Oral History Workshop


Oral History Workshop

A very big hearty thanks to Mary and Ron Zboray from the Department of Communication for taking two and a half hours of their day to walk a group of us art historians through the methods, protocols, and intellectual & ethical issues involved in the practice of oral history.  A lot of us are already doing oral history -- with artists or curators or others -- blissfully unaware of the professional and ethical and legal considerations that will arise. I'll share their powerpoint when I get it, but in the meantime let me mention a few points that will give you some idea of why you need to explore this further.

• Ron Zboray over 10 years ago negotiated with Pitt a blanket exclusion from IRB review for oral histories undertaken in dissertation research.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, you'll need to read the powerpoint and get acquainted with the IRB.

• In an oral history, the person you interview is a "narrator," a co-creator, not an "interviewee" or a "subject."  This distinguishes oral history from human-subject research, on the one hand, and journalism, on the other.

• The narrator has the authority to withdraw from the process, to edit the transcript, to change their mind and alter it, to subject it to final approval, or to any number of permutations of all of the above.  The narrator is an agent in other words, in charge of her narrative.

• If you intend to quote from any interview you do, i.e. to reproduce the person's actual words, then you are in the territory of professional oral history.  Copyright, authorship, and ethical considerations come into play.  The standard procedure for dealing with these considerations is to draw up a "deed of gift" signed by the narrator which allows you to share and publish the interview, subject to whatever restrictions the narrator may want to impose.  This sounds like a terrible hurdle but in fact students and scholars in Communication and other fields have routinely used deeds of gift even in subcultures where people would ordinarily be suspicious of signing anything.  Cristina Albu in our department (PhD, 2009) is one example of a PhD student in art history who went through the process.

• If you want to avoid all this, or don't feel you have the time, then you really can't quote from your own interviews.  You can only paraphrase in more general terms.

Again, there's much more to be said, and I will be be back in touch when I have some documents to share.


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