In contemporary public history, oral history as a field and a practice has been an integral part of connecting with marginalized individuals and communities. Historically, access to written history and cultural institutions like museums have been a luxury enjoyed by the privileged. In addition to racial, ethnic, or cultural exclusions experienced in the past, in the present context many marginalized communities do not have access to the time or resources to preserve their histories in written projects. Therefore, museums and other cultural institutions have sought to record the oral histories of people and communities, such as the Canadian Museum of Immigration’s extensive oral history collection. Furthermore, participating in oral history projects has been shown to raise democratic participation, deep thinking, and critical consciousness among marginalized communities.
However, for all its great attributes, recalling an oral history can also be deeply personal, even traumatic. So, in addition to cultural, linguistic, and psychological considerations, there are many ethical considerations to keep in mind when developing, running, and managing an oral history project. Luckily, there are some excellent pedagogical studies that have been published to guide this process. The most crucial of those is Michael Fricsh’s A Shared Authority (1990). Frisch’s book proposes that projects need to be thoroughly planned in collaboration with the interviewees and their communities at every stage. He calls this “sharing authority”. “Authority” is a pun on the word “author”, meaning both the historian(s) and interviewee(s) are writing this history together. Let us briefly consider how the principle of sharing authority can be implemented. We can break up the process into three phases: pre-interview, interview, and post-interview.
Before the interview takes place, a considerable amount of work needs to be completed. Firstly, there are potentially formal ethical considerations to be made, such as approval from the Ethics Review Board of Canada. Additionally, when developing the project, transparency between the historians, stakeholders, and interviewees needs to be upheld with appropriate waivers signed. This transparency is critical to ensure the participants in the project are fully aware of what will happen, what they will be asked, and how their interviews will be used. Furthermore, historians need to be aware of the feedback or responses they may receive when engaging with participants. Sometimes, there can be community politics that historians are not be aware of. In the case of marginalized communities, there should be consultation around who should be interviewed; who should conduct the interviews and, if community members conduct the interviews, what training and equipment they need; what questions are permissible and how should questions be phrased? Finally, there should be pre-interview meetings, to ensure that participants are fully comfortable with the process.
During the interview, understand that this could be a very difficult undertaking for the interviewee and interviewer. Be prepared to take breaks and give the interviewee lots of space if needed. In the moment, certain accommodations that did not come up in the pre-interview process may need to be taken, like switching from an audio-visual recording to an audio recording.
After the interview, sharing authority should be upheld in both the preservation and the presentation of the interview. Regarding the former, where will the interview be housed? There are also media considerations such as storing video, audio, and transcriptions of the interview. Furthermore, who has permission to access these files? Cataloguing is also essential to preservation. The interviews getting lost in the archives is almost as bad as the file being corrupted. The interviews need to be accessible to the participants and stakeholders. Regarding presentation, this will look different for every project based on what the subjects and their communities are comfortable with. In Curating Difficult Knowledge (Lehrer et al.), it is explored how presenting the history of marginalized communities can be a positive experience as it can spread awareness or be a cathartic experience for often-silenced participants, but poor framing of the subject matter, such as presenting violence as in the past, rather than ongoing, can be harmful. So, at this stage, sharing authority and consulting the community are essential.
This is not to dissuade anyone from participating in oral history projects. Oral history is a powerful tool and a wonderful opportunity for both communities and historians. Sharing authority should always be tailored to each individual project, ensuring communities are involved but not overwhelmed. An open offer of mutual participation will ensure meaningful projects and lasting relationships between marginalized communities and cultural institutions.