For some time I have been thinking about the need for an ethics advisory committee for oral historians. I discussed the idea with the officer in charge of IRB at my university (when oral history was subject to IRB review), noting that while IRB review as it was then constituted was not helpful to oral history, an ethics advisory committee would be useful. I think such a committee would be of enormous benefit to oral historians nationally and perhaps internationally.
The idea for the oral history ethics advisory committee is modeled on the ethics advisory committee for Hospice. From time to time, as clients face difficult moral decisions, a meeting of the ethics advisory committee is called. The advisory committee members discuss the situation with the people involved and offer their thoughts on how to proceed. They are advisory only--that is, their recommendations are nonbinding. The group is composed of volunteers who have a depth of experience in issues related to death and dying. They are willing to meet as needed, often at short notice.
The oral history advisory committee could meet on a regular basis via skype or other online systems and offer their thoughts on ethical issues that arise in the context of oral history interviews. The discussions would be completely confidential and the advice would be nonbinding. Oral historians would send in requests to discuss an ethical issue they are facing in their work. If there were multiple requests, the committee would meet more than once a month. The committee would be composed of volunteers with in-depth knowledge of the field and would rotate annually or every two years.
OHA members would have access to thoughtful discussions of the particular ethical issues they encounter that would assist them in making well informed decisions. The ethics advisory committee’s role could also be incorporated into the revisions OHA is making to the Best Practices guidelines. It could serve as a model for fellow humanities organizations, as their members encounter ethical issues unique to their disciplines. The ethical issues oral historians face will likely increase as the digital age progresses, making the ethics advisory committee even more important over time.
Martha Norkunas, Professor of Oral and Public History
Middle Tennessee State University