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Oral History and Research Data Management

By Ruth Wainman, on 17 December 2018

Oral history can be a complicated beast when it comes to issues surrounding consent and ethics. Firstly, oral history is considered both a methodology and a field of study so this inevitably complicates things for researchers. As a field of study that has developed into its current form over the past fifty years, oral history has always concerned itself with giving a voice to the powerless, the marginalised and disenfranchised in society. As the field has developed over the years, so too have questions about the practice of oral history. After all, the very foundations of oral history relies on talking and listening to our subjects in order to record and preserve their memories for future generations. Yet, the academic pursuit of oral history has also raised numerous questions about the types of histories we record and the dynamics at play between researchers and their subjects. Indeed consent and ethics have always been a central concern of oral history. But when it comes to addressing these issues, oral historians need to strongly bear in mind that they are not only abiding by the professional standards of the field but also respecting the wholly collaborative nature of the interview. This guide will aim to provide an overview of the debates concerning consent in oral history and the issues it raises in research data management for researchers at UCL and beyond.

Addressing Consent

There are three main ways in which we can start to consider consent within oral history. Firstly, there are the disciplinary specific guidelines that we should all follow as professional researchers. These guidelines have been created by membership associations that have been set up as the field of Oral History has developed. Such associations include the Oral History Society in the UK and the Oral History Association (OHA) in the US. The OHA addresses issues concerning best practice but also the principles of conducting oral history. Oral history, unlike many other forms of interviewing, is complicated by the fact that its subjects very rarely remain anonymous. At the heart of oral history is the importance the field places on context and identity in shaping the outcome of a narrative. Therefore we need to think very carefully about how this will affect the content and future use of the interviews that we create. As the OHA’s Principles and Best Practices states:

‘Interviewers must take care to avoid making promises that cannot be met, such as guarantees of control over interpretation and presentation of the interviews beyond the scope of restrictions stated in informed consent/release forms, suggestions of material benefit outside the control of the interviewer, or assurances of an open ended relationship between the narrator and oral historian.’

The ethical issues surrounding oral history, as Oral Historian Mary Larson points out, broadly fall into two main categories: legislated and voluntary. Ethical concerns have been brought increasingly to the fore with the rise of new technologies. In doing so, this has brought oral historians’ voluntary efforts in maintaining best practice into sharp relief. Even interviews which are decades old have now become subject to new scrutiny to ensure that the original legal and ethical rights of the narrators are respected. However recently, there has been increasing discussion about the use of the Creative Commons license as a way of addressing the issue of consent. One major benefit of this approach is that it enables the narrator to hold on to their copyright and receive credit for their contribution whilst still allowing for the recording and transcript to be made readily available to researchers.

Secondly, the development of oral history into an academic discipline has paved the way for more robust methodological discussions about consent. These shifts, as Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki argue, are tied to deeper fears about oral historians’ roles as researchers and how we interact with our narrators. These standards are nevertheless subject to the wider institutional and legal structures in which oral history operates. A good example of a project that raises questions about the legal and ethical consequences of oral history research is the Boston College case, which chronicled Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries’ involvement in the Northern Irish Troubles. Despite assurances that interviewees’ recordings would be kept secret until after their deaths, the tapes were seized by the Northern Irish police to investigate the abduction and murder of Jean McConville during the height of the Troubles. The case presents difficult and on-going issues about working in post-conflict situations and the potential use of interviews to aid investigations into criminal activities. For Sheftel and Zembrzycki, the Boston College case ‘serves to powerfully remind us of the varied lives that our projects can have, which are ultimately beyond our control’. However, researchers need to bear in mind that they cannot always guarantee interviewees’ confidentially especially in cases involving criminal activity.

Lastly, oral historians have long tackled many difficult subjects involving violence, trauma and genocide. In these instances, the ethical dilemmas of oral history is apparent in how we approach and deal with highly sensitive topics. We must also bear in mind that the ethics of an oral history interview extends to ourselves and none the more so than in cases where we may be dealing with hostile or unsavoury interviewees. The difficulty here lies in how we deal with views that we may not agree with whilst still upholding the guiding principles of the discipline and ultimately the law. As a rule of thumb, associations such as the Oral History Society ground the wider practice of oral history in UK and European Laws and suggest that practitioners should abide by a voluntary set of ethical guidelines.

Oral History and Research Data Management

There are few specific guidelines advising oral historians about data management during their research projects. There are, however, existing UCL guidelines available to researchers about storing, sharing and depositing research data whilst the UK Data Service provides further advice on formatting data in areas such as transcription. In any case, oral history interviews contain personal data and should be treated accordingly. Researchers are strongly advised to think carefully about the format and equipment they are using to undertake their interviews and how they will deposit them with due regard to their contents. Researchers will also need to make sure that they take additional measures in documenting consent from their research participants during the course of their research project. If you are planning to cover particularly sensitive issues, you should use UCL’s Data Safe Haven for the storage of your interviews and transcripts. The handling of personal information has become an increasingly pertinent issue with the introduction of GDPR across the EU as consent forms one of the legal bases for the processing of personal data. For further information, the Oral History Society have additionally produced their own guide for oral historians about compliance with the current GDPR legislation and how it applies to consent in this context. You should also consider contacting the Data Protection team at UCL for more specific institutional guidance.

Further Reading