All entries for Monday 21 March 2016

March 21, 2016

Restitution? The ethics of presenting oral history interviews online

Valerie Wright, Glasgow University

I’m relatively new to oral history. When completing my masters’ degree I had attended several workshops, training sessions and completed methods courses all safe in the knowledge that as a historian of the interwar years, I did not actually have to go out and interview anyone! (I’ve always found oral history both enticing and at the same time intimidating).

This was all to change in 2014 when I started work as a research associate on a project looking at the history of high rise multi-storey flats in post-war Glasgow.[1]

It’s a relief to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of recruiting, interviewing and analysing the oral history interviews we’ve conducted for the project. It can be challenging and it’s been a very steep learning curve, but it’s fair to say that I’m a convert!

This term I’ve also been teaching on an oral history honours course, and discussing the ethical implications of the use of oral history narratives with the students has really made me think about my own work and how we will use the oral history testimonies we have collected for the project. I have found Alessandro Portelli’s work particularly instructive on this issue. As well as very articulately and thoughtfully setting out his opinions on how researchers should essentially ‘mind out manners’ and respect and listen to those willing to share their history with us, I found that his thoughts on restitution and whether or not we can return history to the community in which it was gathered stimulating.[3]

As the internet is increasingly used as a way of virtually curating oral history testimonies, the ethical considerations for oral historians do not end with the interpretation of transcripts and communication of findings in academic journals and books.[4] The use of the internet as a ‘site of memory’[5] has, for me, raised issues over where we should archive our interviews and whether they, or extracts from them, should be available online for everyone to see? If so, do we ask our respondents to choose the extracts as a form of ‘co-production’ or ‘shared authority’?[6] Does this provide restitution, or a voice, for those whose stories have been omitted from the history of high rise in Glasgow?

These are the questions that I will be considering over the next few months as we analyse and write up the findings from our oral history interviews


[1] Housing, Everyday Life and Wellbeing over the long term: Glasgow 1950-1975

[2]Chris Leslie, Glasgow Renaissance

[3] Alessandro Portelli, ‘Trying to Gather a Little Knowledge: Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Oral History’, in The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue. University of Wisconsin Press 1997 Pp. 55—71, here pp. 68-71.

[4] Steven High, ‘Telling Stories: A Reflection on Oral History and New Media’, Oral History 38:1 (2010), pp. 101-112.

[5] Lucy Noakes, ‘‘War on the Web’: The BBC ‘People’s War’ Website and Memories of Fear in 21st century Britain’ in Lucy Noakes and Juliette Pattinson (eds), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 47-67 here p. 48-52.

[6] For a discussion of shared authority see Lynn Abrams, ‘Power and Empowerment’ in Oral History Theory, (London: Routeledge, 2016), pp. 153-74.

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  • Thank you for this informative and useful blog. I agree that historians have much to gain from looki… by Alexander Freund on this entry
  • hi Angela, there are consent forms with the interviews that have been transcribed, but not with the … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • Hi Andrea. Just a quick follow up question – what paperwork actually exists for the interviews? Are … by Angela Davis on this entry
  • hi Angela, thanks for this. I too am working with some archived interviews, alongside conducting my … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • I was interested to read the angle of your initial blog as I am in the process of planning an oral h… by Nickianne Moody on this entry

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