Oral Histories

The St. Olaf IRB does not review student or employee oral history projects, but the IRB collaborated with the Department of History to provide resources for conducting an ethical oral history project. Student oral history projects must be reviewed and approved by the student’s faculty supervisor prior to the student’s recruitment of prospective narrators.

What is an Oral History?

According to the national Oral History Association (OHA), “Oral history refers both to a method of recording and preserving oral testimony and to the product of that process. It begins with an audio or video recording of a first person account made by an interviewer with an interviewee (also referred to as narrator), both of whom have the conscious intention of creating a permanent record to contribute to an understanding of the past. A verbal document, the oral history, results from this process and is preserved and made available in different forms to other users, researchers, and the public.”

While oral historians, like some social scientists, gather information through interviews, the OHA notes that “oral history is distinguished from other forms of interviews by its content and extent. Oral history interviews seek an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections, with sufficient time allowed for the narrators to give their story the fullness they desire. The content of oral history interviews is grounded in reflections on the past as opposed to commentary on purely contemporary events.”  Unlike the inquiries overseen by the St. Olaf Institutional Review Board, oral histories do not aggregate information from multiple interviews, seek to generalize to a larger population, or test hypotheses. Rather, they are intended to generate reflections and insights on the past.

If you are not sure if the project you have planned is an Oral History, you should consult with a member of the IRB and/or your supervisor.

Preparing to Conduct an Oral History

Drawing on both the Oral History Association’s Best Practices statement and the Belmont Report on Ethical Principles for the Protection of Human Subjects, the St. Olaf Department of History and Institutional Review Board prepared the following forms for planning and conducting an ethical project.

Oral History Project Plan

This form addresses all the major elements of an oral history project.  The completed form is reviewed by the student’s faculty supervisor (typically, the student’s instructor) before the student contacts a prospective narrator to request an interview.

Oral History Project Information and Consent form for student projects

This form includes references to the responsibilities of the instructor/project supervisor as well as the responsibilities of the student interviewer.

Oral History Project Information and Consent form for faculty/staff projects

This form provides a template for securing the informed consent of the narrator and specifying the responsibilities of the interviewer.

Video/Photo Permission Form

If an oral history involves videos or photos that include the narrator and that will be shared publicly as part of the project, the interviewer must prepare a video/photo permission form for the narrator’s signature.

Audio Recording Permission Form
If an oral history involves audio recordings that include the narrator and that will be shared publicly as part of the project, the interviewer must prepare an audio recording permission form for the narrator’s signature.