Ethical Conduct of Oral Histories

The Oral History Association maintains a statement of Best Practices addressing both the ethical principles and the practical steps involved in planning and conducting a well-designed oral history project.  Examples of these “principled practices” include:

  • “Oral historians inform narrators about the nature and purpose of oral history interviewing in general and of their interview specifically.”
  • “Oral historians insure that narrators voluntarily give their consent to be interviewed and understand that they can withdraw from the interview or refuse to answer a question at any time.”
  • “Interviewers are obliged to ask historically significant questions, reflecting careful preparation for the interview and understanding of the issues to be addressed.”
  • “Interviewees hold the copyright to their interviews until and unless they transfer those rights to an individual or institution….Interviewers must insure that narrators understand the extent of their rights to the interview and the request that those rights be yielded to a repository or other party, as well as their right to put restrictions on the use of the material. All use and dissemination of the interview content must follow any restrictions the narrator places upon it.”
  • “Interviewers must respect the rights of interviewees to refuse to discuss certain subjects, to restrict access to the interview, or, under certain circumstances, to choose anonymity. Interviewers should clearly explain these options to all interviewees.”
  • “In the use of interviews, oral historians strive for intellectual honesty and the best application of the skills of their discipline, while avoiding stereotypes, misrepresentations, or manipulations of the narrators’ words.”

The ethical principles governing oral histories have much in common with those governing inquiries overseen by an institutional review board (IRB).  For example, both kinds of inquiries uphold the principle of respect for persons and require the informed consent of participants.  However, there are differences between the two kinds of inquiries as well, resulting in differences in the application of ethical principles and oversight of project ethics.  Drawing on both the OHA Best Practices statement and the Belmont Report on Ethical Principles for the Protection of Human Subjects, the St. Olaf Department of History has collaborated with the St. Olaf Institutional Review Board to prepare several forms for planning and conducting an ethical oral history project.

The St. Olaf IRB does not review student or employee oral history projects, although members of the IRB are available to confer with any oral history interviewer or project supervisor.  Student oral history projects must be reviewed and approved by the student’s faculty supervisor prior to the student’s recruitment of prospective narrators.  The Oral History Project Plan for student projects explains the planning and review process in more detail.