Oral historians have long been interested in the ethical and legal aspects of their work. In large part this is a result of working with and within living memory. Oral History first carried an article on the 'legal considerations' involved in making recordings in 1976.(46) By 1995 the Oral History Society was publishing, and regularly updating, Alan Ward's 'Copyright, ethics and oral history'. The most recent version is available as 'Is your oral history legal and ethical?'
Although legal matters, including copyright, differ from country to country, there is a great deal of similarity in the approaches to ethics taken by various national organisations. Examples of these organisations' conventions include the ethical code of the National Oral History Association of New Zealand (NOHANZ) Te Kete Korero-a-Waha o te Motu (established in 1986) and the OHAA guidelines of the Oral History Association of Australia (formed in 1978) and in 2013 was re-named Oral History Australia. The Oral History Association in the US has a an extensive set of principles and best practices guidelinesin comparison to other organisations. The guidelines raise a series of questions intended to encourage better practices.
Drawing on a commitment to shared authority these codes stress the rights of the interviewee. A common element is therefore informed consent in which the aims of the study are clearly explained to the interviewee; including how and where their testimonies will be used.
In spirit they are different from ethical guidelines in other areas of the social sciences. So, for example, oral historians would be unlikely to argue that interviewees should be automatically made anonymous in writing up research. Rather as part of shared authority the decision would at least be informed by the views of interview partners who may feel that they should be named as historical witnesses.
'It should be noted that all audio-specific magnetic tape formats are now, in practice, dead. Audio recording, post production and storage have become part of the IT (computer) world with its nonaudio-specific carriers and formats' (47)
Oral history has been influenced by changes in audio and video technology. The first obvious impact is how recordings are made, the second the challenges that such recordings pose in terms of preservation. However, there are other considerations beginning to be discussed. This includes the impact of specific pieces of equipment on interview relationships and in the ways that different media might shape the meanings we give to recorded testimonies.
From the late 1870s until the 1980s audio was recorded and reproduced almost exclusively on mechanical and magnetic carriers. Cylinders and then discs were used in the earliest recordings – a collection of which is held by the British Library Sound Archive. This includes one of Florence Nightingale in 1890 sending her greetings to 'the dear old comrades of Balaclava'.
Several professional audio reel-to-reel formats were developed and were used by oral historians in the 1960s. The most popular of these belonged to the Uher semi-professional Report range. The first models appeared in the 1960s and were still in use in the 1980s among oral historians, especially the Report Monitor. From the mid 1980s onwards cassette formats (introduced by Philips in 1963) were increasingly adopted. The Marantz PMD range of cassette machines proved popular amongst oral historians.
During the late 1990s Minidisks (magneto-optical disks) became widely used. These were fairly quickly displaced by professional 'flash card' or solid state recorders. Solid state recorders store digital sound as audio files on removable memory cards. The data files can then be easily and quickly transferred from the flashcard to a computer.
There are a number of digital recorders or solid state recorders. Doug Boyd’s reviews of this digital recording equipment are especially useful. It should be noted that archivists advise following the internationally-recognised Philips 'red book' standards if possible (for example recording at 16bit/44.1kHz). However, such standards do not yet exist in video recording.
Please note that current equipment recommendations and standards can be found on the advice pages of the Oral History Society.
The challenges involved in the preservation of recordings that exist on so many different formats are of great concern for archivists, including the National Archives in the US and the British Library. Advice on preservation can be found in Dietrich Schller (see above).
From the early years of the Oral History Society an important aim has been to encourage community-based individuals and groups to record oral testimonies. In Britain some groups, such as the Ambleside Oral History Group, have been collecting and publishing their communities' histories for more than 30 years.
Oral history continues to provide a voice for those who have been 'hidden from history'. But it also enables local historians to engage in the collection of historical evidence. Oral history is about 'doing history' and offers an accessible and sociable method of finding out about the recent past.
Oral historians have fostered important links to adult education through both the voluntary sector, including the Workers' Educational Association, and local authorities. Councils in Scotland, for example, supported oral history through community education departments.
In the 1970s community publications emerged as an important way of disseminating oral history. Over the next 20 years oral history projects and small independent publication co-operatives were often in close association. These co-operatives included Centerprise, QueenSpark, Commonword, Strong Words and Bristol Broadsides.
Joanna Bornat (48) and others have pointed out the challenges involved in the process of community history making and the role of myths in the construction of ideas about what makes a 'community'. However, the publication of local oral histories continues to be a way of breaking the barriers between professional and community historians and a means of offering something back to individuals and groups who have given their life stories.
Community oral history reached an important watershed in the mid 1980s in Britain. At the time numerous community oral history projects and archives were established. This coincided with the beginnings of a boom in local history activity that saw the launch of the Local History magazine (first published in 1984).
Fuelling a great deal of oral history activity was an increase in funding for projects through the Manpower Service's Commission's (MSC) Community Programme. It is especially ironic that one result of de-industrialisation, and the accompanying high unemployment of the Thatcher years, was the use of public money to record older peoples' experiences of work and joblessness. Some of these projects continued into the 1990s. Most did not.
In the 1990s a number of community-based projects began to work with universities. These links included joint project initiatives, such as Ukraine's Forbidden History that saw members of Bradford Heritage Recording Unit and the University of Sheffield working together. And there were longer-term collaborations, most notably the involvement of the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA) with the University of Leicester and a range of local government agencies.
In 1993 the Oral History Society formally recognised the role of community oral historians with the formation of the Regional Network of Oral Historians. The Network established representatives across Britain. The success and growth of the Network is a result of the efforts of enthusiastic (and voluntary) advocates of oral history offering their time and energy in supporting local initiatives. This in turn has helped to foster and support community oral history. The development proved particularly timely given the increasing availability of funding for community oral history during the same period.
If the MSC's Community Programme (see above) provided the material basis for the first burst of community oral history activity, it was the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) that played a significant part in financing the second phase of growth. The HLF reported in July 2007 that they had awarded more than £49 million to over 2,000 oral history and reminiscence projects, including more than 1,600 programmes that were led by community and voluntary groups.
Significantly, the recording, rather than the transcript, is widely understood as the primary document in Europe, which has not always seemed to be the case in the United States. This has meant that orality continues to be important in the thinking of many oral historians.
In Britain a small number of archivists have played a major part in maintaining the recording as a central concern. Recording quality and preservation have been important issues since the earliest years of the Oral History Society. And thanks to the influence of archivists, these have remained significant considerations throughout a period of rapid technological change.
However, among archivists more generally the value of oral history collections has not always been recognised. This is especially so in those countries, including Britain, in which archivists have long histories of looking after paper-based documentary materials.
The relationship between archivists and oral historians has therefore not always been an easy one.
There are signs of change. Archivists have traditionally adopted a largely passive role of being the recipients of deposited materials. However, in recent years they have increasingly begun identifying gaps in collections and encouraging and even facilitating collection. Given oral history's capacity to uncover people and topics that are 'hidden from history', more and more archivists are broadening their collections to include sound and video materials. Additionally, archivists are becoming aware of the importance of oral history archives as web-based resources.
Elaine D. Swain (49) is a useful starting point for those seeking more information about the changing archival understandings of oral history, especially in the context of the United States. And the Perks and Thomson 'Making histories: introduction' provides further detail.(50)
In Britain there are a number of key archives. These include the National Museum of Wales, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, the School of Scottish Studies and the British Library Sound Archive. There are also an increasing number of regional archives.