Give them back their memories: the University of the North (Unin) Oral History Project in a Post-Custodial Era.
Thoko Hlatywayo, Esther Mnisi and Isaac Matibhe
University of the North (Unin).
This paper raises issues of interest to those archivists and social scientists who are interested in change. It seeks to introduce a new form of archives at the University of the North that encourages a move from the traditional archives to the contemporary "archives without walls". The attempt is to investigate important points to be considered in the building up of a public record in a multicultural society. It considers how Oral History can assist in the creation of oral visual records that help to preserve people's memories. The envisaged project hopes to transform the custodial archival function to one of post-custodialism.
The University of the North has very little documented history. Library users have come to the library requesting various types of information which could either be found with individuals or not at all. This problem brought about the idea of establishing archives for the University, the evolution of which ended up in the formation of the Oral History Project.
The starting point of this Project brought about what form the archives and its material would take in a situation of budget cuts which do not allow erection or extension of more buildings. Oral History thus became the best option to take in order to clearly define the type of anticipated archives.
An Oral History Committee was established which then had several discussions on how to go about creating a project pertaining to a multicultural situation. It was realised that this University is thirty years old and has a very rich history which needs to be dug up for extensive retrieval and preservation.
The Oral History Project at UNIN.
The Oral History Project has been a learning experience for the Committee. It has learnt what it means to bring to life all the memories of what shaped the University of the North (also called Turfloop) from the events and experiences of people who have lived here. The theme of this Project: "The role of the University of the North in South Africa" has been the basis for prioritising the interviewee according to categories. These categories thus include Students, Administrators and the Community.
The collecting of stories from various individuals and groups has brought in the realisation of the problem of validity and truth. The use of both the audio as well s the video camera has shown a fascinating effect this equipment has on an interviewee, the positive and negative behaviour.
In this project the Committee is attempting to collect narratives that describe the meanings of the socio-economical as well as political world the people were living in. The stories that have been told thus far have indicated the conditions under which the people were living, eg, staff that were working as nightwatchmen who would be beaten up by their supervisors if caught asleep. Most of these stories have been traumatised some of our young Committee members who have no idea of this kind of life. With the older members there is a variety of bringing back either sad or happy memories. It is interesting to note how the "victims" can afford to joke about the sad experiences and how the "perpetrators" relate how indispensable they still feel.
This project does not in any way mean to be judgmental and it allows the interviewees to state their cases with great ease. Stories are being woven around the history of Turfloop. This being a multicultural area it becomes very interesting to hear how a story of the same situation can be told from a white and a black perspective; rural-urban background and how each one considers his/her own cultural background to have been the best. This substantiates the basic premise of orality that nobody owns a story, and no self-respecting audience expects to hear it all from one source. There would be no point to the story if this were the case.
Of note, again are the values which each cultural group upholds and considers the best and how these values have moulded them to be what they are as a people. It therefore becomes imperative that information workers should strive at making this information available.
Schuman, in (Abdullahi 1992:27-31) has written about Josey (once considered an activist librarian) as a person who had always believed in the power of the library, in its actual potential ability to transform the individual and society. On evaluating this Project one is bound to agree with Josey on how important Oral History can be in transforming the present educational system, correcting the wrongs of the past. Some of the interviewees have for instance acknowledged mistakes from their past and are as a result using these mistakes to shape the transformation process of the institutions they are now administering.
In both archival and Oral History practices the idea of closing collections has been the norm and this has deprived researchers of obtaining relevant information from these resource centres. This has been so because archivists to a large extent have considered themselves as custodians of information. Storage rather than dissemination have been the prime functions. With this thought in mind we are reminded of Terry Cook (1997:16) who at ERSABICA Conference canvassed for post-custodialism for archivists. As an archivist himself, he realises that not much attention has been given to the needs of the user. The archivist has concentrated more on acquisition, processing and storage of information rather than retrieval.
Librarians and archivists have had a common interest as collectors, preservers and information specialists. It is, however, interesting that the two have not thought of merging ideas on how best they can be of service to their clientele. Both have been guilty of being "information hoards" rather than information providers. They have as a result not been marketing nor providing library and archives usage, as rightly observed by Josey. As archivists we have considered the individual's (donor's) rights of privacy more than the user's accessibility or education and that is why to a large extent we have stressed the importance of release forms and the closure of some information for an x number of years and yet this is a public record.
Public libraries and archives have thus been labelled as a service for the elite. It is perhaps the reason why the recent 1996 Archives Act has encouraged the collection of information from the public and allowing more access.
Looking through these factors, the Unin Oral History Project has thus come up with the idea of "archives without walls". It plans on having the project on CD-ROM and Internet in order to make it as widely available as possible, thus concentrating more on information retrieval, towards post-custodialism.
Whereas by custodialism we refer to maintenance of records without checking gaps in the information, post-custodialism would be far better because it encourages access, enables the archivist to notice gaps.
Archives, like libraries are being challenged into the use of electronic facilities so that they could interact and network amongst themselves. Although this might be considered elitist, it may assist in pushing the government to provide more facilities like electricity and telecommunication quicker throughout the country.
The Unin Oral History Project is offering training on the job as most of its committee members never received formal training in Oral History - even those presently busy with Archival Studies. It is therefore recommended that our South African training of archivists include Oral History in their programmes.
When introducing this project to a number of people the major question has been "Why Oral History?" The Committee has realised that documents as documents usually do not contain all the supporting information. The advantage of Oral History, on the other hand, is that it has the advantage of providing an account of various dimensions of life together in one lived experience, e.g. The naming of a students' residence that has had several interpretations. One interviewee claimed that it was named after the first black Chancellor of Unin; another ascribes that to "bodiba" (a pool) that was formed when this residence (Madiba) was being escarvated; the last to Madiba, President Mandela.
Oral History also gives the data a particular strength lacking in any other wide documentary forms, e.g. The voice, together with the face, and reflection of emotions, etc. that further enhances the interview. Added to that are experiences of an interviewee breaking into a praise poem and a song as was highly moved during an interview. This is an example of what would not easily be found in other documentary forms.
When evaluating these interviews it has been realised that the interviewees have been an opportunity to realise what this University has contributed to their lives. They have either supplied true stories or fabrications thereof, depending on various factors, e.g. the timing of the interview. There are those that coincide with events that have caused the respondents not to be truthful to the interviews.
Again, what is noticeable is the perception highlighted by Ronald Grele (as cited by Yow 1994:15) that during the creation of a history, even the "relatively obscure people" contribute within the conception of its own value and use in culture. They suddenly feel very important to an extent of being untruthful.
With the development of this project there is a great hope that researchers will be enabled to approach this information from various angles or perspectives as they please. It is for this reason that this project is meant to be as open as possible in order to reflect on the effect of Turfloopian memories. This is taken as a pioneering project and it is hoped more archivists will realise that there are lots of memories in this country that need to be unearthed for future generations to learn from, taking from the challenge that Terry Cook (1997:23) put on the Southern African archivists when he said "Give them back their memories".
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