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Oral History + Podcasting: Best Practices

A collection of oral history and podcasting resources at Davidson.

Oral History Best Practices

For detailed guidance about best practices, we recommend reading the Oral History Association's "Principles for Oral History and Best Practices for Oral History," adopted in October 2018. As the official leading professional body for oral historians in the United States, this organization offers centralized, up-to-date information for all levels of experience. For your convenience, we have summarized some of their recommendations, below:

Preparation:

  • You should always seek training before planning or starting an oral history project.
  • You should have a repository or preservation plan in place before starting an oral history project.
  • You should obtain informed consent from your narrators before starting an interview. This may involve several in-person meetings with individuals to describe your project and answer any questions or concerns your interviewee may have about the purpose of your work.
  • You should conduct primary and secondary source research before your interview so you can ask informed questions and follow-up questions.
  • Interviewers should prepare a loose outline for the interview, including broad questions, to help prompt the interviewee. Be prepared to ask follow-up questions and follow new discoveries rather than sticking to a pre-defined script.
  • Test your recording equipment in advance to ensure the technology is working and for your own familiarity.

Interviewing:

  • Select a quiet location to conduct your interview. Avoid windows and busy areas of a home or business when possible.
  • Always ask your interviewee for their consent to record WHILE recording, in addition to having the permission form signed on the day of the interview. Open your interview by introducing the location, date, subject, and persons present.
  • Practice active listening during your interview. Ask follow-up questions about your interviewee's responses rather than prepping the next question in advance. 
  • Be prepared to stop the recording if asked. Always respect the interviewee's boundaries.

Preservation:

  • Save your recordings in a nonproprietary format (ex: .mp3, .wav, .mp4, .pdf, .odt). These formats are not specific to a particular operating system or software, thus ensuring increased access in the future.
  • Make at least two copies of your recordings and/or transcripts. Keep one file as the "preservation copy" and one file as the "use copy." Do not open or share the preservation copy to prevent corruption of the file. Use the use copy for access.
  • Save an additional copy of your signed permissions forms in case issues come up in the future or in case you decide to donate your materials. 

Access and Use:

  • Whenever possible, provide transcripts alongside your recordings to meet accessibility standards.
  • Respect the terms and conditions outlined in your permissions forms - for example, if interviewees forbid quoting from their interviews, do not quote or allow others to quote from the interviews. 
  • When making interviews available online or otherwise, contextualize the contents of the interviews in an effort to dissuade stereotyping and misuse.

Ethical Considerations

You should be transparent with your motives when approaching potential narrators. Be sure to clearly communicate your project goals and solicit questions from your interview partners. Strive for a model of reciprocity - in other words, ask yourself, “does the narrator get anything out of this process? Will the community benefit?” Be clear about where the interviews will end up and how they will be used.

Ultimately, you should aim for a “do no harm” model - consider what information or realizations will be important for the historical record, but also create a space that allows your narrator to think out loud and arrive at their own conclusions. Do not ascribe meanings, feelings, or reasons for their experiences with your questioning or transcribing.

 

Factors to Consider:

Working with Minors

Are you planning to interview narrators who are underage (under 18)? You will need a release form signed by a parent or guardian as well as the narrator.

Also consider - is your narrator old enough to truly consent? Are you asking them about events or situations that could endanger themselves or others? Consider waiting until the narrator is 18 to release the interviews, or placing a specific, time-bound restriction on the files. If you have questions, contact HSIRB.

 

Working with cultures beyond your own

What are the cultural norms of your narrator? Ask if there are topics you are not allowed to address or if there needs to be someone else in the room.

These responsibilities may extend beyond the interview - it may not be acceptable to share certain information beyond the interview space. Determine these limitations before the interview begins and make note of them in the release form with an attached appendices.

Understand there may be historical precedents of extractive interviews which result in narrator reticence and respect that - while also working to address those concerns. Additionally, different peoples have different understandings of the words "ownership" and "copyright" - carefully go through these terms with your narrator.

 

Working with vulnerable populations

Does your project include interviews with displaced persons, imprisoned persons, survivors of abuse, issues with mental health, or veterans (among others)? Carefully consider the ethics, legality, and morality of making such interviews available online as well as issues with informed consent.

In these instances, it would be important to contact HSIRB.

 

For more information and training on interviewing youth subjects, vulnerable populations, and cultural considerations during the oral history process, consult the publications and institutions below:

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