Oral history can survive the Boston College tapes debacle

Where next for oral history? Rochelle Hartman, CC BY-SA

It is probably just as well that Boston College plans to return the tapes to ex-IRA and loyalist paramilitaries who were interviewed and recorded as part of their Center for Irish Programs’ Belfast project.

The recent arrest and release of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and allegations appears to have been related to tapes containing testimonies regarding the “disappearing” of Jean McConville in 1972.

While the Belfast Project created a mighty ethical dilemma for the Massachusetts college after it was forced by a US court to hand over some of its recordings, it has left oral historians like me grappling with the risks and limitations inherent in interviewing people about their memories of contentious topics such as war, human atrocities, crime, violence and abuse. I recorded a number of very sensitive oral history interviews with domestic abuse survivors as part of my PhD looking at domestic abuse in Scotland between 1979 and 1992.

30 years of recordings

Oral history has emerged from the wings of historical scholarship over the last 30 years to become highly sophisticated. It is expanding our understanding of the recent past by capturing the reminiscences of those who were around at the time.

The discipline involves researchers using audio and video recordings and transcripts as primary source material. The aim is to create a permanent record, wherever possible, from identifiable personal accounts and fill the gaps in written records, official papers, other research or media.

The richness of oral testimony adds the voice of personal experience to the historical record. But people need to be really clear about the purpose of the study they are signing up to and what will happen to the record of the interview.

Unlike other branches of research, those taking part can choose to be identified and also whether they wish to assign copyright of the material to the researcher and the host institution –- usually an archive or library.

The ethical dimension

Oral historians working in universities or other research settings must ensure their methods comply with the moral, ethical and legal requirements laid down by both their discipline and their host institution.

University research ethics committees and professional bodies in the UK and US implement strict regulations for all research involving what are helpfully described as “human subjects”. These should provide clear lines of accountability that protect participants, researchers, the institution or organisation and any third parties likely to be mentioned in interviews – lack of clarity in this regard appears to have been a weakness in the Boston case.

It can be challenging and time-consuming for researchers to get approval for investigations into the darker sides of human society. It took me almost a year to get permission for my research work, for example.

Proposals can be fraught with potential risks to both the participant and the researcher. Those involved need to address the possibility of sensitive, harmful or criminal disclosures leading to physical harm, emotional distress, defamation of third parties or prosecutions.

The limitations of an individual’s control over their own material must be made clear to them. In UK projects, anyone likely to talk about criminal activities should be made aware that they may have to be disclosed to investigating police, even if access for everyone else has been restricted.

If an interviewee says something incriminating during a testimony, the interviewer has a duty to stop the tape and erase that part from the record. This can put limits on what oral historians can achieve.

These issues are particularly topical in Scotland following the abolition of double jeopardy in Scots law, the establishment of the Crown Office cold case unit and the investigation of historic cases of domestic abuse and sexual abuse.

Another important question about the Boston situation is the admissibility of the tapes as evidence. Clearly the UK authorities take the view that the testimonies could lead to criminal charges, but police and prosecutors need to take great care here.

There is a big difference between oral history testimony recorded for research purposes and a police interview. Nobody takes an oath and there is no way of ensuring that what is being said is true. The job of the interviewer is to establish trust and rapport. People’s motivations for taking part in these projects vary, they participate voluntarily and are not answering questions out of any legal requirement. Testimonies can be coloured by the passage of time, the society or culture people live in or by their own grief or pain.

The “truth” of the account is not really the point. A great deal can influence the making of memory: the story is the thing. The value is in its telling. Indeed, critics of oral history sometimes suggest that this form of research can never be an objective as more formal or official accounts of the past. While I would counter that there is hardly a single historical document that does not carry some kind of bias; that the skill of the historian is to range widely like a detective to analyse what happened; it certainly illustrates the problem with treating such testimonies as evidence.

That aside, the Boston debacle has done the discipline few favours. It is giving oral history a bad name. It has received such widespread publicity that it is bound to mean that researchers may be faced with potential interviewees declining or at least being wary of taking part for fear that they could end up in a similar situation.

While Boston illustrates the current limits of where oral historians can go, more generally I believe that the discipline operates rigorous practices. Oral history will survive this difficult period.

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