Should the oral historian share transcripts with those they have interviewed? As part of my dissertation research on migration from Britain to Southern Africa after the Second World War, I have been conducting oral history interviews. As someone who started out working on the nineteenth century, using oral history as a source has been extremely rewarding but also fraught with unfamiliar ethical questions. In some ways things were easier when all the subjects of my research were well, dead. After all, analyzing a diary from the 1890s feels quite different to analyzing the life story of a living human being who, at the very least, has been generous enough to give you their time and who may well read your book or article. A number of questions arise. Is using someone’s life story as esearch material exploitative? Are you empowering or promoting their viewpoint by using their story? Should you use your narrator’s name? What control should they have over how you make use of their material? The question of exploitation versus empowerment is complex, depends very much on the specific situation, and I hope to take it up in a later post. * Update. See my latest post on the ethics of oral history here.
By contrast, in my oral history methodology class, there seemed a clear consensus about how to handle the latter two dilemmas. You have the ethical (and possibly legal) responsibility to respect the wishes of the narrator. You should use their name if they wish or a pseudonym if that is their preference. In regards to how the material is used, again it is at the narrator’s discretion. Consequently, I have always made it clear to the people I have interviewed that it is up to them what they are comfortable disclosing and have always been sure to have them sign a release form AFTER the interview so they know what they are releasing. Another part of this is providing the narrators with a copy of the transcript of the interview. Sharing a transcript with a narrator, theoretically gives them the chance to correct any misinterpretations or mistakes in the transcription process. It also gives the narrator a change to clarify portions of the interview where they may have been unclear or misspoken. Advocates of this method assert that reading the transcript or listening to the interview may also jog the narrator’s memory further and help them to provide new insights or understandings in subsequent interviews. Providing them with the transcript also gives narrators a further chance to withdraw certain parts of their interview that they have, on reflection, decided against sharing.
However, leaving aside the fact that this would not be possible with illiterate narrators, I have found that many narrators become uncomfortable when confronted with the transcript of their interview. A transcribed informal conversation is much less articulate than a written account. People think as they speak, particularly when recalling something from the distant past, interspersing sentences with phrases like “I think” or “that’s right” or even changing course mid sentence to note a newly remembered detail. Even after I had edited a transcript to make it read more smoothly, one narrator told me that he didn’t speak like that and seemed concerned that I might directly quote from the interview in my work. He certainly seemed less forthcoming and less comfortable with me in our subsequent interview. All of this has led me to re-evaluate my approach up till now. Is it better, as one colleague suggested, to give the narrators a transcript only after you have completed all interviews? This becomes difficult if you wish to develop a relationship and continue interviews over a long period, perhaps for years, but might work for a more limited amount of interviews. Is it wise to give narrators the transcripts at all? Should they only be given upon request?