Frequently asked questions

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 contact us. We may choose to answer you directly but may also print your question and our response here on this page for others to see.

Media and technology

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.

An encrypted recording device is not necessary if the recording is immediately moved to an encrypted laptop or pc and then wiped from the recorder. If however the intention is to send the device/recording by post to a third party for onward processing, or the subject is particularly sensitive, then you might want to consider additional controls, but it really has to be context-dependent.

Encryption can result in a trade off in quality, but also the archival intention to make the recordings public. The requirement for all data processing is to put in place adequate security measures taking into account the sensitivity of the data, the cost of controls, and the ‘state of the art’ of technology – e.g. a balancing exercise – which is what the DPIA process is meant to assess and document.

Most digital audio recorders are capable of being powered by mains electricity via a mains cable to a wall socket, or through on-board batteries or rechargeable batteries. Mains has the advantage of reliability (at no cost) but the disadvantage that you need to sit near a power socket and can sometimes pick up a buzz or hum on the recording (and occasionally breakthrough from passing taxis!). Batteries give you freedom of movement but are expensive. Rechargeable batteries will not work with every recorder and are a hassle to recharge all the time. So It is worth considering using an external battery bank or ‘power bank’ (costing c.£25-£35, Anker is a good make) as an alternative to mains or battery power.  You can power the recorder from the battery bank, so there is no chance that the recording will be affected by any mains buzz, and AA batteries placed in the machine can be used as a back-up. Power banks usually attach to the recorder via a USB port.  Some older recording machines do not have a USB connector (such as the Zoom H4N Pro).  For the Zoom H4N Pro you need a 5v USB Power Cable (4mm x 1.7mm on the pin, central polarity positive). To ensure that the battery bank is powering the machine when recording, you need to check that the battery bank power lights are on and that the machine display does not indicate that the machine is not being battery powered (you might need to set your recorder accordingly: check the manual). [July 2020]

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

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.

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: and 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: 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

Legal and ethical

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 agreement 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, and content sensitivity-checking should be carried our beforehand in order to be compliant with GDPR and avoid publishing anything which might cause damage and distress to any living individuals.

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 also paramount.

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. This is what occurred in the infamous Boston College case (see further reading). 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.

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: 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 and ensure they have a safeguarding policy in place.

It’s perhaps best to assume that every interview should be treated as confidential until it has 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 interview files, both recordings and transcripts should be kept in a secure place. Most oral history projects use a volunteer agreement(PDF – 37Kb) which sets out expectations relating to confidentiality and disclosure. NCVO has further useful guidance on working with volunteers.

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.

No. There are many, very tightly defined, exceptions in relation to copyright. The most commonly available ones are use for:

  • private study or non-commercial research;
  • criticism or review (published works only); and
  • current news reporting (not with photographs).

These three sets of exceptions are called ‘fair dealing’. In order for a qualifying use to satisfy the exception it must also be fair to the copyright owner, by not interfering with their ‘normal exploitation’ of the work and by not unreasonably prejudicing their legitimate interests. This means that you cannot normally, for instance, copy an entire work. You must also acknowledge the author and the work.

Other exceptions that might apply to oral history material are:

  • copying by libraries and archives for preservation purposes (not for films and sound recordings, though most rights owners accept that such copying is for the best of intentions and does not damage their interests);
  • copying for researchers by libraries and archives of literary works for private study or non-commercial research;
  • copying for an examination (for instance to set the questions or to use in a thesis).

Relatively few exceptions apply to films and sound recordings, so permission for use of them is for the most part required. Most uses of any kinds of work on the internet require permission, which is not surprising given the ease with which almost perfect copies can be distributed around the world by those means.

Legally the document should stand but as there is no ‘cooling off’ period that is generally offered to an interviewee within which to change their minds, most projects and archives take the view that interviewees can replace their initial agreement with a new one which better accords with their new requirements. The original agreement would then be destroyed and all the documentation updated to reflect any revised conditions.

Yes, for instance when two people create a work together and their individual contributions are indistinguishable, or when copyrights are bequeathed to all of a rights owner’s children. Project partners, for example two organisations, can also share copyright equally, though this is best governed by a separate heads of agreement before the project starts.

Each individual participant (or, if appropriate, the employer in the case of copyright) owns the copyright, moral rights and performer’s rights in anything substantial he or she said if the speakers are individually identifiable. If individuals are not identifiable the participants will own the rights jointly. They can each sign an individual recording agreement, or they can all sign one recording agreement provided they all agree to the wording.

The statute specifies that an assignment (assignation in Scotland) must be written and signed, but all of the usual rules around reasonable adjustments for disability apply, so alternative methods of indicating and recording ethical agreement for those unable to write are encouraged. One way of doing this is to record the wording from the form orally, together with the individual’s oral agreement to that, as part of the audio interview. This weds their legal and ethical participation to the output of the activity.

Provision was made in the 1988 Copyright Act (and later amendments) for the continuation of copyrights which were in existence before the Act came into force on 1 August 1989. The current restricted acts and the exceptions and limitations to the rights of copyright owners apply to earlier works. However, older oral history recordings are likely to lack supporting documentation, especially recording agreements. It is therefore recommended that:

  • access for non-commercial research to older recordings should be unrestricted unless some agreement to the contrary is known to be in existence;
  • in the absence of an existing agreement, as far as reasonably possible, permission should be sought from interviewees or their relatives if a substantial extract from an older interview is to be published or disseminated;
  • in the absence of an existing agreement, where interviewees have since died, or attempts to contact them or their relatives have failed, their recorded speech and written transcriptions should only be used without permission for anything other than non-commercial research after careful consideration. This risk assessment should consider the application of any other exception to copyright, any likely damage to the interests of the interviewee and other parties and the risk of an action for copyright infringement or (for instance) for breach of confidence.

The 1988 Copyright Act gave oral history interviewees the right to be named as the ‘authors’ of their recorded words if they are published or broadcast; and publishers and broadcasters are obliged not to subject their words to ‘derogatory treatment’ by, for example, editing, adapting or making alterations which create a false impression. These rights are retained by interviewees whoever owns the copyright. They cannot be assigned to someone else and so belong to the speaker and his or her heirs until the copyright expires, though they can be waived. The right to be named needs to be ‘asserted’ (in other words stated formally, preferably in writing) by the interviewee in order to have legal force. However, except in cases where interviewees have asked not to be identified, it is recommended that interviewers and custodians should ensure that interviewees are credited whenever their words are made public.

Yes, there are various remaining grounds for objection. For example an interviewee can object and could take legal action if his or her moral rights are infringed (see above), or if confidential or libellous statements are made public. If a living interviewee has any significant objection to the use of his or her words, even if there is no potential legal infringement, custodians are best advised to consider the risks of going ahead and to explore other options.

Legal objections can be raised by third parties under the Data Protection Act (and GDPR), if interviews contain confidential or defamatory information relating to them which they can show have led to ‘substantial damage and distress’. Even in the absence of legal grounds, custodians wishing to follow best practice should give careful and sympathetic consideration to such objections.

In a typical case both the institution and the funding body will have contributed significant resources to the interview programme. In some circumstances its contribution might give the funding body a share in the copyright ownership. The funding body could only claim an automatic right to exclusive ownership of the copyright in the recordings (but not in the words recorded) if it provided all the resources and made all the arrangements. A grant should always be accompanied by a detailed written agreement, negotiated in advance, and the terms of this should specify the ownership of copyrights (whether given to one party or shared) and the permissions granted to the parties.

Assuming they have been recruited and managed by an organisation or project which has made arrangements for the interviews to be carried out, then the organisation or project owns the recording copyright in the interviews. It is advisable to include reference to this in employment and volunteer contracts.

In the case of the technical staff, none. In any case, where recordings are undertaken on this scale, the recording crew are likely to be employees. Their employer will own the rights in the recording produced.

Training and volunteering

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 Opportunities pages of this website for more details.

Check out the Courses we have to offer, particularly the ‘Introduction to Oral History’ courses.

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