Are you legal and ethical?


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. 

Archiving and long term storage

in places of deposit such as archives, libraries, museums and university departments

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 National Lottery Heritage 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

copyright status needs to be known

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, as explained earlier, 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 and Freedom of Information

be aware of how they affect oral historians

Data Protection law

Oral history interviewers and custodians should be aware of GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation, May 2018) and the 2018 Data Protection Act and the OHS provides detailed guidance about these here. Many of the ethical and legal practices contained in this advice already routinely used by oral historians, and those holding and providing public access to oral history data, ensure that they are largely compliant with the new data protection regulations. However some changes and additional actions need to be taken, especially around the definition and documentation of ‘informed consent’ and a need for greater vigilance around reviewing data prior to public access to oral history interviews (both onsite and online).

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 by publicly-funded bodies the Public Sector Information Regulations (PSI, 2015) require that 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 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. Furthermore under GDPR it is now necessary to exercise due diligence by sensitivity-checking interviews prior to online publication to ensure that nothing is published which might ‘substantially damage or distress’ anyone mentioned in the interview.

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 and how they should acknowledge and cite 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 store, which could have implications for both copyright and access restrictions. Others operate outside UK/EU legal jurisdictions.

Website takedown policies

Many organisations have clearly stated notice and takedown policies for their websites, which sets out a complaints procedure where an individual objects to website content. Some examples are:

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