IRB approval is needed for “generalizable research,” systematic investigations that are designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge. Oral histories, therefore, do not require IRB approval if they are not being used to develop generalized knowledge. For example, oral history projects will fall outside the IRB’s scope of review if the intent of the project is to develop knowledge about a specific person(s) or the focus is on understanding the perspective or reality of an individual or several individuals. However, if the collection of oral histories is used to draw conclusions about a larger group, to identify general themes that predict behaviors about a larger group, etc., then IRB review is required for the study to proceed. For more detailed information, see the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) regulations for the protection of human subjects, 45 CFR 46.102(l).
While oral histories typically do not need IRB approval, researchers doing such work should review the ethical guidelines associated with oral histories from the Oral History Association.
Resources and guidance for scholarship involving oral histories have been compiled by Kenyon’s LBIS and found on Digital Kenyon’s “Instructions, Forms, and Toolkits” for oral history. Kenyon’s digital initiatives librarian may also be able to help.
Please contact Kenyon’s IRB (firstname.lastname@example.org) if questions arise.