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Oral history

Planning an interview

Once you have confirmed your interviewees, you will need to do some initial preparation before the interview.

Context

Do some background research - about a profession, industry, organisation or other community, so that you know which questions you would like answers to and the topics you want the interview to cover (your own collections may come in useful here).

Communication

The group member conducting the interview should engage with the interviewee in all aspects of the interview process. Try to contact the participant via telephone rather than email or letter, to help build a personal relationship.

Set out the scope of your oral history project in a document that can be shared, including the topics you are interested in talking about, and an idea of how you will structure the interview. This will allow the participant to prepare by finding diaries, photographs and other memory aids.

It’s also useful to check if the interviewee has any specific insights due to their life and career. This will allow you to identify appropriate subject areas to research and focus on in the interview. For example, if you are doing a project on Norwich’s shoe industry, someone who worked as a leather cutter will have different insights to an owner of a shoe factory.

Location

Suggest an interview location that will be comfortable for the interviewee - many choose to be interviewed in their own home.

Practical arrangements

These should be confirmed in writing and include:

  • Who will be attending the interview 
  • Where the interview will take place
  • How long the interview is likely to last
  • A contact telephone number – in case the interviewee needs to cancel or postpone

Ethical considerations

It’s important that interviewees have trust in you and your process for keeping and managing their recorded interview.

Interviewees must make their own decisions about how they want their recordings to be used, shared and accessed. It is important to explain and acknowledge this.

As an interviewer you have a duty to:

  • Ensure you have the informed consent of interviewees. At every step of the interview process, make sure the participant understands why they are being interviewed and how you plan to store and use the interview recordings and their personal information. It is useful to send the interviewee a ‘crib sheet’ introducing the project, explaining the interview stages and what their rights are.
  • Respect confidentiality – if an interviewee states that part or all of what they talk about is confidential, that must be adhered to. Sensitively suggest a closure period, which means that some content is not made publicly available until a specified time, for example, after the death of the interviewee. If the recordings are to be deposited with a professional record office, make sure the staff are aware that there are access restrictions in place.
  • Ensure sharing an interview will not cause substantial damage or distress, eg causing an interviewee to be vulnerable to identity theft
  • Make sure you are aware of the legal basis for holding and processing personal information, including the interview contents and the permission forms. In terms of retaining an interviewee’s personal data, the Oral History Society advises relying on the legal basis of ‘the performance of a task carried out in the public interest’. Include this in your participation agreement.
  • Explain the legal basis for processing personal information and the interviewee’s rights. This can be done in many ways, such as a link to a privacy policy on your website, text on the participation agreement form or link to an email address.

A comprehensive guide to ethics in oral history is available on the Oral History Society website.

Contact the Oral History Society if you have any enquiries regarding personal data.

Safeguarding

There may be occasions when you wish to interview a minor, or a ‘vulnerable adult’ (eg someone who has a learning difficulty or who lives with some degree of physical or cognitive impairment). In this case, make sure you have a safeguarding policy in place to protect their health, safety and rights, before you interview them.

View the National Council of Voluntary Organisations' (NCVO) overview of safeguarding practices.

You may need the assistance of a ‘gatekeeper’. This could be an interviewee’s relative, friend or carer. A gatekeeper can help the interviewee to understand the interview process and their rights in a way that will be more accessible to them.

Read further information on safeguarding on the Oral History Society website.

Oral history survey:

Fill out this survey to let us know your thoughts on the oral history guide.