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Oral History: Principles

General Principles for Oral History

  • Aim: Oral history interviews seek an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections.
  • Consent:  Oral historians insure that narrators voluntarily give their consent to be interviewed and understand that they can withdraw from the interview or refuse to answer a question at any time.
  • Copyright: Interviewees hold the copyright to their interviews until and unless they transfer those rights to an individual or institution. This is done by the interviewee signing a release form to the same effect.
  • Integrity: Interviewers are expected to ask historically significant questions, reflecting careful preparation for the interview and understanding of the issues to be addressed. Interviewers must also respect the narrators’ equal authority in the interviews and honor their right to respond to questions in their own style and language. In the use of interviews, oral historians strive for intellectual honesty avoiding stereotypes, misrepresentations, or manipulations of the narrators’ words.
  • Identification: Because of the importance of context and identity in shaping the content of an oral history narrative, it is the practice in oral history for narrators to be identified by name.
  • Preservation: In choosing a repository, oral historians consider how best to preserve the original recording and to protect the accessibility and usability of the interview.
  • Standards: In keeping with the goal of long term preservation and access, oral historians should follow format standards and use the best recording equipment available within the limits of their financial resources.

Release Forms

Release forms make it clear to the interviewee, without question, how the interviews will be used, minimizing the chances for misunderstanding. In addition to offering some protection, release forms also remind the oral historian that the interviewee grants us the privilege of using something that does not belong to us. There are many versions of releases possible. A release usually includes the interviewee's name and signature, the interviewer's name, the date, a statement of permission to use the interview, the name of the person or institution receiving the permission, and the purposes to which the interview will be put. It is recommended that school projects clear release forms with the school's legal counsel.

Especially if the interviews are to be archived for future use, the interviewers also need to sign releases.