AHA Activities

Statement on Interviewing for Historical Documentation

AHA Staff, October 1989

Editor's Note: Upon the recommendation of the Professional Division, the AHA Council approved at its May 1989 meeting the following addendum to the Association's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. For a copy of the full statement and other addenda, write to the AHA, 400 A St., S.E., Washington, DC 20003.

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 Historians should recognize that in interviewing they are creating historical documents and that entails special responsibilities to ensure future access for both verification and research by others.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 Association'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 personbeing 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.

See also the Oral History Evaluation Guidelines, published by the Oral History Association, and John Neuenschwander's Oral History and the Law (Oral History Association Pamphlet No. 1, 1985), which provides sample release forms.