Publication Date

September 1, 1997

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

Editor’s note: The following statement, first adopted in May 1989 was revised by the AHA’s Professional Division and approved by the Association’s Council at its June 7-8, 1997, meeting. The statement is included in the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. The 1997 edition of the Statementis now available from Publications Sales, American Historical Association, 400 A St. SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889 (single copies are free), or by visiting the AHA’s home page.

Interviewing has become commonplace in historical research focusing on the twentieth century, but unfortunately it is often done and used without proper attention to professional obligations. When they conduct interviews, individual historians too often fail to adhere to the standards now well established in more formal oral history programs and projects. Historians should recognize that in interviewing they are creating historical documents and that entails special responsibilities to ensure future access for both verification and research by others. The AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct (adopted 1987) establishes basic obligations for historians who engage in interviewing:

Historians should carefully document their findings and thereafter be prepared to make available to others their sources, evidence, and data, including the documentation they develop through interviews…

Since historians must have access to sources—archival and other—in order to produce reliable history, they have a professional obligation to preserve sources and advocate free, open, equal, and nondiscriminatory access to them, and to avoid actions which might prejudice future access. Historians recognize the appropriateness of some national security and corporate and personal privacy claims but must protect research collections and other historic resources and make those under their control available to other scholars as soon as possible.

Certain kinds of research and conditions attached to employment or to use of records impose obligations to maintain confidentiality, and oral historians often must make promises to interviewees as conditions for interviews. Scholars should honor any pledges made. At the same time, historians should seek definitions of confidentiality before work begins, press for redefinitions when experience demonstrates the unsatisfactory character of established regulations, and advise their readers of the conditions and rules that govern their work. They also have the obligation to decline to make their services available when policies are unnecessarily restrictive.

Recognizing the need for more specific guidelines, the AHA’s Professional Division consulted with representatives of the Oral History Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of American Archivists. The following guidelines resulted from that discussion and are drawn from statements adopted by the Oral History Association and the Society for History in the Federal Government:

  1. Interviews should be recorded on tape but only after the person to be interviewed has been informed of the mutual rights and responsibilities involved in oral history, such as editing, confidentiality, disposition, and dissemination of all forms of the record. Interviewers should obtain legal releases and document any agreements with interviewees.
  2. The interviewer should strive to prompt informative dialogue through challenging and perceptive inquiry, should be grounded in the background and experiences of the person being interviewed, and, if possible, should review the sources relating to the interviewee before conducting the interview.
  3. To the extent practicable, interviewers should extend the inquiry beyond their immediate needs to make each interview as complete as possible for the benefit of others.
  4. The interviewer should guard against possible social injury to or exploitation of interviewees and should conduct interviews with respect for human dignity.
  5. Interviewers should be responsible for proper citation of oral history sources in creative works, including permanent location.
  6. Interviewers should arrange to deposit their interviews in an archival repository that is capable of both preserving the interviews and making them available for general research. Additionally, the interviewer should work with the repository in determining the necessary legal arrangements.
  7. As teachers, historians are obligated to inform students of their responsibilities in regard to interviewing and to encourage adherence to the guidelines set forth here.

Certain interview research may be governed by the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (codified at 45 CFR 46). Such research may require prospective review by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) as well as written informed consent of the interviewee. Additionally, institutions engaged in bio-medical or behavioral research are likely to have internal policies that also pertain to interview research. Historians should be cognizant of and comply with all laws, regulations, and institutional policies applicable to their research activities. Before beginning any research that may include oral history interviewing, historians should contact their IRB for policies and regulations governing the use of human subjects in research projects. They will also find it useful to read and folio the Oral History Association Principles and Standards of the Oral History Association and Evaluation Guidelines of the Oral History Association.

See also Oral History and the Law by John Neuenschwander, edited by Rebecca Sharpless (Oral History Association Pamphlet No.1, 2nd rev. ed. 1993), which provides sample release forms.

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