The ethical considerations of the local historian are no more specific than the ethical considerations of any researcher. However, the fact that local histories are often written by amateur writers whose ignorance of what could best be described as professional standards, does mean that people participating in this type of research may be more vulnerable to misinterpretation and thus less likely to co operate in subsequent projects if they have had a bad experience. In this instance the local historian like any researcher, must obtain informed consent, which means allowing the owner of the story have some say in how it is used.
Another consideration is the fact that local history is a Eurocentric version of a region. “Indeed, the local history genre itself is part of the Eurocentric view of knowledge ... which underpins European expansionism.” (Arnold, 2010) This does not mean that a European version of history is ‘wrong’, but in terms of ethical considerations, it means that no single history can be viewed as the single authoritive version. This was a consideration which became very vocal in my town early in 2013 as a local academic Paddy Kavenagh and a representative from the Blue Mountains, Oberon and Lithgow Tourist board, argued first in letters to the Editor in the local paper and then in a public debate, about the interpretation of the bicentenary of the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains. While the Tourism board ‘celebrated’ in a parochial fashion the settler/convict white history, there was great concern that this was both making the local people look like yokels, and ignoring the Aboriginal heritage of the area. Local history cannot be singular, even if as a historian you do not have the scope to discuss other aspects of an area in depth. This would require careful writing, using inclusive language and if not directly addressing certain aspects of an area, at least not omitting them altogether, as Dorothy Williams discusses, when considering the cultural sensitivities involved in whether or not to include tales of indigenous warfare. (Williams, 2013)
Williams also discusses the importance of balancing the competing narratives of interviewees and the reputations of living descendants. The stories we tell of our ancestors, has a bearing on how we see ourselves. To have those narrative challenged can be confronting to living descendants and a writer does have to balance the needs of one person’s ‘truth’ with another. Personal history is very much about perception. How we perceived our experience differs between individuals and even the same individual at different ages. Williams suggests that it is the place of the historian to try to show a balanced view of controversial issues or figures. (Williams, 2013) This would seem the most ethical approach, as it does not force the historian to white wash their account.
Finally, the ethics of authorial integrity are important to consider. Is it ethical to allow oneself to be used by interested partied to tell the history as they see it? (Arnold, 2010) Personally I think this is a question which each writer needs to debate for themselves. Do you as a writer feel comfortable placing your name on work which you have lost control of or lost confidence in? Are there some cases where you would feel more comfortable negotiating to ghost for an interested party? Beyond the ethical considerations of representation of others, I think that it is also important to consider the ethics of how your name is being used, as your name as a published writer is your public reputation.
Arnold, J, 2010, Writing Local History, Blackboard Course Materials, Swinburne University of Technology, Lilydale.
Williams, D, 2013, Writing Local History, Writing History LPW602, Swinburne University of Technology, Victoria.