Is Your Oral History Legal and Ethical?

3 First Approach

Preparing an interviewee with an explanation of what is involved is an important part of the process of preparing for an interview.

Explaining the interview

First contact with an interviewee may be face-to-face, by phone, by email or letter. Whatever the approach it is important to ensure that right from the start people have information about the purpose and nature of the project or research, and what consenting to take part will mean. Interviewees should be provided with a copy of the project information sheet, and it is important to ensure that he or she has understood this.

An oral history interview is a relationship between two people who will each have views and hopes for its outcomes and future use. This means that it is important that both parties are aware that it is unethical, and in many cases illegal, to use interviews without the informed consent of the interviewee, in which the nature of the use or uses of their recording is clear and explicit.

Agreement to take part

An Interview Participation Agreement should be completed before the interview begins which includes information about the aims and objectives of the project, what personal data will be collected, where it will be stored, how it will be used and the legal basis for its use, and how the interviewee can contact the project to access their data. If any of the data will be stored outside the UK at any time (including, for example, future cloud storage) interviewees need to be informed about this as well. Where the organisation has a privacy and data storage policy this should be referred to in this document. The Oral History Society’s Privacy and Data Storage Policy is here. The British Library’s is here.

An Interview Recording Agreement which covers copyright and access conditions should be completed after the interview has been finished. The form, which should be completed and signed face-to-face at the conclusion of the interview (see 4.4 below) but which should be shown to and explained to an interviewee before any recording begins, is crucial as it provides interviewees with the opportunity to restrict or embargo all or part of the interview for a period of time. It also provides interviewers with the opportunity to recommend closures or redactions of parts of the interview which might be libellous or contain ‘sensitive personal data’ about third parties mentioned in the recording, so as to prevent ‘substantial damage or distress’ (see below). And it also clarifies copyright assignment.

Without a signed Recording Agreement contacting people at a later date is usually very time-consuming and often impossible if interviewees or interviewers have died or moved away. Where agreement to participate has not been given or access conditions are unclear, interviews cannot be used for many purposes and the value of keeping them is much reduced. The need for a signed Recording Agreement should be clearly referred to in the project information sheet and/or in a letter of approach.

The Recording Agreement also sets out rights and responsibilities with respect to the copyright ownership of the interview. Both interviewer and interviewee have copyrights in the recording (see ‘AFTER THE INTERVIEW’ below).

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Where the interview takes place

Interviewers should check with the interviewee what their preferences are as to where and when interview should be conducted. For example will another person be present (this is not usually necessary), and what broad subjects will be covered? It is best to find a quiet and undisturbed location for an interview, usually the interviewee’s home, though sometimes they may prefer another place.

Interviewing at a distance

If the interview is to be recorded by telephone or by Skype there are additional legal and ethical considerations which will need to be observed.

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