Private in public
: Addressing the ethical, legal and curatorial issues of digital oral history

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This research analyses the changes brought about by digital technologies in the ethics of oral history. These technologies greatly enhance the visibility and use of audiovisual archives such as oral history interviews. Yet, the new scale of creation and potential access to personal stories, combined with contradictory regulations, create competing expectations. Ethical difficulties around consent, privacy and misuse of information are amplified. My thesis unpacks these tensions and assesses their novelty in the digital context. I also analyse the current strategies used by interviewers and archive custodians to address these difficulties. My work concludes with recommendations for practitioners, their employers and professional associations.

My research methodology is interdisciplinary, comparative and empirical. I developed my project by surveying the academic literature across four disciplines: Oral History, Digital Humanities, Information and Computer Ethics, and Legal Studies. I researched the practices of interviewers and curators working in the 2000s and 2010s in archive centres, libraries, museums and charities or as independent interviewers, with a focus on the United Kingdom, the United States and France.

My research fieldwork enabled me to collect two types of primary sources – survey responses and research interviews – which together gathered the experiences of 126 practitioners who faced these tensions when creating or looking after oral history recordings. To complement these first-hand accounts, I reviewed and compared technical and guidance documents produced in three areas: oral history; archives, data management and data protection; and the Social Sciences. The analysis of this grey literature helped me to critically and constructively assess the information available to the professionals I was studying.

The analysis of my primary sources focused on the interview lifecycle and on how information is handled between its creation and its reception. In particular, I drew on Privacy Studies, Information Ethics and Nissenbaum's (2010) framework to examine how oral history interviews flow as private in public information and are made even more public as a result of digital, and particularly online, dissemination. This approach led me to focus on the situational dimension of the difficulties of digital oral history. I show the importance of examining the context of each interview, collections or project to understand the reactions to changes in technologies, practices and expectations.

The widespread availability of digital technologies is creating new opportunities in terms of better discoverability, organisation and preservation of information, but these changes are also triggering concerns about privacy, decontextualisation, datafication and increased distance from sources and research participants. In my work, I have observed the effect of these aspects on the democratisation of knowledge, as an objective pursued by both oral historians and digital humanists, and how this process is to some extent hindered by digital technologies. This has led me to highlight the tension between the openness and quality of the historical sources created by interviewers and curators.

As a result, my main findings deal with the multiple influences of digital technologies on oral history creation and curation. The increase in publicness created by digital dissemination practices and expectations amplifies existing privacy worries. Two key ethical norms for dealing with oral history interviews are respect of interviewees’ informational privacy and decisional privacy; these norms are being challenged by the (new) norm of broad and fast dissemination. To alleviate these tensions, I developed the concept of plural privacy, which enables to take into account the diversity of stakeholders and risks associated with the increased visibility of interviews. Based on this concept, I show how the ethical, legal and curatorial issues of digital oral history could be better prepared for and anticipated.
Date of Award1 Sept 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMark Hedges (Supervisor) & Bernard Geoghegan (Supervisor)

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