Reportback: What can oral historians learn from the Belfast Oral History Project case?

October 24, 2014

Co-Facilitators: Maggie Lemere, Zoë West, Cindy Choung

A broad discussion about the Belfast Oral History Project. Questions we hope to explore in the chat include: How can we ensure protection to narrators when our promises of confidentiality are jeopardized by unchecked government surveillance and the threat of subpoenas? What are some practical measures we can take about confidentiality, both as individuals and as a community of oral historians? What does the Belfast case say to the public about oral history? Could the Belfast case make oral historians overly cautious? Should there be a distinct line between oral history and journalism? If so, where is that line and how does it influence the rights and obligations of the interviewee and the interviewer? What are the ethical responsibilities expected of oral historians when it comes to crimes revealed by interviewees? What are the implications of the Belfast case for doing oral history with activists and communities who engage in civil disobedience, direct action and/or armed resistance? How can the Belfast situation be turned into a positive for the oral history community?



What brought you here today? What are you hoping to explore?

  • Are there certain things we should not be recording at all? There are terrible political implications of not recording… then there is the option of telling people the risks, how it could be used, how we don’t have control

  • Oral histories not admissible in court b/c they’re not sworn statements done in conjunction with a court. Could be used as a reminder for a witness, but mostly they’re considered hearsay.

    • but, the Belfast case kind of proves they are admissible -- previously, though, they haven’t been used successfully in court. Subpoena of oral history archives about 9/11 was beaten back (possible in civil case -- would not be possible in criminal case) by submitting many, many pages of transcripts to judge to show interviews did not contain info they needed

  • Journalists no longer have journalistic protection, thanks to NSA. At university, you can get a Certificate of Confidentiality (through your local IRB) and the government issues them (can take a while) -- social workers use them all the time -- these have never been overturned -- can oral historians start using these more?

    • Unclear whether the Certificate of Confidentiality can be obtained by individuals who aren’t affiliated with institutions

  • Rather than allowing Belfast case to have a chilling effect, we should gather together as oral historians and address our fears. We should make participants aware, in writing, of the possibility of subpoena -- be as transparent as possible.


In what ways has the Belfast case made you examine your own work? In what ways does or doesn’t this project resonate with oral histories that you may have done? Is Belfast Project oral history?

  • Re: institutional support for oral history -- with universities, you need to beg your university to give you the support you need… the support can be there. The core of oral history principles are very ethical -- transparency and control for interviewees.

  • Key concern is how you protect your narrators.

  • Really important to think about the political context of the Belfast case -- illegal to be part of paramilitary group -- one contributor was targeted because the tapes showed him as member of one. Also, code of silence among IRA. Different interviewers seem to have given different info to participants - interviewers were not necessarily versed in US laws.

  • Argument that Belfast project was not oral history -- participants don’t seem to have been aware of it as an “oral history” project, so how is it not just journalistic interviews? if it’s not using ethical principles of oral history, is it oral history?

    • debate + disagreement over whether we should make such exclusions as to what is oral history

    • what is ethical work in oral history? can we try to get oral history considered as a form of journalism and fight to get journalistic protection back?

    • do we want oral history to be more exclusive or more inclusive? do we risk limiting the narratives we get by defining it more rigidly?

  • bottom line -- being clear with interviewees about limitations of protection

  • You have to make things hard to find. Theoretically, Belfast Project was supposed to be secret for an extended period, and then it was leaked through book publication and Dolours Price -- if not, it could have been hidden for a generation.

  • Seems like the transparency and follow-up process with interviewees in this case was not very thoughtful

  • if agreement is that people’s stories can be released when they are dead, but they “out” other people in the story upon publication, what does that mean for our responsibility and our work?

  • importance of precision when talking about what we mean when we say “oral history” to our interviewees and what we promise. Seems like a logical fallacy to promise releasing some tapes after death without outing others.

  • It seems it was more political than about crime-solving -- subpoena is used for “bullying”. Archivists have to be aware of this possibility. Taking a proactive stance to protect against this is important -- civil disobedience is an important strategy in toolbox. E.g., possibility of storing recordings in encrypted archive where someone in another location has the key, we do not.

    • problem is that if there is a paper trail, they can subpoena that and track down that person.


What are the specific ways everyone has changed the way they work?

  • With Guantanamo Bay project, we will not interview prisoners until they’ve talked with their lawyers. Very close relationship among lawyers, translators, interviewers, deep trust.

    • but there were also very close relationships among interviewers and narrators in Belfast project -- it was, in a way, the demise of the project, as they were focused on individual relationships, not looking at the network of people/institutions behind the whole project

    • this points to the massive institutional failure of Boston College

      • wouldn’t be so quick to criticize BC. They fought harder against 2nd subpoena, when it became broader than Dolours Price’s. The action they did take to limit the reach of it was important, as it could have been much worse

      • true, but it’s also about how BC handled the project before the subpoenas even happened -- the advisory committee that did no follow-up, didn’t have real understanding of oral history, didn’t have meaningful institutional support

  • we should start working not as lone oral historians but connecting with teams -- with lawyers, social workers, human rights activists, tech people -- we need to broaden ourselves so we’re not left without support, isolated


Wrap-up -- reflections and lingering questions:

  • importance of individual oral historians learning encryption, and other concrete ways to take protection to the next level

  • questions of what to release publicly and when; when it’s appropriate to release full recording vs. edited text

  • challenges of protection when you do not have institutional support

    • OHA should serve as body to provide institutional support for individual researchers

  • what does this mean for the interviewer -- how do we legally protect narrators, but also how do we personally protect them with what we learn?

  • A lot of the suggestions for use in institutional setting have been very helpful, but I still don’t know what I would do personally. I’ve been stressing the risks when speaking with narrators about consent. I think it’s important that narrators always have the option to take things off internet if they want to ever, even if archivists don’t want to hear that.

  • Maybe OHA can provide database of lawyers in different areas who work on these type of issues, with contracts, etc.

  • There will be a panel on “Oral History and the Law” — hopefully, it can be recorded.




Photo Credit: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College