Practical Guidelines for Oral History
The Oral History Network of Ireland (OHNI) brings together oral history practitioners for the support and promotion of the discipline of oral history in Ireland. We advocate for a life cycle approach to oral history encouraging prospective collectors to consider the ethical and legal requirements involved in the planning, collecting and processing of oral histories. This page outlines some practical guidelines for oral history. This is not intended as a ‘How To’ guide and we therefore strongly recommend that you enrol on one of our training workshops before embarking on your oral history project. We have also provided a list of recommended reading and links to other resources on https://oralhistorynetworkireland.ie/resources.
At present OHNI offers several different training workshops at regular intervals around the country. Visit our training page – https://www.oralhistorynetworkireland.ie/training – for more details. We can also arrange bespoke training at a time and date to suit your group.
Before the Interview
When embarking on an oral history project there are many practicalities to consider. Spend some time deciding what kind of project you want to conduct and what resources you will need to do it well.
- Do you have access to proper recording equipment, and do you know how to use it? An audio recorder / dictaphone that records stereo audio and can create .wav file types is vital for preservation. Make sure to practice using the equipment in advance of your first interview. Although most mobile phones have a voice record app these are not of a sufficient standard to create files that can be preserved long-term.
- Will you record audio only or video interviews? There is no easy answer to this question. It depends on the purpose of your project and your long-term plans for it. Remember, videos that are recorded to archival standards create very large files that can be difficult to transfer, store and edit.
- Where will you store your recordings once you have completed them? Keep multiple back-ups of your interviews, but also consider long-term storage which can best be facilitated through a local or institutional archive. You should contact your intended archive before you start interviewing to make sure that your project documentation is in line with their deposition guidelines. Loading recordings onto cloud storage or onto a CD or USB key will only give you temporary storage and is rarely a secure option.
- Have you considered the legal and ethical requirements for an oral history project? It is not possible to simply record somebody and then use that recording in any way you like. Unlike other historical records your interviewees, and the people they refer to during their interviews, are people with legal rights and protections. Copyright must be transferred to you / your project / the archive you select before you can use the recordings for any purpose; data protection legislation dictates what information you can store about another person and how that should be stored; ethical decisions must be taken when dealing with vulnerable interviewees or sensitive and/or confidential information.
- If you or your project is based within a third level institution or organisation, do you need to apply for ethical approval? If you are a student or staff member in a third level institution or organisation you are likely to need ethical approval for your research from your organisation. In most cases this needs to be applied for and approved before you can begin to approach participants or begin recording. This process is designed to protect you, your participants and your institution, but it can be a lengthy process so make sure to leave plenty of time for it. Many ethics committees are more familiar with social sciences projects where data anonymisation and destruction of recordings are common, if your aim is to archive named recordings then be prepared to explain it is important.
- Does the person you are interviewing understand the ways you plan to use their contribution? This is a process that oral historians refer to as informed consent. An interviewee must be fully informed about all potential uses of their contribution before they can make an informed decision about whether to participate or not. You will need to consider the various ways you plan to use the recording. Will you make copies or extracts of your interviews available online, in books or research articles, for TV or radio purposes etc.? What other ways might you use? Remember, an interviewee cannot sign off on the use of their interview until after the interview has been recorded – it is not possible to fully understand what you might discuss in advance.
- How will you deal with sensitive or confidential information? Are you offering to anonymise your interviews? Often anonymisation is suggested as a way to protect participants from being identified and encourage them to participate more freely. This raises a number of follow up considerations, especially given that taking out somebody’s name is not sufficient to prevent a person being identified. All identifiable details must also be removed (references to family, friends, occupation, place) and a recording cannot be made public as a person’s voice can be recognised. This can leave an interview devoid of context or impossible to use in certain ways. Have you considered closing access to an interview or to a section of an interview for a period of time – 10 / 20 / 50 / 100 years? Is this within the scope of what your project or archive can manage?
- What paperwork do you need before you begin an interview? At a minimum you should have: An interviewee information pack (containing support information if required); a participation agreement (before you can begin recording); and a recording agreement (formerly referred to as a consent / clearance / copyright form signed only after the interview). OHNI have provided sample documentation that you can amend for your own project. Please note, these are offered as a guide to best practice and do not constitute formal legal advice. Please consult a solicitor if you require formal legal advice. OHNI cannot accept liability for any consequences which may result from the use of this information for any purpose.
The following are some key tips to help with the day of the interview itself:
- Before arranging to meet with somebody new have you considered your safety and their safety? It is easy to simply arrange an interview without thinking through the potential risks and responsibilities. If you are interviewing alone, make sure that somebody knows where you are going and when you are likely to return. While unlikely, consider the potential risks and make plans to avoid them. If you are working with vulnerable interviewees consider whether you should have Garda vetting in advance. If you are working in an academic institution you will likely need to gain ethical approval before you can begin, but all interviewers should work on the key ethical principle of ‘do no harm’. Make sure your interviewee is happy with the interview arrangements, is fully informed about the process in advance, and knows how to contact you if they wish to reconsider or withdraw from your project.
- Have you considered where you will conduct your interviews? Where possible and if the interviewee is happy to host you, a person’s home is often where they feel most comfortable and where you can create a quiet space to optimise sound quality. There are many reasons why this might not be the case so always respect the interviewee’s wishes. A neutral, public space – a café, hotel lobby, restaurant – rarely allows for satisfactory sound quality given the level of background noise. However, if the interviewee does not want to invite you into their home and there are no other options it is occasionally necessary. If you ask an interviewee to travel to meet you in a dedicated recording facility instead, then be mindful of expense, travel difficulties and time.
- What information will you include at the start of your recording? Formulate a standard introduction for your interviews that includes your name, the name of your interviewee, the date and a general location for your interview. It is good practice to ask the interviewee to confirm verbally their willingness to participate in your project. Never ask an interviewee to provide their date of birth on a recording or to provide their personal address or contact details. This information is protected under data protection legislation and should not be recorded.
- What questions will you ask during the interview? This depends on what the focus of your interview is, but you should have undertaken enough research about your topic to develop questions that will give you rich, detailed answers. You will usually only have one chance to get the interview right and you want to provide the interviewee the best possible opportunity to tell their story or give an account of their experiences. Before designing questions, think about topics you want to cover, breaking these down to themes, sub-themes and questions. Stick to open-ended, unbiased, and non-leading questions.
- What if the questions you ask inadvertently cause an interviewee to get upset? Emotional reactions are commonplace in oral history interviewing. You need to consider how you will deal with an interviewee who becomes emotional during the interview. It is important to give them time, ask them if they are ok and if they are happy to continue, offer a short break if you think it is appropriate. Be prepared to pause the interview for another day if it seems too much for the interviewee. Carefully consider the risks of causing emotional distress before you begin, you have a duty of care to your interviewees. If you think it is a possibility, have a list of relevant support services included in the project information that is sent to the interviewee in advance and bring a copy with you to refer to or leave behind. You are not a trained counsellor, but you are asking questions that can evoke emotional responses. If you are concerned about an interviewee, ask them if you can call somebody for them and check in later to make sure they are okay.
- How long should an interview last? This depends on the interviewee, the interviewer and the project in question. Be mindful that being interviewed for a long period can be a tiring experience. Make sure the interviewee knows they can stop for a break at any stage and watch for clues that they may be getting tired. Suggest a break if you notice obvious signs of tiredness and suggest resuming after a cup of tea or on another day. If you know in advance that you want to conduct a long (more than a couple of hours) interview, then prepare to record the interview over a number of different days.
- What should you do when the interview ends? Remember to complete any required paperwork, check that you have all the follow up details you need, ask the interviewee to reconsider including issues that you feel might be ethically or legally problematic. Clarify the spelling of any unusual placenames or phrases used. Then have a cup of tea and a general chat if offered. Make sure your interviewee has your contact details before you leave.
After the Interview
It is easy to think that the interview process ends when you complete the recording, however there are a few final steps that are needed to ensure the safety and future use of an interview.
- How will you process your recorded interviews? On return from your interview, upload and back up the recordings to your storage space. Remember that sensitive or confidential recordings should be stored securely. Cloud storage is not a secure option and should not be considered for sensitive or confidential interviews and is best only used as a temporary solution for other interview content. Review the recording to check for sound quality, to identify any legally or ethically problematic content and revert to your interviewee to establish how best to deal with these. Make sure you have all the required information and paperwork completed.
- Will you give the interviewee a copy of their interview? If you can then it is good practice to return a copy of the interview to the interviewee for their own use. This may be dependent on the project and resources. It might also be required if an interviewee has requested an opportunity to review the content before signing over copyright via the recording agreement.
- Do you need to provide full interview transcripts for each interview? Transcription can be a time-consuming and costly process, but it has significant benefits for researchers and future users in terms of being able to skim easily through content and identify sections of an interview of interest. Another option is to provide a time-coded index or log, where a summary of the points being discussed at a time code is provided. This offers less detail but allows future users to identify sections of interest that they can then listen to encouraging use of the actual recording of the interviewee. Voice recognition software is improving but is by no means perfect yet. Be aware that often an online service will require you to upload your interview to their site, this means your interview is no longer secure or confidential.
When we transfer an interview to an archive, store copies of our interviews in online, accessible repositories or use quotes online or in a publication we lose control over how it might be reused. It is important to consider our agreements with interviewees before taking these steps.
- Does what you are planning to do reflect your agreement with your interviewee? You have made a legally and ethically binding agreement with your interviewee. If your next use of the interview is not something you discussed, then you need to return to your interviewee to seek additional permission. Be clear about these agreements when transferring material to an archive so that these can be honoured and read up on permissions and access rights if transferring to an online repository.
- Are you providing sufficient context for the quotes you use? When you take a quote from an interview it loses the context of the surrounding material and the information that you as the interviewer have about the interviewee. It is critical then that you provide sufficient context for your readers / listeners to understand the quote in context. Be careful to avoid misrepresenting the views of your interviewee. Always be mindful of how your interviewee will feel if they happen across this publication.
- Will the publication of this material cause harm to your interviewee or others? Always remember the principle of ‘do no harm’. While it is not possible to fully understand the ways that an interview will be interpreted you can make sure that only content that you are sure is ethically and legally sound is released to the public.
- Have you given sufficient recognition to your interviewee as the source of the information you are using? Where possible give due recognition to your interviewee as the source of knowledge, as you would when taking information from another book or historical record. For historians being able to show where their information came from and for others to revisit this information is vital. When referencing an interview provide as much detail as needed to do this (this could include the repository name, name of the project, interview reference number, interviewees name, date of the interview, name of the interviewer), while honouring any confidentiality agreements you have made. Although some interviewees will choose to stay anonymous you should be careful of forcing anonymity on an interviewee who is willing to be acknowledged.