Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

Legal and Ethical Issues: First Things First

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3. Legal and Ethical Issues: First Things First

Who owns your words?

You do. And your narrator or interviewee - the person you interview - owns his or her own words, too.

Why does it matter?

The content of an oral history interview is an original document created by two people: the interviewer and the narrator. As such, it is subject to copyright law and may not be used unless both people give their permission. When spoken words are recorded in tangible form, they are protected by copyright, and copyright belongs to the speaker of those words.

How do I get permission to use an interview?

Organizations that sponsor oral history projects want the materials their projects generate to be as useable as possible. Consequently, they ask the narrator and interviewer to sign a release form giving the sponsoring organization their copyright interest and, thus, their permission to use the interview information for publication, public programming or other public dissemination. Without this agreement, interview participants would retain their copyrights, and anyone who wanted to use the materials would have to obtain individual permission from each interview participant.

Individuals and family historians who want to conduct one or more oral history interviews should consider donating their materials to a local library, museum or other historical organization, too. Family history can yield interesting and important insights into the history of a particular time and place, which can be useful to present and future historians. Therefore, these interviewers should also use release forms for their interviews.

I realize this primer can't provide legal advice, but what legal and ethical issues should I know about?

Guidelines published by the Oral History Association, the national professional organization of oral history practitioners, outline legal and ethical standards for oral historians to follow, whether they plan one interview or many. Here is a brief summary of those guidelines:

  • Narrators must be informed in detail about the purposes of the interview or project and what you plan to do with the materials it generates. Be especially aware of ethical considerations associated with putting interviews on Websites or creating commercial products based on oral history interviews.

  • Interviewers and narrators must sign a legal release form as soon as the interview is completed. It need not be long or complex, but it should indicate clearly final ownership of the materials, transfer of copyright, and expected uses of the materials. It should say specifically whether the interviewer and narrator give their permission to use their words on the World Wide Web. It also should include any restrictions the narrator wants to place on use of the materials.

  • Interviewers should be well trained. They need to conduct background research so they can conduct an informed interview, not just ask superficial questions. Well-trained interviewers can gather new information of lasting value; poorly trained ones cannot.

  • Interviewers are expected to provide thorough documentation of how they prepared for the interview and a description of the circumstances of the interview. Future users of the oral history materials will want to know the context in which the interview took place.

  • If your oral history work brings rewards and public recognition, they should be shared with the narrators.

  • Whatever organization or person owns the interviews should be committed to maintaining the highest professional and ethical standards for preserving and using the oral history interviews.

But I just want to interview my Grandma about her childhood. Does all this legal and ethical stuff apply to me, too?

Yes. No matter how close or casual an interviewer's relationship to the narrator, their rights relating to their spoken words and their understanding and wishes for the resulting recording must be respected. The legal and ethical parameters laid out by oral historians assure this respect.

Where can I get more information about legal and ethical issues in oral history?

Detailed information about legal and ethical issues is available in the Oral History Association's publications, Oral History and the Law and Oral History Evaluation Guidelines, (Carlisle, Pa.: Oral History Association, 2002).

4. Planning: The Key to Successful Oral History

Whether you want to conduct one or two interviews with family members or dozens of interviews for a community or organization, take some time to think through what you want to accomplish.
Even small projects can grow, so don't rush out with your recorder. Think it through first. It will pay off in the end.

Here are some questions to ask yourself at the very beginning:

What am I trying to accomplish?

Why do you want to do an oral history interview - or a big project with many interviews? The answer usually involves your belief that an individual or a group of people has a lot of firsthand knowledge about something that hasn't ever been written down. Your desire to record this information for posterity may well drive your motivations.

How can I make sure I don't lose sight of what I'm trying to accomplish?

Give your project a name and write a simple mission statement. A mission statement defines and focuses an oral history project. It provides a tool to keep the project manageable and the interviews on target.

Mission statements generally cover. . .

  • The topics or purpose of the interviews;

  • The study area, if the project is limited to a specific geographic location;

  • The time period to be covered;

  • The scope of the work;

  • What will become of the interviews after you are done;

  • The importance of conducting work to the standards of the Oral History Association, the national professional organization of oral history practitioners.

Here's an example:

The Ace School Oral History Project will be conducted by the Douglas County Historical Society during the summer and fall of 2005. It will cover the school's closing in 2004 due to consolidation. The focus will be on the stories of students, teachers, administrators, service personnel, community leaders and school board members. The project has a goal of 20 fully-processed interviews. Interview materials will become part of the collections of the Douglas County Historical Society. The project will follow the standards of the Oral History Association.

Who is going to do the work?

Oral history projects succeed when volunteer or paid leaders take responsibility for them.

Project directors should be able to. . .

  • Make the necessary time commitment;

  • Understand the purpose of the project and keep it focused on that purpose;

  • Represent the project to the public;

  • Help with fund raising, finding equipment, and other project needs.

Where will we put our interviews when we're through?

Oral history projects generate recordings, transcripts, and record-keeping materials. They also can bring to light photographs, letters, diaries, artifacts and other materials that narrators may want to donate with the interviews.

Finding a repository for the results of your interviews is an important planning step. Institutions such as libraries, archives, museums, and other historical organizations can properly house the interviews and other materials, and see that they are useable to future researchers.

How should I go about finding a repository?

Here are some guidelines to help you identify and work with a repository:

  • Look for a repository whose collecting mission includes the kind of information your interviews will collect.

  • Make sure it has long-term researcher-access policies that match your needs and interests.

  • Contact the repository as soon as possible before you do any interviews.

  • Don't assume the repository automatically will take your project materials; if it can't, ask for references for other places that might be interested.

  • If the repository agrees to take your interviews, it may already have a release form for you and your narrators to sign, transferring full ownership, including copyright, of all interview materials to the repository. If the repository does not have such forms already, you can develop them together.

How can I get advice along the way as I get ready to do oral history interviews?

Selecting an advisory board is a useful option.

Although you probably don't need an advisory board for one- or two-family interviews, much oral history work can benefit from a board. Advisory board members should be people who can help with topical background information, selection of narrators, finding a repository, representing the project to the community, and finding support as needed.

An advisory board need not be large and it need not meet regularly, if at all. Its members should agree to have their names listed in all project materials and to help the project with specific tasks when asked.

How long will all this take?

It all depends. That's why it makes sense to think this through before you start. Oral history projects can tend to take on a life of their own -- each interview may suggest others to conduct. The more interviews you do, the longer it will take. The more help you have, the more efficiently the work can get done.

Many experienced oral historians say it makes more sense to do a handful of interviews well rather than aim to interview dozens - or hundreds - of people if you can't be sure you have the resources to support a huge project.

Be realistic when you think about how long you are willing to work on your oral history efforts and how many interviews you can collect. Both decisions help keep the project focused and on track. A mission statement can reflect this project scope and time frame.

How can I keep track of what I'm doing?

All oral history projects, whether individual family interviews or multi-interview projects, need standard record-keeping forms. This list briefly describes forms you will need. Click on each one to see an example.

  • Release Form. This is a legal document that covers copyright interests and restrictions of all interview participants.

  • Biographical Information Form. This provides background on the narrator and should be kept with the interview records.

  • Interview Information Form. This provides information about the interview itself and is the first step in processing.

  • Potential Narrator Information Form. This helps follow leads and keep track of names of possible project narrators.

  • Interviewer Agreement Form. This is suggested for use with volunteer projects and helps define the role and responsibilities of the volunteer interviewer.

  • Transcriber Agreement Form. This is suggested for use with all transcribers, whether volunteer or paid, as it helps define the role and responsibilities of the transcriber.

  • Equipment Check-Out Sheet. This is necessary if interviewers are not using their own recording equipment

  • Staff Time Log and Volunteer Time Log.

  • Oral History Project Status Log. This is used to keep track of the status of each project interview and the work of each interviewer.

  • Artifact and Photograph Inventory Form. This helps keep track of additional materials that narrators (and perhaps interviewers) may want to donate with the interviews

How much will all this cost?

Again, it all depends. How many interviews do you plan to conduct? Do you have volunteers or will staff be paid? Do you already have access to equipment or will you need to buy it or rent it?

Your friends, acquaintances or advisory board members may know of or have access to funds or in-kind contributions, grants or donations that will help cover the expenses of your oral history efforts. Some of your costs will be one-time expenses while others may be ongoing.

What do you mean by one-time expenses?

One-time expenses cover a lot of the basic oral history needs. They include. . .

  • Recorders;

  • Microphones and accessories;

  • Duplication equipment;

  • Transcription equipment;

  • Interviewer training.

See Section 5 for more details.

How about ongoing expenses?

The ongoing expenses of oral history are your overhead costs. They include. . .

  • Continuing interviewer training;

  • Research and photocopying, as part of the interviewer preparation process;

  • Printing letterhead or brochures, if desired;

  • Postage;

  • Office equipment, depending on the size and duration of the project;

  • Telephone and fax.

A one-interview family oral history may not incur the costs of printing letterhead and brochures. And you already might have a computer, telephone or fax machine to use. But they still represent costs associated with carrying out an oral history interview.

Are there more costs I should budget for?

Yes. Each interview will incur costs, in both time and money. Some are as follows:

  • Interviewer research and preparation time

  • Arranging and doing the interview

  • Interviewer transportation costs

  • Recording media

  • Payment to interviewers, as needed

  • Payment to sound technicians or videographers, as needed

  • Transcribing, usually computed by the interview hour or by the page (Transcribers generally should not be paid by the hour)

Many of these costs may be met by in-kind contributions of an interviewer's time. You might even be able to find volunteer transcribers. But be forewarned: Transcribing is a tough job and even the most willing volunteer might get discouraged.

At the very least, you almost certainly will have to purchase - or seek the donation of - recording media on which to record the interviews, even if everything else is donated or comes out of your own pocket.

I'm eager to start interviewing. Are there any other plans I need to make?

Yes. Before you start those interviews, think about how you'll process them after you turn off the recorder.

What do you mean by processing?

Processing refers to what you do with the interview materials after the interview is over. The purpose is to assure ongoing preservation of and access to the information the interview captures, essentially by preparing the interview and its associated materials for deposit in the chosen repository. For details on processing, see Section 10.

How do I process an interview?

Besides producing a brief synopsis of the contents of the interview, processing an oral history interview can take either of these basic forms:

  • An abstract or outline listing the topics discussed in the order in which they were discussed.

  • A verbatim, or word-for-word, transcript of the interview.

An abstract summarizes what the narrator said at intervals in the recording (usually three- to five-minute intervals, or when the subject substantially changes in the course of the interview). An abstract requires the researcher to listen to the actual interview to access the specific information it contains.

A transcript, on the other hand, is time consuming. It can take an average of eight hours to transcribe one hour of recorded interview. However, transcripts provide long-term access to interview information even without use of the actual recording.

More information on processing is available in Section 10.

Can I start interviewing now?

Not quite yet. You need to make arrangements to train interviewers - or get some training yourself, if you are the sole interviewer.

What kind of training is important?

Well-trained interviewers are critical to the success of an oral history project. Many experienced oral historians suggest scheduling a one-day training session before beginning the interviews. This session should focus on the following:

  • Record-keeping procedures

  • Interview research and preparation

  • Interview setting

  • Use of the equipment

  • Interviewing techniques

Most interviewing workshops last at least half a day. Contact the Nebraska Humanities Council for information on workshop funding options for oral history project training.

Is there anything else to plan?

Just one more thing, especially if you are working on a multi-interview project: Plan to publicize what you do after you are finished.

Oral history projects can be a source of pride to an organization, a school, a neighborhood or a community. When projects are completed, project directors should send out press releases with information about the project and what it accomplished. They may also want to put on a public event or sponsor a celebration for everyone involved in the project.

Why should I wait until the project is finished to brag about it?

Project publicity is good, with one exception: Don't advertise in the news media for possible narrators. Such an announcement can overwhelm a project with names of people who may or may not be good interview sources. Placing a notice in the local media may also imply the promise of an interview, which may not always best serve the project.

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