A Guide to Commissioning Oral History Projects 02/2007
Oral history is a record of information, captured electronically, as the result of a planned interview. Its purpose is to create a record where none exists or to supplement existing records for future research. Oral history is a method of recording spoken language, eyewitness accounts and insights into society and its changing values and attitudes. It also gives a voice to those previously denied the chance to contribute to the recording of history.
This Guide has been produced for the use of both the commissioning body and the oral historian. For convenience these are referred to respectively as the 'Principal' and the 'Consultant'.
Oral historians are often commissioned to undertake work for others including individuals, voluntary organisations, commercial organisations, government authorities and consultants such as archaeologists and heritage architects.
Depending on the nature of the work, this may involve a process of determination of the task, preparation of a brief, preparation and submission of a proposal, selection of an oral historian or historians, commissioning and then managing the commission.
The national standard for oral history is set by the Oral History Handbook by Beth M Robertson (fifth edition fourth impression, 2013). The following guide attempts only to list all points connected with commissioning and conducting an oral history project. For details of technique and practice reference to the Oral History Handbook is essential.
Guidelines for writing and publishing, whether for print, audio, video or multimedia, are not addressed in this guide.
Commissioning Oral History
Principals and Consultants should be bound by the Oral History Australia’s Guidelines of Ethical Practice published in the Oral History Handbook.
Principals should have a reasonable understanding and appreciation of oral history: what it is, its various applications, the variety of skills that might be involved and the activities that go to make up a particular commission.
Like many activities involving people, particularly those requiring emotional effort, oral history cannot be rushed. It is not easy to estimate the length of an interview or the quality of an individual response. The focus of a project may indicate the average length of an interview. In some cases approximately two hours of recording may suffice; however, the full recording for a ‘memory biography’ will usually be longer.
Each interview requires preparation for planning, background research and framing questions.
A written brief should be prepared for commissions. In developing the brief, there should be clear objectives, an idea of the cost and time available.
Conducting the Oral History Interview
After the Interview
The Consultant should submit a detailed proposal addressing each of the points in the brief. The proposal should:
If the Consultant wishes to employ an assistant with acceptable qualifications or identifies a possible large extra expense, for example, studio hire, details should be included in the proposal.
Letter of Engagement or Contract
After receipt and evaluation of the proposals, the Principal may select a Consultant. In special cases it could be necessary to negotiate refinements to the brief.
For small interviewing assignments or oral history tasks, a letter of engagement should suffice, with the agreement resting on the correspondence and the Consultant's acceptance of the offer in writing.
For large assignments involving significant amounts of time and/or money for completion, a contract might be considered more appropriate.