2. Designing your oral history

Ethics and consent/release

What is the obligation of the oral historian to their narrators in the process of eliciting life stories, preserving them, and providing public access for others? Arguably, one of the most important aspects of designing your oral history is to think through the process of informed consent. What is informed consent? Informed consent in research involves describing the project and its outcomes, giving the narrator a clear understanding of their role and their ability to make decisions about what to share and the ability to opt out, and ultimately gaining the narrator’s consent to record, preserve, and provide access to their life story. While oral history projects are generally exempt from Institutional Review Board requirements, it is always in the best interest of all parties to include a consent/release process in order to ensure participants are informed and comfortable with sharing their stories. Typically, the narrator and interviewer will sign a consent/release form if they are working with a repository to archive the oral history. See Module 3: Preparing for Interview.

Considerations for consent/release forms:

  • Getting these signed virtually: If you are conducting oral histories virtually there are various ways for your narrators to sign consent forms. You can utilize DocuSign (institutional), Adobe, scanning, printing and signing and taking pictures of the form, or snail mail.
  • It is common to offer anonymity to narrators, so consider offering this as an option for people who are worried their interview puts them or someone else at risk of harm. Additionally, offer alternative ways of making their story accessible such as:
    • Using a pseudonym (still able to provide biographical details if desired in the Narrator Biographical Survey)
    • Only providing access to the transcription or audio recording of their interview

Note: if you intend to donate or transfer your project materials to UCI Special Collections & Archives, your narrator will still need to sign the Narrator-Agreement Form using their name even if they wish to remain anonymous. Assure your narrator this form will only be used for administrative purposes and will not be accessible to the public. If you have any questions please contact spcoll@uci.edu.

  • If you are assigning students to submit oral histories as part of their coursework and are planning to deposit these materials in the UCI Special Collections & Archives, students must waive their FERPA protections and sign the Student Gift and Waiver Form. Additionally, for recommended file naming conventions, accepted formats, and information about the transfer process, see Submitting Course Materials to SCA Tip Sheet.
Community partnerships

Community-centered archives depend upon collaborative partnerships between mainstream archival institutions and communities that are underrepresented in the historical record. If you represent or are affiliated with an institution and plan to develop an oral history project see Module 1, especially information on the “Community-centered Archives Approach to Oral History.” Historically, institutions have used extractive practices when doing research on communities by not ensuring equitable goal setting or outlining clear expectations with community partners. It is imperative for institutions to do and expect better of themselves to partner with communities in equitable and transparent ways.

If you are thinking about doing an oral history project on or about a community, work directly with the community to set goals and define the project scope. Work with the community to develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU). A MOU is a document between at least two parties that outlines a proposed agreement between them and sets clearly defined expectations for the project outcome and management. A MOU is helpful to have because it can offer equitable representation between project managers and community members and is an opportunity for community members to express their input in the development of the project. See: Community-Centered Archives Partnership Memorandum of Understanding.


Set your goals

These questions will help determine your outcomes: (1) What is the purpose of your project? (2) Who is your intended audience? When you begin to conceptualize your project, it is important to do some background research to determine what oral histories have been done on the subject before.  Background research will help you articulate a clear vision and what specific contributions your project will make to the historical record. Acknowledging your intended audience will also help you shape the scope of your project and develop interview questions. For example, if your audience is people within a specific affinity group or age group, you may decide to frame your questions in ways that speak directly to your audiences’ experience. Consider creating an Oral History Project Plan (see in sidebar) to set goals and map out your project.

Whoever your intended audience, we recommend sharing your interview questions with the narrator, and if applicable, the community or organization with whom you are working on your oral history project. This will give those with direct knowledge and experience an opportunity to advise on terminology, etc. used throughout in the questions. This helps to promote a true partnership with the narrator and community with whom you are working and transparency about the goals of the project.

Consider the project scope
  • Consider the breadth and depth of the overall project when you choose a name for your project. You might want to consider how the name may impact how narrators and the public might interact with the oral histories once they become available. Also, there are pragmatic considerations such as the ease of pronunciation and how easily the name might be included in a website URL.
  • How large will your project be? How many people do you want to interview? We often use the term “Narrator” to refer to interview subjects, although in some cases it may be preferable to use other terms such as “Storyteller” or “Elder.” 
  • What time period, geographical boundaries, or event(s) will your project focus on?
  • Depending on how large your project will be, it will be helpful to design a spreadsheet or Google Form for inclusion of multiple recordings being submitted by multiple people. This will help with tracking your project by (1) Creating project-level metadata (2) Helping participants submit files such as consent forms, photographs, etc. (3) Enumerating the number of recordings you expect to receive (i.e. OH#________).
  • What are the desired outcomes or products of your oral history? What products will help you achieve your goals? For example: audio recordings, video recordings, transcripts, photographs, objects, public access platforms to the raw oral histories or curated publications such as digital exhibits, physical exhibits, or book manuscripts
    • Typically, each oral history should include 1-2 photographs of the narrator taken during the interview and/or photographs or objects they wish to donate or use as a visual prop for their story
    • If you or your narrator wish to include more than 10 photographs or items that are not connected to your oral history project, please consider reaching out to UCI Special Collections & Archives at spcoll@uci.edu to explore the option of a separate donation
  • Who are the key players of your oral history project? 
  • Who will be the interviewer(s)? Will they be students? Will they come from the same background as your potential narrators? Will they have language skills that are essential to the narrator or population you are trying to include in the project? The interviewer role is vital to the success of an oral history, so be sure to consider your options.
  • Who will be your narrators and how will you elicit their participation? It is important to articulate age range, geographic location, or other facets of your potential narrators’ lived experiences that you are trying to capture. 
  • Create your interview questions. You may want to involve your interviewers or survey potential narrators to come up with questions appropriate for the experiences you would like to capture the project. One strategy that works well is to have baseline questions about the biographical details of a person’s life as the “warm up” questions in the beginning of the interview, followed by questions that might require more reflection or be more sensitive in nature.
Getting support for your project

The scale of your oral history project will depend on the type of support you will need. Oral history projects can be done with minimal cost. With high quality digital recording available for many people on their personal devices, an individual wishing to record their family history through an independent oral history project can get started with little to no start-up costs. However, when you decide to increase the size of your narrator pool, involve more interviewers, and work with a repository for long-term preservation, the costs are likely to increase to support labor costs. Other considerations for oral history costs might include: stipends/gifts for narrator participation, specialized tools for recording, transcription, asset-management software, and dissemination (e.g. the domain cost for a website), transcription or translation services, expert consultation fees, hard drives or server costs for long-term storage. To fund your project, you might consider:

  • Seeking grants that align with your objectives. Some major funders that have supported oral history projects include National Endowment for the Humanities, California Humanities, Mellon Foundation, and the Oral History Association. Grassroots or local funding sources may be preferable in instances when the oral history project you propose may illuminate aspects of the local community’s history.
  • Building partnerships with institutions/repositories/organizations that may align with your vision to offset some of these costs and bring in additional expertise.
  • Seeking crowd-source funding for your project with various campaigns such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, etc.    
Audience and access

It is important to consider how you plan to provide access to the oral histories at the early stages of developing your oral history project. Protecting narrator and interviewers’ privacy as well as, ensuring that your intended audience can access the oral histories are necessary considerations. Additional questions to consider include: Will you provide sensitive information that you would not like to share right away? Will your narrators have reason to fear their personal safety or the safety of someone they know based on what they reveal in their interview? Do you plan to donate the oral histories to an institution, and if so, does this institution have a history of neglecting or supporting communities represented in the oral history project? (See section VI. B) 

For long term access to the oral histories on the web, consider the following:

  • Does the narrator fully understand that their oral history will be publicly available on the internet?

The role of the project director and interviewer is to ensure that the narrators are well-informed of this process and won't be surprised that their oral histories are still on the internet after many years. Thinking this through at an early stage will assist in your selection of and communication with potential narrators

  • How will the narrator or other concerned party contact you or the website administrator regarding concerns? Who will respond to concerns? For example, what process is in place if a narrator would like to remove their oral history from a digital platform?
  • Do you (as project creator) understand your partner institution's process for when a narrator changes their mind and wants their oral history taken down?
  • Is the narrator clear that their oral history can be shared or published to other websites? Are they comfortable with a partner institution having the power to make those decisions?

For more in depth information on access and long-term preservation see Module 5 and Module 6.