Is your oral history legal and ethical?

If you are recording and preserving someone’s life story, you need to be trustworthy.  Interviewees need to have confidence that the recordings will be used within a legal and ethical framework which protects them. So please read the following guidelines carefully and do everything you can to follow them.

Who is this guidance for?

and why is it important?

We all need to be aware of the law

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 law (which is harmonised with EU law and will remain so post-Brexit). 

It is essential that interviewees should have confidence and trust in interviewers, and that recordings should be available for research and other uses 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 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.

Being legal is not enough

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.


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.

Copyright statement

This document is © Oral History Society, 2019. It replaces three previous documents entitled ‘Is your oral history legal and ethical?’ by Rob Perks and Joanna Bornat (2012), by Alan Ward (2003), and the earlier ‘Oral History Society Ethical Guidelines’. It benefits from additional advice on copyright from Tim Padfield of The National Archives. In 2012 Rob Perks and Joanna Bornat extensively redrafted and rewrote the document with support from members of the Oral History Society (OHS) committee, in particular Beth Thomas and Alan Ward. Since then participants at numerous OHS conferences, workshops and events have contributed invaluable comment and feedback from their own experience of using this advice.

The copyright owner will allow all forms of copying, downloading and quotation on condition that the Oral History Society is acknowledged as the source.

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