be brought to bear on the expression of memory.


a) Oral History – problems are that memories often elicit strong emotions – interviewers need to be aware of this and prepared for it.

b) problems of web presentation of recordings – it is hard to protect them from either direct theft or from unauthorized quotation – so people who offer the story might feel their trust has been betrayed. Many Indigenous people in Australia, for example, have been ignored or refused access to the recognition of their stories so they are very defensive of losing control over them.

c) Nowadays there is a very real threat of ‘identity theft’ and some people like the renowned Oral History analyst Alex Freund in Canada are warning that we as interviewers need to protect the people we record from this emerging threat.

d) People will change their views about what might be allowable to be public as they get older. Some people change jobs and their employers start trawling the web and asking uncomfortable questions about material which in the past has not been of any concern. So Sherna Berger Gluck, the equally renowned US feminist oral historian, is now very cautious in making sure that people have the complete right to pull down their oral history recordings, either as audio/video or transcript, at any time – i.e., not just the once when they get the ‘consent’ or ‘release’ form. So websites have to be flexible and be prepared to have people withdraw their orally collected material from them even if they have previously give consent.

RK: Is oral history equally important in this digitally advanced era? How can it contribute towards history writing/preserving in today’s world?

HG: Oral History IS and WILL REMAIN very important because it is a way for people whose voices have NOT been included in the official or nationalist histories to have their views heard. Like its parent ‘social history’, oral history has been about seeking out the voices and views of marginalized and ignored people, either individuals or communities.

And Oral History is a product of human experience and analysis and communication. It cannot be replaced by the technologies of communication or the new possibilities of linked analysis which Digital Humanities offers.

RK: Do you think that there is a difference between these two terms – ‘public history’ and ‘community history’? Are they getting re-defined in the context of digital humanities?

HG: ‘Public History’ refers to any deliberate act, event, product or display which is in the public domain, with the intention of fostering or awakening a sense of the past and of the changes which have occurred over time. So ‘Public History’ could refer to a historical film, a historical novel or play, a historical exhibition, a procession or talk or performance which is intended to have this effect.

‘Community history’ may not be conscious or intended – I would consider the stories which circulate among and between community members to be ‘community history’. When these are deliberately displayed or exposed, then it might be called ‘public history’ or even ‘public community history’. The quality being pointed to would be the collective, shared character of the knowledge and interpretation of events of the past rather than an individual or idiosyncratic viewpoint.

RK: Would you please explain the legal and ethical issues in the context of documenting Oral History? How are these changing in this era of digital humanities?

HG: The major legal and ethical issue for oral history is that the creation of the ‘oral history’ is the joint property of the informant/storyteller/narrator and the interviewer – it is the interaction which generates the recorded or noted text. Oral History practitioners – unlike journalists – go BACK to interviewees to seek their advice and modifications where they choose of the recording’s transcription (or notes taken). So there is a ‘Consent’ or ‘Release’ form which indicates that the interviewee knows the purpose and intended use of the recording and transcript and agrees to those purposes and – in that document – the interviewee makes a decision about whether or not they want to be identified as the narrator. BUT for ethical purposes, it’s important to seek approval AFTER the recording and transcription so that people really do give INFORMED CONSENT for the uses of the recorded memories. Then people might want to make a difference between the textual version and the recorded/audio version – they might for example be happy to have the text used but not the audio.

This is far different when a web use is envisaged. There are very grave and real fears about the use of either the information or the actual recording for purposes of identity theft so there is a growing reluctance to approve this type of use. There is also a common occurrence of people’s views changing over time about what information is private and what might be circulated publically. As they grow older, as their children or nieces/nephews grow older or as their employers start searching the internet for information about them, people may well want earlier approved materials removed from the web.

There is a good article by Sheftel and Zembrzycki about this growing caution about web uses of oral history recordings or even just the information within the interview being made freely available. The practice now adopted by Sherna Berger Gluck, discussed above, is considered in the article:

‘Slowing Down to Listen in the Digital Age: How New Technology Is Changing Oral History Practice’ by Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki in Oral History Review, 2017, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 94–112.

RK: Your essay titled, “Writing a Life with Isabel Flick: An Exploration in Cross-cultural Collaboration”, published in The Public Historian, Vol. 27, No. 4, begins with the line: “Writing a life story with Aboriginal community activist Isabel Flick opened up many questions for me as a non-Aboriginal history worker.” The same question is applicable in Indian context when a non-Dalit writes/translates a life story of a Dalit persona or community. What is your take on this entire issue? What according to you should be the ethics of the historian in cases like this?

HG: As historians, just like novelists and playwrights, we are often creatively thinking ourselves into the experiences of others whose life we have not shared. I think it is necessary to recognize – and to honest about – the quality of creative imagination which we bring to interpreting source materials.

I think we always have to present our work as a contribution to an ongoing conversation. We will make it our best interpretation of what this event/experience/process was like – its meaning and its relation to other events/processes – but there will never be a definitive version of these events. My interpretations are limited in the cases of the Aboriginal subjects like Isabel about whom I might write, by my life as a non-Aboriginal woman which has given me very different experiences. However, I have been as open as possible about both these types of limits on my interpretation and on the source materials I use (that’s part of being a good historian!) so that other people can pull what I have done apart. If they pay attention to it in order to do that, it will have made a useful contribution.

In Australia, there are simply too few Aboriginal people to tell all the stories that need to be told, so if non-Aboriginal people do not have a go at these stories, they will never even begin to be known. We can at least stimulate an awareness that there is an important story here to be understood. So I think recognizing our work as a contribution to a bigger conversation and expecting that it will be critiqued are important dimensions of good history work.

In considering how a historian from ‘outside the community’ might work, I think we have to consider what is meant by ‘community’. So collective identity would be bounded by how the ‘community’ is defined. Does this refer to the people in a specific geographic location? Or the people in a particular type of work or interest – e.g., leatherworkers or seamstresses? Or industrial workers? Or is it a ‘community’ of ethnicity, race, and culture of some sort? Etc., etc. And do they have to be conscious of their commonality??? (This is a bit reminiscent of Marx – a class for or of itself?)

I think ‘communities’ are always ‘imagined’ – either from the inside or the outside! And in any case, a group of people all identified as similar by biology, class/occupation, gender, etc. are in reality NOT always homogenous in their views or attitudes or abilities, whether they are imagined to be a community among themselves or by outsiders.

I suppose I would say that a ‘community’ might be any group of people who IMAGINE they have common interests. AND a shared knowledge and/or interpretation of events of the past often contributes to that imagined commonality.

In relation to redefinition – I do not think it is ‘digital’ history which has had the biggest effect – I think it is radio and most especially cinema (which of course is now digital). The persuasive power of moving images and strong acting and emotional narratives can make what might in the past have been an individual interpretation of the past into a far more widely shared account which many people make take on as their own – it is the filmic images they recall when they think they are expressing personal memory. This can happen with textual and other types of record, particularly when the stories are retold through word of mouth, but the power of film is I think its effectiveness in being internalized into what people come to believe is their own memory of experience.

So overall, I would say that historians are always working from ‘outside the community’ but if we are humble enough to recognize that our work is no more than a contribution to an ongoing conversation AND if we are honest about the limitations we have, then I think it is important to start our work and open up these conversations.

RK: Please tell us about your ruminations on the shift of Oral History from pre-Digital to Digital Age. How do you think your understanding of Oral History might have altered over the years?

HG: The biggest impact for me has undoubtedly been digital recording. Having begun my work with audio-cassettes, the capacity to have digital recordings is a huge advantage in terms of conservation, flexibility, return to narrator, transcription, and finally accessibility for all or sections of the interview. That said, I have questions – as my previous answers suggest.

Then, full loading of audio onto the internet – even after careful consultation and fully informed consent – makes the interviewee/narrator very vulnerable to theft or harassment of all sorts. I do realize that this is being done by many archives – where they have the funds to support what is a fairly expensive process – but in my view it is problematic on these grounds alone.

Apart from vulnerability, my problem with loading audio onto the web is that it is (as yet) hard to search unless it has been edited and coded extensively. Listening to the spoken word is very time consuming even though it preserves the ‘orality’ of the narration. Video would allow gestures and body language to be recognised as well, all of which are important parts of oral performances of memory. Michael Frisch is very strong on the importance of the whole performative nature of retelling, but for my purposes, being able to make links in real time is very important too. I can then go to the audio/video if I want to pursue further. But my first goal is usually to see how widely a theme or event has been observed or recalled and then how was the observing or the recalling done. All this is more possible with digital transcript than with digital audio/video.

Digital transcript of interviews however can be made searchable very easily on the web and this can allow very effective research as I have already found out in a number of projects. It allows researchers to locate and link themes in many different people’s recollections and this linking can open new ways to see the themes/events being considered.

My understanding of oral history is that it is about the two elements of memory and retelling, both of which involve many questions of their own. These are human capacities. So digital tools may make recordings of interviews more readily available and searchable – but they do not alter the human source of the memory or retelling. So my understanding of ‘oral history’ itself has probably not altered much, but my ideas about how I go about gathering it and researching with it have now developed far more than was possible to imagine when only analogue recording was available.

RK: What are the basic things one should remember while curating for an Oral History project?

HG: Informed consent. This really requires the person to have a knowledge not only of their own recorded account but of the uses to which it might be put and the risks its use/s might entail. See the articles I have suggested in responses to earlier questions.  AND there should be infinite opportunity for people to modify or retract their story altogether if they want to. See Sherna Berger Gluck’s approach now in this article I have suggested before:

‘Slowing Down to Listen in the Digital Age: How New Technology Is Changing Oral History Practice’ by Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, In Oral History Review, 2017, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 94–112.

RK: Since you are associated with lots of research projects in and around India, how do you see the future of Oral History as an academic discipline in India? Do you think that in a country where the interdisciplinary studies struggle hard to carve a niche for themselves, oral history can emerge as an institution/independent discipline? Do you think that Indian academia is encouraging multidisciplinary fields?

HG: I don’t think of ‘oral history’ as a discipline – I think it is an element in ‘history’ generally – it involves some tools which are now digital but it also involves fundamentally considering how memory works and how people decide who they want to be their audience or how they want to retell their memories to make some things visible but others hidden. That is, history making is an interactive process – there are many ways to undertake it and these can all be offered into the conversations about the past.

In my experience, historians have to learn to be thoughtful about all ‘sources’ – to think about how they reveal some things but conceal others. These ‘sources’ could be government archives or newspapers or films or objects or people’s narratives. Each of these needs to have questions asked of them – none of them can be taken at face value. That is what makes the historian’s job as analyst different from the job of a publisher, who polishes up someone’s story to make it accessible to an audience but it remains, in theory at least, the intellectual property of the teller. Historians create another thing – the analysis – which relates to but is not the same as the many sources which the historian has considered in developing that analysis.

So I do advocate working in cross-disciplinary teams. It’s unfortunate that India has not been welcoming in the last hundred years or so to multi-disciplinary studies. But neither is Australia or the UK and elsewhere – they all have a rhetoric of fostering interdisciplinary work but in fact reward people who work within the narrow silos of closed disciplines. So I think each of us has to make a decision about how we work. Or perhaps we can work strategically, offering some things to the ‘disciplinary’ market place but doing other work in the real world, where real people live their lives in ways which need many skills to understand.

Working as an environmental historian is a good way to learn this lesson – the environmental problems we consider can never be solved by any one set of skills (or one discipline) alone.

Finally, I think Indian researchers HAVE done enormous amounts of work interviewing people – because the written archives have always been created by elites or colonisers (and often they are both). However, much of this work has been considered as evidence of collective ‘cultures’ or ‘communities’ or ‘classes’ – it has been done, in other words, by anthropologists or sociologists or political scientists, etc. What I have suggested in that ‘Telling Environmental Histories’ Introduction, is that much of this wonderful work can be considered in a new light by thinking about what we know about memory and how it works for individuals and social groups. This involves first recognizing how much terrific work HAS already been done in India but then asking how it can be deepened and extended by considering how memory might be at work in individual or collective remembering.

RK: What is the global scenario of Oral History as a discipline?

HG: I don’t think we need to think of it as a separate discipline but rather as a collection of tools for both research and analysis that all historians need to understand and to use when appropriate. It is valuable to talk with each other about how we do our work and what we understand it to be – that way I think we recognize the diversity of this work and the great value of working across disciplines.

RK: Thank you very much. I am really overwhelmed that you have put in such an effort and I am sure that the students of Oral History will learn a lot from this interview.

HG: I’m not sure how useful they are but they are the best I can do. Great questions I must say! I’m doing lots of thinking!! Your questions are fascinating and really do need long answers. Do have a look at that Introduction to the Telling Environmental Histories book (edited with Katie Holmes and forthcoming, Palgrave) – I spent quite a lot of time in that pointing out all the great work in interviewing done in India. But I also suggested some recent work where Indian analysts – in a number of disciplines – are considering memory and the body of ideas that have emerged in ‘oral history’.

Good luck with all your great work!

Rindon Kundu
is presently working at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, as a UGC Senior Research Fellow and also pursuing PhD from the same. He worked as a Research Assistant for Professor Heather Goodall and Associate Professor Devleena Ghosh, University of Technology, Sydney under an Australian Research Council funded project titled Countering the Cold War: interactions between Australia and India, 1945 – 1975, through the lens of the women’s movements.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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