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Oral History

Project Planning

So you want to do an oral history project? 

That's great!  Now the real planning begins.  Oral history projects take considerable time, training, research, money, and motivation. It is estimated that it takes between 30-60 hours, and 3-4 months to complete one hour of interview from start to finish.  This involves pre-interview planning, research, and relationship building with the narrator, time of the interview, and time is takes to process the interview such as transcription and narrator review before it is moved to an archive.

Here are some questions to ask early on in the planning process. 

  • What are the goals and outcomes of  the project?
    • Is your project designed to create a primary resource of documentation?  Is the project part of your research to create your own interpretation in the form of historical text, video documentary, or podcast?  Whatever the intentions, they will play into how the project is shaped.
  • Why is oral history needed  to gather this information?
    • Is there other form of documentation that can provide the information needed.  Think about potential risk and harm to narrators.  Think about your own capacity.  Be sure not to duplicate collections that may already be out there- expand upon them if so. 
  • How much is this project going to cost?
    • Some things to consider - time, training, travel, accommodations, general supplies, equipment, hard drives and software, transcription services, content hosting platform, event funds, compensation to narrators.  A budget is necessary.
  • Do you have the necessary equipment?
  • Whose doing to do all the work that oral history entails?
    • ​​​​​​​The field of oral history is a web of practitioners from the project director, to the interviewer, to the narrator, to the transcriptionist, to the intern, to the archivist.  Who is on your team and what are they responsible for?
  • Where are you archiving the project?​​​​​​​
    • Oral history practitioners should select an archival repository 1) whose collection development policy relates to the project but 2) is equipped to handle the management and access to audiovisual materials and digital files for long-term preservation. ​​​​​​​Oral history practitioners should ask important digital preservation questions when shopping around - and you as a repository - should be honest about your capabilities.
  • How are you going to process these interviews?
    • ​​​​​​​How are you going to ensure that listeners 50 years from now have as complete as an understanding of the project and of the interviews as possible?  This involves biographical information sheets, interview summaries, indices, and transcriptions, keywords and other metadata. 
  • Have you taken any oral history training?

Project Summary

Project summaries are good documents to have - they can be shared as an outreach and marketing tool, are needed for grant applications, and help keep the project on track along the way. 

A project summary should include:

  1. Introduction - Provide some background to the project topic.
  2. Purpose and Significance - State your project's mission and intentions and why an oral history project is needed on your topic.
  3. Project Scope - Scope includes the subjects, the people, and regions, and time periods the project will be covering.
  4. Deliverables - State the intended outcomes of the project.
  5. Repository - Provide the repository information on where the project will reside.
  6. Timeline - Provide a timeline for how long the project should take and when to expect deliverables.
  7. Contact - Provide contact information to learn more about the project.

Do You Need IRB Approval for Oral History?

While it could still be considered a debatable topic, the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services' "Policy for Protection of Human Research Subjects" 2019 revisions now exclude oral history from IRB review and approval through a specific definition of research.  The exclusion is found in the final regulations under Section 46.102 and are as follows:

  • Research means a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge [emphasis added]. Activities that meet this definition constitute research for purposes of this policy, whether or not they are conducted or supported under a program that is considered research for other purposes. For example, some demonstration and service programs may include research activities. For purposes of this part, the following activities are deemed not to be research [emphasis added]:
    • Scholarly and journalistic activities (e.g., oral history, journalism, biography, literary criticism, legal research, and historical scholarship), including the collection and use of information, that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.

The Office of Human Research Protections offers additional guidance here.  For more information on oral history and IRB, please visit the Oral History Association.

Trinity University's Institutional Review Board follows the "Policy for Protection of Human Research Subjects" 2019 revisions and the Office of Human Research Protections guidance.   Please visit the Institutional Review Board T-Learn page or email for more information.