Why I Just Heard a Loud Cheer from Oral Historians Gathered in Tampa

The annual meeting of the Oral History Association (OHA) is going on this weekend at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel.  I have never been to an OHA meeting before, but after conducting dozens of interviews for my currently stalled (but not forgotten) “Greenwich Tea Party Project,” doing a dozen more for my forthcoming book on the American Bible Society,  and teaching oral history in my Pennsylvania History course at Messiah College, I have a greater interest in attending this conference.  Maybe next year.  For now, I will read the tweets at #oha2015 and retweet some of them @johnfea1 (followers always welcome!)

This year those in attendance at the meeting are rejoicing in the wake of the September 2015 ruling by the United States Department of Health and Human Services that excluded oral history from the human subject regulations enforced by institutional review boards (IRB) on college campuses.  Some of you may recall that we did a post on this back in September.

I know that the history department at Messiah is also happy.  We waged a “battle” with the college’s IRB board on this issue and managed to win it, but it was not easy trying to convince our colleagues in the sciences and social sciences why oral history should not fall under the board’s jurisdiction.

Over at the Oxford University Press blog, Don Ritchie, the Historian Emeritus of the U.S. Senate and the author of Doing Oral History, the textbook I use to teach the subject, offers his thoughts on this recent decision.  

Here is a taste:

The federal government began issuing rules that required universities to review human subject research back in 1980. At first, the regulations applied only to medical and behavioral research, but in 1991, the government broadened its requirements to include any “interaction with living individuals.” In 1995, a university hierarchy declined to accept a doctoral dissertation because the history graduate student had failed to consult the university’s institutional review board (IRB)—an entity none of her professors knew existed. She eventually received a retroactive exemption, but the incident sent shivers through the oral history community.
IRBs at universities, staffed almost entirely by those in the medical and behavioral sciences, began trying to fit oral history interviewing into protocols more designed for blood samples. IRBs instructed oral historians to keep their interviews anonymous, erase their recordings, and avoid asking possibly intrusive questions, which defeated the purpose of their projects. One student was met with resistance for naming the scholars in her field whom she had interviewed. Others were cautioned not to ask about illegal activities—even when interviewing civil rights activists who remained proud of the civil disobedience that led to their arrests. At their most illogical, there were boards that wanted researchers to obtain permission from third parties who had been mentioned during an interview, and even urged archivists to require researchers to apply for IRB clearance just to read an oral history transcript or listen to a recording in their collections.
Some scholars simply abandoned interviewing as a research or teaching tool to avoid the hassle. For years, a professor had partnered her college students with local high school students to conduct community-based oral histories, but she had to abandon the project when her campus IRB asked for certification that all participants in research activities were over the age of eighteen. Boards also expected faculty advisors who supervised theses and dissertations using oral history to take a standardized test on research ethics, despite its painfully clear orientation towards pharmacology.
In 2003, the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP) approved a statement drafted by representatives of the Oral History Association and American Historical Association that defined oral history practices as fundamentally different from the quantitative research that the federal regulations had intended to cover. It argued that oral historians “do not reach for generalizable principles of historical or social development; nor do they seek underlying principles of laws of nature that have predicative value and can be applied to other circumstances for the purpose of controlling outcomes.” The OHRP agreed that people should be free to give their informed consent to be interviewed and to have those interviews opened for research, without any federally-mandated review. It has taken another dozen years for the government to issue that statement on its own. This decision is a victory for common sense and lifts a great burden from all oral historians. Let us hope that the IRBs get the message.