International Oral History Association in Finland June 2018: Memory and Narration

The Oral History Review‘s very own Editor-in-Chief, David Caruso reflects on his recent trip to Finland to attend the International Oral History Association’s biennial congress and the discussions of complicated oral historian/narrator relationships and subsequent ethical considerations.

By David Caruso

Situated roughly four hours northeast of Helsinki by train, Jyväskylä is a vibrant city in a land of the midnight sun. The city and the University of Jyväskylä welcomed a venerable collection of oral historians into their midst at this year’s International Oral History Association congress, held from 18 to 21 June at an exhibition center on Jyväsjärvi lake. In this idyllic setting, the sun cast its long shadow through the wee hours of the night and early hours of the morning, bathing us in a hue of dusk in between. Despite the ethereal setting, the dynamic talks, insightful keynotes, and communality of scholars all engaged with the oral history methodology drew us, quite happily, from the beautiful surroundings for several hours each day to do what we do best: listen and ask questions, although this time with our colleagues and ourselves.

While it is an impossible task to recount all of the wonderful presentations I heard (and even more so for the ones held in parallel that I was unable to attend) and the conversations I and others had with oral historians from Spain, Italy, South Africa, Iran, Estonia, Britain, Korea, and Japan (just to name a few countries from which participants hailed), there were two clear themes upon which many touched.

National and transnational migration, whether forced or elected, has transformed and continues to transform the lives of so many people. Being ripped or tearing oneself and one’s family away from the known—home, family, friends, familiar sights and sounds, lived experiences and histories—and starting anew in a land completely different from one’s own (transnational) or similar to but still not quite the same as the city or town in which one grew up (national) can be a truly traumatic experience for all those involved. And such migration can also frame legacies passed from one generation to the next. Many speakers grappled with what our roles as oral historians are and how we can and should navigate our relationships with our interviewees. As many highlighted, the stories our interviewees give us help inform historical accounts of what happened where and when, and so are essential to collect, but the recounting of these harrowing experiences may also reintroduce trauma into the interviewees’ lives. How do we as oral historians navigate what we ask our interviewees provide and the consequences doing so may have for them?

These discussions, as one might expect, also contributed significantly to other panelists’ presentations and reflections on the ethics of oral history practice within different national contexts. What is it like to try to conduct oral history interviews with a mind towards human subjects research in a country whose policies towards its citizens are ethically problematic themselves? And how does one navigate not institutional review boards, but governmental structures that dictate how a human subject’s research must happen? What do you do if your government requires that an interview be anonymized? Can you really achieve anonymity? What happens when you turn a copy of the oral history interview over to your interviewee and she or he then decides to make the interview public? While many of these questions remain unanswerable, it was clear that our methodology and its ramifications for practitioners and participants alike is a focus of historians worldwide.

The International Oral History Association congress, which takes place biennually, brings together so many oral historians from different countries and, therefore, different perspectives, that it is certainly a conference that one should try to attend. There is a fount of knowledge among the attendees that can not only inform one’s work directly, but can help craft new ideas and adopt new frameworks for future projects.

As the midsummer celebration drew near, I was both excited about all that I had learned at my first IOHA and saddened that it would be two years before I had the chance to engage with so many international scholars all at once again. But when taking the train back to Helsinki, riding with colleagues and friends from the United States, I took to heart what the scenery around us showed, that just like the sun in Jyväskylä never truly set, neither will the experiences we all had at the congress.

In addition to serving as OHR’s editor-in-chief, David Caruso is the director of the Science History Institute’s (previously Chemical Heritage Foundation) Center for Oral History. In this position he supervises three postdoctoral fellows, one curator of oral histories, and three support staff; he oversees all of SHI’s oral history projects, especially those that focus on scientists with disabilities, minorities in science, women in science, and the history of modern biomedicine. He also serves as president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region. He facilitates biannual, week-long oral history training institutes held at SHI and other training seminars. 

Featured Image “IOHA 2018 FINLAND” by Matleena Jänis. Courtesy of the Finnish Oral History Network