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Oral history: where next after the Belfast Project?

While a legal fight led to the unravelling of promises of confidentiality, some researchers argue that there is a silver lining

Person listening to audio and recording to tape

Source: Corbis

It’s of limited utility to dump on Boston College. They’ve been through the wringer. The fact that they’re returning the tapes is unprecedented

When Mary Marshall Clark set out to collect oral histories of the 11 September terrorist attacks, her first stop was the legal office at Columbia University, where she is director of the Center for Oral History Research.

She asked: “What are the risks? Help me lower the risks” of chronicling this traumatic and emotional episode in an audio archive.

Such a cautious approach is likely to become more widespread in the wake of the controversy surrounding the interviews of former Irish nationalists and unionists collected by Boston College, which were subsequently handed over to the Police Service of Northern Ireland after a long, complicated and contentious international legal battle. The tapes led to the arrest in May of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who was later released without charge.

Some of those interviewed as part of the Belfast Project have said that they plan to sue Boston College. And the college has taken the unusual step of offering to return the audiotapes of the conversations to the participants.

While perhaps the most high-profile example, it is not the only such case.

In the 11 September oral histories recorded by the New York fire department (an undertaking separate from Clark’s project), some firefighters likened the World Trade Center attacks to an explosive demolition, giving fuel to conspiracy theorists who claim that the incident was not caused solely by hijacked aeroplanes hitting the building.

When families of several victims and The New York Times filed suit to get those interviews, which were considered public records, some of the firefighters unsuccessfully asked that their comments be withdrawn, unhappy that they might be taken out of context by “attack deniers”.

Historians say that the attention given to the Belfast Project is likely to have a long-lasting impact on the field of oral history – but not necessarily in the way some have feared. Rather than pulling the rug out from under such an approach, some academics argue that the episode could ultimately make oral histories stronger, more broadly understood and better managed.

“There have been a lot of things written with headlines like, ‘This is the end for oral history’,” says Cliff Kuhn, associate professor of history at Georgia State University and executive director of the Oral History Association. “I do think the Boston College case afforded something of a wake-up call. I’m sure there are a number of repositories that have re-examined their protocols to make sure things are tighter. And that’s a good thing.”

Rather than facing its demise, the field of oral history is expanding internationally. There has been an increase in the number of undergraduate and postgraduate oral history courses, and many universities have established concentrations or (at Columbia) postgraduate degrees in oral history. Oxford University Press, Palgrave, Routledge and AltaMira have all come out with books about oral histories, and new oral history projects are cropping up worldwide. Oral histories are easier to collect than ever, with high-quality recording devices now built into the smartphones that most people carry in their pockets. They are easier to circulate, thanks to the internet, and there is certainly no shortage of interesting places to conduct them, from Afghanistan to Guantanamo to Tahrir Square. The Oral History Association has even set up a fund to support projects covering “emerging crises”.

However, such topics are also more sensitive than the “tell-us-about-your-day” nature of the early oral histories of the 1940s, when the idea first got going. This calls for far more attention to the issues of informed consent for subjects and legal protections for researchers. Oral historians say that Boston College did not do a very good job of either.

The Belfast Project was run not by historians but by Irish journalist and author Ed Moloney. Its 50 interviews were conducted between 2001 and 2006 by a former Irish Republican Army member and a former loyalist. Boston College, which has extensive holdings of Irish literature, original manuscripts and other documents, agreed to house it. But the institution now says that it made a mistake in hiring the men.

Participants were told that the tapes would not be released until after their deaths, although affidavits submitted in the legal case show that the university warned Moloney that it would not be able to guarantee this if there was ever a court order directing it to release the materials.

An investigation by the Society of American Archivists has found that the researchers made promises of confidentiality that went further than university lawyers had advised.

However, Moloney disputes this and says that the fault lay with the institution because it was Boston College that prepared the donor contracts for interviewees to sign.

The point is that there were cracks in the wall, which proved easy for prosecutors to exploit when the PSNI came for the interviews, invoking an international legal assistance treaty, to help investigate the abduction and killing of Jean McConville, from Belfast, more than four decades ago. Although the university fought for seven months to quash the subpoenas, and the researchers pursued their own appeal, some of the documents were ultimately handed over, leading to the questioning for four days of Adams.

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