The Liberation of Oral History: A Little History and A Lot of Work

In this post, Mary Marshall ClarkDirector of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, Co-Director of OHMA, and Senior Member of the Columbia University Institutional Review Boardreflects on the recent update to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, which has clarified the exclusion of oral history from its research review mandates. 

It is terrific news that yesterday, January 18, 2017, sixteen federal agencies announced revisions to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, effective January 19, 2018.

As stated on Zachary M. Schrags’ wonderful IRB blog, this final rule preserves and clarifies the NPRM’s deregulation of oral history (unless it is overturned by the new administration). Noted in the long document is that one factor that OHRP noted was that disciplines, like oral history for example, have their own professional code of ethics that does indeed protect against the misuse of the interview and ‘protects’ the narrator. 

At Columbia, we successfully argued for an exclusion of most oral history review in a policy passed in 2007. This policy then served as a model of common sense re: the common rule for our own IRB (where I am a senior member) and also some other universities. My mentor in writing the policy and arguing for its acceptance was the amazing oral historian Linda Shopes, whose tough and logical mind as an external member of the policy committee was as a major factor in getting our policy passed.

The technical arguments we made will not stand out in the historical record; the spirit that actually motivated so many arguments regarding the application of the policy was our resolute determination to remind the board that oral history is part of protecting the right to free speech and free inquiry. 

In that sense, we were not thinking of protecting narrators as potential victims, but protecting their right to speak freely and openly as citizens and agents in a democracy that guarantees free speech. I was inspired to think this way by the writings of Philip Hamburger, a leading scholar of the First Amendment who teaches at Columbia University. 

One of my fondest memories of arguing for the liberation of oral history over the years was a presentation I was part of at the 2007 annual HRPP Conference in Boston, MA: Do the Current Rules Work for All Types of Research? If Not, How Should the Rules Be Changed? with Joanne Lynn and Simon Whitney. They pointed out that in cases where hospitals were restricted by technical limitations imposed by IRBs, patients were subject to more risk by the literal adherence to rules, without reference to specific contexts and individuals, than without them. 

My simple plea was: “If in the name of subject protections, you ask us to erase recordings, then we have not protected the human subject, we have destroyed the human subject.”

Lots of workall worth it! None of it could have been accomplished without a collective effort.

Mary Marshall Clark writes on issues of memory, the mass media, trauma, and ethics in oral history. She is an editor of After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 11, 2001 and the Years that Followed, published by The New Press in September 2011.

Clark is a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. She holds two masters degrees from Union Theological Seminary.