Balancing Act

Two years ago I began teaching an oral history course in which students interview recent immigrants to the Washington DC area. Students and interviewees have the option to donate their interviews and transcripts to the Immigrant Voices archive at the University of Maryland’s Center for the History of the New America. (Yes, I make my students do transcripts – turns out it’s an incredible bonding experience – but that’s another story!) The Center features many of the interviews on their website. It has been a fantastic experience to guide students in doing oral histories that so quickly reach the public and will also be available to researchers for years to come.

There have also been challenges; however, not least making some difficult decisions about how to handle sensitive information. With past projects I have generally felt comfortable encouraging interviewees to allow full disclosure of their oral histories. However, the nature of some of the information these interviewees have provided, compounded by the quick and easy access – to anyone, anywhere – afforded by the internet, makes me more wary. Perhaps the most challenging case we’ve had to date was that of a young immigrant who spoke openly about their* experiences as an LGBTQ person both in the U.S. and in their home country, which they visit regularly. This person gave permission for full disclosure of the interview.  But I found myself torn. While the interview was important to the historical record, would the availability of it online in this person’s home country – where the law allows for abuse and discrimination of LGBTQ individuals –endanger their safety? The Center’s staff shared my concerns, and discussed them with the interviewee – who, upon reflection, decided to use a pseudonym.

While I am usually disappointed at having to muddy the historical record in this way, in this case I found that I was relieved. As oral historians we have always had to balance the need for future generations to know about the past against the well-being of the human beings we interview. But there is no doubt that the internet has made that balancing act more precarious – pushing us to think even more carefully about our interviewees’ privacy. As I told my students, while we strive to follow best practices, there is no one “right way” to protect the best interests of your interviewee and of the historical record. Sometimes you just have to follow your gut.

*this interviewee prefers to be referred to by the pronoun “their”

Anne Rush is the OHMAR Secretary and a Lecturer in the University of Maryland Department of History