Below, is a list of FAQs submitted to the Oral History Society over the years. If you would like to ask an Oral History-related question, please get in touch using our Contact page. We may choose to answer you directly but may also print your question and our response here on this page for others to see.

Legal and Ethical


This guide is intended as no more than guidance and does not constitute formal legal advice. If you need legal advice you should consult a solicitor.

While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and currency of the information brought together here from a wide variety of sources and experience, neither the authors nor the Oral History Society can accept liability for any consequences which may result from the use of this information for any purpose.

Is it OK to put interview material on the internet?

Only interview material for which permission has been given may be uploaded onto the internet. This means that Recording Agreements should stipulate what may or may not happen to interviews, allowing interviewees or their successors to restrict how material may be used. For digitisation projects involving online web access to oral history interviews, as far as possible interviewees should be re-contacted to confirm their consent to this kind of access. Although this might not always be a legal requirement where copyright has been assigned and there are no access restrictions, the Society nonetheless regards this as good ethical practice. Interviewees should also be made aware of the website’s take-down policy.

Joanna Bornat

Is it worth keeping an interview if I think the contents are libellous or insulting or very personal or sensitive?

Yes. The first thing to do is ensure that any use of or access to the interview is clearly covered by a Recording Agreement whereby the interviewer and interviewee may decide that they wish to close access to all or part of the recording to avoid possible legal action and/or protect someone named in the interview, including the interviewee themselves. Secure storage of the interview is paramount. The normal way to close access is to redact (remove) the offending part of the original interview by muting (rather than deleting) that part of the audio track and creating a redacted playback/access copy. The original is retained uncut and closed to access but an access copy is created which retains the time-codes of the original. It is important to annotate the mute in the content documentation and catalogue record so that the gap is understood by users, and it can also be documented in the Recording Agreement with the time-codes of the redacted section and a date when the full recording will become open again.


Is there indemnity insurance for oral historians?

The Oral History Society strongly advises all freelance and self-employed oral historians to take out indemnity insurance to protect them at work. The society has teamed up with Bluefin Insurance Group to offer a special rate to members for both professional indemnity and public liability insurance. Click here for more information.


Should interviewers visiting vulnerable people in their own homes be subject to a criminal records check?

Some local authorities, charities and other organisations have insisted that criminal record checks of new employees and volunteers visiting vulnerable people be carried out. In the past this has been done through the Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) which was meant to prevent unsuitable people working with vulnerable groups such as children and older and disabled people. CRB was replaced in June 2013 by a new Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), details here: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/disclosure-and-barring-service. The Oral History Society does not regard a criminal record check as an automatic requirement to undertake oral history interviews and recommends that projects follow previous practice.

Joanna Bornat

We are a small community organisation without any institutional support. How can we insure our oral history collection?

Firstly. you can minimise the risks by keeping copies of all your interviews and associated documentation in a separate location from your originals. There are some insurers who may consider insuring archives and artefacts such as recorded interviews, and these are listed below. Inclusion here does not constitute a recommendation. Before contacting them, you need to consider how you value your archives for these purposes, e.g. how much it would cost to make new copies of them, or to restore the documents that relate to them. There is an article on this subject, ‘Valuing Archives for Insurance’ by Lieselotte Clark, in Business Archives Principles and Practice, No.75 (May 1998).

Hiscox Insurance: 25 London Road, Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10 1PE; tel. 0870 084 3777 (8am – 6pm Monday to Friday); email customerservices@hiscox.com; or request a quote at http://www.hiscox.com/.

Stamp Insurance Services, CGI Services Ltd, 29 Bowhay Lane, Exeter EX4 1PE, 01392 433949.

Cynthia Brown

What happens in cases when an interviewee repeatedly fails to sign a recording agreement? Where an institution has paid for the recording to be made, what kinds of access are possible?

This situation can often be avoided if interviewers always obtained clearance at the time of the interview, as is recommended. However, ‘fair dealing’ access for the purposes of non-commercial research will be permissible even without a form (see next FAQ), subject to data protection restrictions. At the very least the interviewer or custodian should establish beyond reasonable doubt that the interview does not contain confidential or defamatory material. If clearance for more extensive uses, such as publication or inclusion on a website, is not available for whatever reason, such uses are not permissible.

Joanna Bornat

What should I do if the police want access to interviews in my collection?

A person or organisation in possession of information relating to criminal activities is legally obliged to disclose it to the police, if legal proceedings or investigations are under way in connection with those activities. There is no legal obligation to disclose information if no investigation is in progress and there has been no approach from the police, but deliberately evading questioning by the police or being evasive or untruthful when questioned may result in you being charged with perverting the course of justice. In the course of investigations the police may obtain a court order obliging interviewers and custodians to disclose the content of interviews, thus overriding any confidentiality agreements made with interviewees. Courts may similarly require interviewers or others to give evidence based on the content of interviews.

Interviewees who are likely to provide information about criminal activities should be made aware that this may have to be disclosed to investigating police, even if access for everyone else has been restricted.

Joanna Bornat

When should an interview be treated as confidential?

It’s perhaps best to assume that every interview should be treated as confidential until they have been deposited in an archive with documentation which states how it may be used. Assuming an interview is confidential means also making sure that anyone else involved is also aware of this. Transcribers should be aware that they also have duties of confidentiality which mean that an interview transcript should not be shared within anyone apart from the interviewer or other project member and that all interviews files, both recordings and transcripts should be kept in a secure place.
Most oral history projects use a volunteer agreement which sets out expectations relating to confidentiality and disclosure.

Joanna Bornat

Who is this guidance for?

This guide is for people who record oral history interviews, and organisations and individuals who keep collections of oral history recordings in the four nations of the United Kingdom. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland comprise the UK and amongst them have three legal systems. However so far as the law is referred to in this document it is safe to assume that all come within the wider context of UK and European law. The Oral History Society promotes the use of oral history techniques to record the memories of those whose life stories would otherwise be lost to future generations, and encourages researchers and teachers to make use of oral history in their work.

It is essential that interviewees should have confidence and trust in interviewers, and that recordings should be available for research and other use within a legal and ethical framework which protects the interests of interviewees. The following information and guidelines are aimed at ensuring that these objectives are achieved.

Anyone involved with the creation and preservation of oral history interviews should take steps to safeguard their reputation for trustworthiness. This means ensuring that what they do is within the various UK and European laws that apply to oral history and that they have not been acting illegally. Oral historians generally speaking have a good reputation in this respect. This guidance is therefore offered as reassurance and advice to both interviewers and interviewees.

The Oral History Society believes that, while oral history work must comply with the law, legal requirements alone do not provide an adequate framework for good practice. No UK law was designed specifically to regulate oral history work; in fact no law even mentions it. Beyond legal considerations we have long held the view that oral historians should abide by a voluntary set of ethical guidelines.

For these reasons this guide covers responsibilities and obligations beyond legal requirements. Members of the Oral History Society, including those who are custodians, archivists and librarians, have agreed to abide by these guidelines.

The guidance reflects the workflow of a typical oral history interview. Much of the legal and technical detail is available not within the main guidance text but via hypertext links so that the key steps and terms can be understood and followed. There are also links to sample documents and resources.

Media and Technology

Can you suggest any audio editing software which is fairly straightforward for me to download?

For an excellent, easy to use and powerful audio editing application, you may wish to consider ‘Audacity’. You will find further information about the many features available plus links to downloading this software on their website, which can be found at the link below.

More details can be found on the Audacity website.

What should I do if I have interviews that people working in the media want to access?

An OHS media working group has prepared guidelines for working with media enquiries. View this document at the link below.

More details can be found by clicking here.

Michelle Winslow

Where can I find information about caring for CDs and DVDs?

There is an online publication about caring for CDs and DVDs at the link below, produced by the National Preservation Office, British Library. Free printed copies are available on request.

More details can be found by clicking here.

Michelle Winslow

Why don’t I simply record my oral history interview on my smartphone?

The British Library and Oral History Society does not recommend recording oral history interviews on a smartphone or mobile device for the following reasons:

Most smartphones and tablets can record audio, but they were not designed for this purpose. Most phones only record severely compressed audio, keeping as little as 1/20th of the original data, so the audio quality will be variable and the battery life and storage capacity may limit the amount of high-quality audio that can be recorded at any one time. The internal microphones are not positioned to capture audio from a 1:1 interview, therefore the balance and capture of audio is not ideal. Even if it is possible, recording an interview of any length in an archival format (such as a wav file at 16bit/44.1kHz) will require a significant amount of data storage, or will need to be recorded at a non-archival poorer quality in order to record at length.

Data security and confidentiality
We take our smartphones everywhere and they are therefore items very easily lost or stolen. Interviews stored on phones are therefore vulnerable to being lost entirely or they might be hacked and confidential data stolen from the phone.

Data file formats
Unless a special application is downloaded the default file format in which the audio is recorded will often be low resolution and/or be in a proprietary format which will be difficult to access in the future. Even what appears to be a standard wave file might include proprietary elements. It is also difficult to move audio files around securely, for example by applying checksum software to ensure data integrity. Some apps will only allow transfer of files to the internet (such as SoundCloud) which has obvious security risks.

In order to improve the audio quality from a smartphone or tablet it will be necessary to download a suitable application and buy a good quality microphone, plus perhaps a pre-amplifier, and in some cases increase storage capacity. You will also need a tripod to get the device off a surface and avoid handling noise. It may simply prove cheaper to buy a mid-range recorder, rather than these add-ons – which are likely to be tied to a particular make and model of smartphone, and not work with an upgrade. See Doug Boyd’s useful posts about microphones for iPhones: http://digitalomnium.com/ios-and-iphone-recording-for-oral-history/ and http://digitalomnium.com/ios-recording-rode-ixy-l/. At September 2017 prices the Rode i-XLR interface which turns an iPhone into a digital recorder cost £130 plus over £100 for a mike, whilst a Zoom H5 digital recorder (with in-built mikes) is £250.

A stand-alone audio recorder will need to be updated periodically, but probably with far less frequency than a phone or other mobile device, so will give more years of service than a smartphone with extra purchased add-on kit. Apps and operating systems need regular updates and over time become incompatible and/or unsupported.

If, after all of these considerations, a person does wish to record on their smartphone or tablet, we suggest following the sensible tips outlined here: http://oralhistorycentre.ca/introduction-recording-interviews-ios-devices-smartphones-and-tablets. These tips cover:
-how to adjust the smartphone settings to ensure the recording is not interrupted by phone calls, notifications or messages
-how to assess the battery life and storage capacity required to record an interview
-how to source the best recording app for the make and model of smartphone
-whether an external microphone is needed to enhance the recording
-how to export the audio files to another device or application

Training and Volunteering

How can I become a volunteer with an oral history project?

The Oral History Society website has a section for volunteer recruitment. If you are seeking a voluntary position or would like to advertise for volunteers, please go to the volunteer pages of this website for more details.

Michelle Winslow

Where can I get some basic training in oral history?

Visit our Training section, particularly the ‘Introduction to Oral History’ courses.

Graham Smith