An A-to-Z of Oral History at Columbia: “E” is for Ethics


An A-to-Z of Oral History at Columbia is a monthly posting featuring the people, events, and organizations in the Oral History Archive at Columbia’s collections, as well as behind-the-scenes info about oral history methodology.


The next two entries in the OHAC A-to-Z focus on what happens behind-the-scenes in oral history methodology and archival processing for oral history materials.

For this post “e” stands for “ethics.” To say, “Once one sees the ethical issues in oral history, one cannot unsee them,” is an understatement.

Photo by Piret Ilver on Unsplash

Like most academic disciplines, in its move toward institutionalization and standardization as a research tool, oral history sought validation from the many disciplines with which it intersects. In “Who’s Afraid of Oral History? Fifty Years of Debates and Anxiety about Ethics,” Sheftel and Zembrzycki offer a useful summary of oral history’s striving for intellectual rigor while prioritizing not doing harm to narrators. As the site of early standardization practices since 1948, Columbia’s existing oral history collections illustrate differing approaches to the meaning of consent, changes in release forms overtime meant to balance legal issues and ethics, and evolving transcription practices.

Here’s a sample of the types of questions, and some responses, we’ve encountered in our ethical obligations to people, to narrators gifting the archive with their stories, to oral history collection donors, and to the materials themselves.

  • Since no one working in the archive predicted the Internet, do past oral history agreements permit “publishing” interview text and audio to the web?
    • OHAC’s current position is that without that explicit permission, though we might be legally in good standing to post materials to the web, we align with the broader libraries’ policy of restricting certain materials to campus-only access (with a Columbia UNI or in the RBML reading rooms). The Homelessness and Healing collection (UNI access only) is one such set of materials. Though the purpose of hosting the collection is to give wider access to the voices and experiences of people who were unhoused, for narrators striving to get back on track and stay the course, agency over their own words and life experiences as represented in oral histories is tantamount.
  • What are the ethics of restricting access to materials to campus-only…and doesn’t this run counter to our obligation to provide researcher access to materials regardless of the resources (time, money) to come to Columbia’s campus?
  • What if a narrator changes their mind and wants their interview pulled from the archive? Is the archive ethically obligated to do so?
    • Absolutely. While signed oral history agreements might legally give the archive the leeway to say, “no,” why would we, ethically, violate the trust of narrators? Perhaps for the sake of the a grand idea of historical good, but ultimately, other humans’ well-being takes precedence. Sure, it’s disappointing to follow through with a request to pull an interview from our collections. But we have done so without questioning why and understanding that contexts change. In an age of rampant dis/misinformation,  overly eager uses of AI, and unscrupulous data mining and brokering of personal information, there’s a pathway between protectionism and privileging narrators’ well-being.
  • We have a few legacy collections that require permission from the collections’ donors to access them. These agreements, made in years past for reasons that are lost to time, run counter to our contemporary ethical obligation to provide researchers access to materials.
    • We are, institutionally obligated to uphold these agreements until the donors of those materials are deceased; control does not pass along to the donors’ heirs nor to their Estates. People have their reasons for wanting privacy or restrictions for a period of time–we get it! However, we’ll no longer act as a personal storage unit for outdated approaches to archives and who should have access to knowledge. Our practice today is discuss restrictions on collections or interviews with the requirement of a specific date upon which the materials can be made freely and openly accessible.

OHAC is situated within an academic library system whose priority is researcher access, especially that of the University’s students and faculty. OHAC’s staff relies on oral history ethics, archival ethics, discussion, and our professional practice. There are no easy solutions. We must remain aware of past and present contexts for making ethical judgment calls. We also must get comfortable with not knowing the future contexts in which the collections will be in use long after we’re gone.

To our future OHAC colleagues, we can only say, “We’ve done our best to document our decision-making process in the here and now! It’s your turn.”

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