Is Your Oral History Legal and Ethical?

6 Archiving and Storage


Interview transcripts and audio file originals or copies will be of interest to other researchers or investigators, and interviewees are often keen to see their interviews deposited in places where they will be of more general use. In addition it is increasingly the case that funding bodies (such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and government funding bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council and Arts and the Humanities Research Council) expect project materials to be deposited in an archive where others can refer to them at some later date.

Oral history recordings are best preserved by professional custodians, such as archivists, librarians and museum curators, who can care for them and make them available to researchers and others in accordance with any limitations set out in the recording agreement. The Oral History Society strongly supports this and can give advice about suitable local places of deposit (some of which are members of the Society’s Regional Network).

Preparing for deposit

There are a number of steps to be taken and legalities to be aware of if deposit is to be satisfactorily completed.

Accompanying documents

Places of deposit tend to avoid the acquisition of oral history interviews which are not accompanied by documentation including provenance, availability for use, and copyright status, except where there is a realistic prospect that retrospective permission for use can be acquired successfully. For this reason interviewers and projects should ensure that all possible steps have been taken to contact interviewees or their heirs in order to obtain written statements concerning copyright and access at the interview or as soon as possible afterwards. As time passes it becomes difficult or impossible to contact interviewees and, without a signed recording agreement, publication or other beneficial uses may not be possible.

Information on copyright ownership and other restrictions and conditions should be recorded in writing, preserved and observed. All transfers of interview recordings and related material from individuals or others also needs to be recorded.

Data Protection law

Oral history interviewers and custodians should be aware of the Data Protection Act. In practice the Act should not be a problem for interviewing and keeping recordings of interviews for research, as long as interviews and transcripts are covered by recording agreements which provide details of the intended dissemination of the contents of the interviews. Third parties, such as people referred to or named in a recording, have the right to access that information (only) unless the recording is closed (reserved) in which case the duty of confidentiality to the interviewer who has requested that closure prevails. In these cases third parties may be told that such information exists without divulging its content.

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Freedom of Information law

Publicly-funded organisations and places of deposit should also be aware of Freedom of Information legislation. Most information held by such bodies has to be made available to anyone who requests it in writing, though there are exemptions to public access, such as in cases where disclosure would be a breach of confidence.

As a general rule places of deposit should ensure that names and personal details of interviewees are not passed on to third parties (for example broadcasters) without the consent of interviewees. Institutions should not become involved in any business arrangements which may result from such contacts.

The Society’s Media Guidelines, (PDF – 33Kb), have been written to assist oral historians and archivists when dealing with media requests.

Places of deposit should decide whether to charge for services relating to oral history materials in their care. Where charges are applied, there should be a standard scale of charges for all users.

Web access: online repositories and ‘cloud’ storage

All the above steps and legalities should be followed when recordings or transcripts are to be deposited or made available onsite. Additionally for web access, interviewers, project managers and custodians of archives should always inform or consult interviewees if their words are to be published, broadcast or placed on the internet or in online repositories unless the recording agreement says otherwise.

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.

Interviews placed on the internet should always be accompanied by terms and conditions for use. This will ensure that anyone making use of them will be aware of what they are allowed to do with them. Normal copyright conditions and exceptions apply to online deposits.

If oral history material is being stored in the internet ‘cloud’, you are urged to read the terms and conditions of storage. Some companies providing this type of storage claim some rights in the material they stores, which could have implications for both copyright and access restrictions.

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Since this advice was written GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) has come into effect in the UK and EU. This has changed some of the advice below and references to Data Protection are now out of date. The OHS is in the process of updating this advice but in the meantime it is important that you supplement it with our new GDPR guidance. November 2018