Oral History Interviews: Ethical and Legal Issues

1. Introduction

Oral historians have always had strong ethical obligations to fully inform participants in oral histories of how their words will be used, but in recent years this has become even more important because interviews are recorded as digital data that can be easily copied, shared and published.

In the last century, when an oral history narrator signed a release, he or she could assume, safely, that whether their interview stayed in audio (or audio/video) form or included a typed transcript, it would remain under the care and control of an archivist or a librarian… Now, the digital age has opened up oral history to individuals and groups throughout the country. (Reeve, ‘What do you think you own’)

For oral historians, good data management is intrinsically bound to ethical practice. Interview participants cannot give informed consent unless they are given full and clear information about how you will use and care for the material that relates to them in your project, as well as what is likely to happen to it beyond the duration of the project (including deposit in archives or online repositories). Archivists will not accept oral history interviews for deposit in a repository or online archive without clearance forms that make clear what they can or cannot do with that data.