forgotten women: Hazel de Berg – oral historian

The digitising of collections in our national and state libraries and museums is making much more than just photographs and objects more accessible.  The content of reels of tape, recorded decades ago, is also finding its way online.

The work of Hazel de Berg forms the basis of the oral history collection in the National Library of Australia.  Around 4 years after Mrs de Berg began using a tape recorder in her work with people with visual disablities, this article in the Canberra Times noted her prolific rate of recording the voices and work of Australian poets and the modest grant she received to continue collecting their readings and stories.


The Canberra Times – 17 October 1961 Hazel de Berg

A woman with an unusual hobby visited Canberra yesterday. She is Mrs. Hazel de Berg ….. a tape-recorder enthusiast from Sydney.  Mrs de Berg’s interest in tape-recording originated from her idea to present taped recitals at Blind Institutes in Sydney.  She was granted £100 from the Commonwealth Literary Fund after she presented some of her recordings at the Adelaide Festival last year.

Since then she has travelled Australia collecting recordings of Australian poets for the National Archives. She has recorded all living recognised Australian poets – 68 altogether – reading their own voice.  Dame Mary [Gilmore], Kenneth Slessor, [Dorothea] McKellar, Douglas Steward and Lady Hope are a few of the many she has recorded.

Last night Mrs. de Berg played some of her collection to the Canberra Fellowship of Australian writers and told them some of her experiences making the recordings. She does not interview people but records them talking about their work, interests and themselves.  The tape recordings are converted later into records and sent to the National Library archives.  Mrs de Berg will leave for Melbourne today to begin a series of recordings of Australian artists.  This afternoon she will speak to some in the Melbourne Art Gallery.  She hopes to follow that series by one on Australian authors and dramatists and another on Australian composers and musicians.

From the Australian Dictionary of Biography,

By the 1970s she was recognised as the pioneer of oral history in Australia, yet it was not a term that she favoured. She regarded herself not as an interviewer, but as a recorder of the voices, recollections and ideas of Australians of diverse ages, backgrounds and talents. She brought to this work great energy, enthusiasm, charm and perseverance, often managing to record individuals who were notoriously reticent or reclusive. Her practice of excluding her own voice from the tapes has been criticised, while the brevity of the earlier recordings limits their value. Taken as a whole, however, the de Berg tapes provide a unique record of the voices and memories of hundreds of Australians born between 1865 and 1956.

I’ve been listening to a few of the recordings.  They were not sophisticated by any means and this adds to their charm.  In the sessions with May Gibbs (then over 90 years old) you can hear traffic noise and bird sounds from her garden.  The recordings of people who knew Henry Lawson give some of the back story away. Dame Mary Gilmore (in her late nineties at the time of recording) is adamant that Henry used some of her own family’s stories to create his – The Drover’s Wife being a case in point.  Casually she drops in the odd gem – “He wanted to marry me of course”.

In 1960, Doris Fitton, actress and founder of the Independent Theatre, recorded her memories in a strong voice that was in no need of amplification from the stage.

May Gibbs (illustrator and creator of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie) had several starts for her sessions recorded in 1968, apologising for her hoarse voice brought on by fatigue.   “I could draw almost as soon as I could talk”.

There’s John O’Grady – author of “They’re a Weird Mob” using his pen name of Nino Culotta. Norman Lindsay, George Johnston, photographer David Moore and many many more.  Hazel de Berg interviewed many people shortly before their lives ended.  What might we have missed if she had not had such an enthusiasm for carting around a tape recorder and collecting their wisdom.

Postscript

11 June 2013

I was thrilled to receive this comment from Hazel de Berg’s daughter, Diana Ritch.  It gives some insight into the characteristics that Hazel applied to her work, none the least of which was the determination to achieve quality sound reproduction and to not accept no for an answer.  Thanks also to Diana for sharing more about the story of May Gibbs’ interview.

Diana Ritch has also contributed interviews to the National Library’s collection.  You’ll find them here.

Hazel de Berg was my mother and I was delighted to read your article. We, her family, are very proud of her, and my brother, sister and I grew up with her recordings as an important part of our lives. They are frequently used for radio and television programmes, and as research material for books and articles. It’s great that they are being made more accessible on line and will be enjoyed by many more people.
Mum didn’t put her voice on the recordings as she wanted the listener to feel that the person was speaking directly to them and they were not listening to an interview between two people. She went to a lot of trouble to get good quality sound on her recordings, using the best available equipment, and once even getting a group of road workers to stop drilling while she was doing a recording.

You mentioned the recording of May Gibbs. Doesn’t she have a strong voice! Not knowing Mum, she didn’t want to be interviewed, so Mum rang her every day for a month and eventually was asked “Hazel, why don’t you come over and bring your tape recorder?” When she arrived May Gibbs was in the garden and she wanted Mum to sit on a cushion on the steps and record her there, which she did. Hence the bird sounds.
I’m glad you enjoyed her work and appreciated the quality of material in the collection.

Best wishes
Diana Ritch


2 Comments on “forgotten women: Hazel de Berg – oral historian”

  1. Thank you Lynn for this detailed post on one of Australia’s most significant Oral Historians. During Hazel de Berg’s life time she recorded nearly 1,300 interviews. Currently 448 of the interviews she conducted can be heard online, and the oral history team here at the library are putting more up each day and as we get permission.

    She was a very insistent interviewer, making sure her subjects didn’t try to escape, but modest – she excised her own voice from the recordings. Only on a couple of recordings will you hear her speak (in one she talks about recording Dame Mary Gilmour).

    Many interviewers followed Hazel’s lead over the years, and there are now more than 45,000 hours of interviews in the National Library’s Oral History collection.

    For those interested, here is a link to all the recordings Hazel made which are currently online: http://ow.ly/lgUQx

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Was a fun post to write due to the quality of material in the collection.
    Cheers – Lynn

  2. Diana Ritch says:

    Hazel de Berg was my mother and I was delighted to read your article. We, her family, are very proud of her, and my brother, sister and I grew up with her recordings as an important part of our lives. They are frequently used for radio and television programmes, and as research material for books and articles. It’s great that they are being made more accessible on line and will be enjoyed by many more people.
    Mum didn’t put her voice on the recordings as she wanted the listener to feel that the person was speaking directly to them and they were not listening to an interview between two people. She went to a lot of trouble to get good quality sound on her recordings, using the best available equipment, and once even getting a group of road workers to stop drilling while she was doing a recording. You mentioned the recording of May Gibbs. Doesn’t she have a strong voice! Not knowing Mum, she didn’t want to be interviewed, so Mum rang her every day for a month and eventually was asked “Hazel, why don’t you come over and bring your tape recorder?” When she arrived May Gibbs was in the garden and she wanted Mum to sit on a cushion on the steps and record her there, which she did. Hence the bird sounds.
    I’m glad you enjoyed her work and appreciated the quality of material in the collection.
    Best wishes
    Diana Ritch

    Hello Diana
    Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to this post about your mother. I’m very glad you enjoyed it and thrilled to hear more about the May Gibbs interview. I think the story of Hazel’s work would make a great book and/or documentary. Has anyone ever proposed such an idea?
    PS – I’ve just discovered your body of work too! I look forward to some more good listening!
    Lynn Walsh


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