Oral history interviews involve people sharing memories and feelings with you. As such, recorded interviews with participants should not be taken lightly. Memories and feelings may recall everyday, mundane events or they may recall intense, emotionally-charged episodes from their lives. Because of the potentially sensitive issues that oral histories can raise, careful consideration for the person being interviewed must be taken throughout the project. Could the person make themselves criminally liable for what they say during the recording? Could they identify someone during the interview who might not want to be associated with the project? Could the respondent’s words cause embarrassment to themselves or family (personal or professional)? These are just a few of the questions that oral historians must ask before, during, and after the interview process.
An excellent starting point to better understanding the responsibilities oral historians have to their respondents is found on the Oral History Association’s Statement of Ethics webpage. The OHA’s statement includes information on informed consent, as well as a discussion of core principals the association asks oral historians to uphold.
Prior to 2019, oral history projects at Iowa State University (and many research universities across the country) required the approval of ISU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). The requirement of approval by an IRB for oral history interviews was waived by a change to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (see Perspectives on History and here). Although IRB approval is no longer necessary, we recommend that you familiarize yourself with protections of human subjects. An excellent introduction is found on the National Institutes of Health webpage, Protecting Human Research Participants.
As you continue your oral history project, remember one of the guiding principles in conducting work with human subjects: “Do No Harm.”