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Collecting Oral Narratives: Ethics, Best Practice and the Law

The OHNI hosted a seminar Collecting Oral Narratives: Ethics, Best Practice and the Law at the Royal Irish Academy on Wednesday, 21 March 2012. An audience of 100 attended, drawn from academic institutions, local history groups, heritage and library organisations and a large number of interested individuals.

The event was introduced by OHNI Chairperson, Regina Fitzpatrick who spoke about the major growth in Ireland over the last number of years in the collection and dissemination of oral history and tradition. She said:

“The Network offers the opportunity for sharing resources and best practice in the preservation and promotion of Ireland’s oral heritage. It aims to provide community for all those involved in and interested in oral history and a forum to share ideas and advice and to discuss the issues and challenges facing oral history in Ireland. It advocates for putting oral history on the cultural heritage agenda and in our first year we have already been announced as a strategic partner by the Heritage Council of Ireland.”Regina Fitzpatrick welcome

Sandra Collins, Director of the Digital Repository of Ireland gave a presentation on the composition and scope of the project, which aims to provide an “an interactive trusted digital repository for contemporary and historical, social and cultural data held by Irish institutions”. The partners in the DRI are NUIM, TCD, DIT, NUIG and NCAD as well as the national cultural institutions (RTÉ; TG4; NAI; NESF; NLI) and various industry partners. Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster are also lending expertise.Sandra Collins presentation part 1 Sandra Collins presentation part 2

Following the opening presentations, Chairperson Justice Catherine McGuinness introduced the first speaker, Andrea Martin who is a solicitor specialising in media law. Her explanation of the law covering oral history practice in the context of a traditional music session was both enjoyable and highly informative and clearly engaged the audience. Andrea Martin presentation Part 1Andrea Martin presentation Part 2

David Fitzpatrick suggested that the long closure of the Bureau of Military History files whetted appetites for the material when it was eventually made publicly accessible. There are problems associated with the collection that seem less problematic because the interviews were held so many years ago. He pointed out that oral historians are involved in generating the evidence on which they base their analyses and that must always be taken into account. In the course of his excellent presentation, he referred to the controversy over the late Peter Hart’s oral history interviews. Professor Fitzpatrick suggested that supervisors of Ph.D. candidates should not be too “hands on” as their role is one of guidance.David Fitzpatrick presentation part 1David Fitzpatrick presentation part 2

Claire Hackett spoke of her work with both Healing Through Remembering and the creation of the Dúchas archive in Belfast.  She described how she became conscious that the interviewer cannot fully disassociate from an interview when it is being disseminated at a later stage through broadcast or a website.Claire Hackett presentation part 1Claire Hackett presentation part 2

Irish Folklore Commission senior archivist Críostóir MacCárthaigh brought in the 700 page guide that was produced for Folklore Commission collectors in the 1930s. He suggested that its contents could still be useful for interviewers despite the considerable technological developments that have occurred in the interim. The Folklore Commission collected material at a time before consent forms were even considered. He explained the present day procedures that are undertaken to protect the privacy of families and others who might be affected by the digitisation of the old material and the increasing accessibility of newer collections.Cristoir MacCarthaigh presentation part 1Cristoir MacCarthaigh presentation part 2

Caitriona Crowe, Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland gave the final presentation. She said that communities will always fight about the past and they will not be confined by ethical frameworks. She praised the work of the OHNI and promised her full support for the future.Catriona Crowe presentation part 1Catriona Crowe presentation part 2

The speakers’ presentations were followed by an engaging question and answer and discussion session with members of the audience. Some important issues were raised. These included the important question of future access to the material collected by the DRI and Sandra Collins assured the audience that it is not intended to charge and she does not foresee any change in that policy in the future. Several questions related to the ethical practice of oral history interviewing and who owned the copyright of an interview. Another important issue was the problems facing both interviewers and interviewees following the subpoena in the US of the Boston College authorities and the ethical and legal implications for practitioners everywhere. OHNI seminar audience discussion part 1Audience discussion part 2Audience discussion part 3