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OHA Statement on Freelance, Independent, and Contract Oral History Labor

The Oral History Association (OHA) affirms that a substantial amount of skilled work relating to oral history is conducted by freelance, self-employed, or independently contracted practitioners. Services provided by these practitioners cover an expansive range of skills and work products. Freelancers also work with a variety of clients, including businesses, colleges and universities, libraries and archives, cultural institutions, communities, non-profits, government organizations, movement organizations, families, and individuals. Through their work, independent practitioners model and teach best practices and make meaningful, though frequently under-acknowledged, contributions to the field. They are an invaluable part of the oral history community, but often operate without the elements of support, stability, and liability protections provided by salaried positions. Though budgets, needs, and expectations may vary greatly based on the project, client, or work products, independent oral historians provide skilled labor that must be compensated and recognized as such.

The OHA endorses oral history contractors establishing fair fees and rates. Fair rates vary by practitioner, but generally, when calculated hourly, are multiple times greater than a salaried employee with similar skills and experience. When calculated as a flat rate, fair fees cover the immense time and skill required to produce any oral history work product.[1] Fees allow practitioners to be compensated for the skilled labor required to carry out the work itself as well as the time and expenses involved in running an independent business, including the costs of equipment, supplies, work space and utilities, insurance, travel, and time spent developing new projects and clients. The OHA encourages institutions to seek skilled labor appropriate to the project or effort, to fundraise and budget accordingly, and to plan to pay a fair rate, regardless of employment type. The OHA also recommends involving oral historians and to-be-documented communities/narrators in discussions about budgets, project design, grants, and other key issues early and often.

As a practice-based field, volunteers, students, interns, and others not financially or competitively compensated for oral history work have a place in our practice. However, unpaid internships and unnecessarily low pay for emerging practitioners are discouraged, as these practices increase social and economic disparities across the field. Further, schools and oral history training programs invested in the diversity and accessibility of the field should affirm not just the historical value of oral history work, but also the financial value by providing guidance on rates, rights, professional networks, and resources for building solidarity. 

The OHA also acknowledges the vulnerable positions of independent and freelance practitioners with regard to intellectual property. Accordingly, all organizations hiring contracted oral history practitioners should recognize practitioners’ rights to ownership of their own labor and materials, especially any that they have established within their independent work and brought to a contract project. Furthermore, the OHA recognizes that copyright in an oral history interview is shared between the interviewer and the narrator at an interview’s moment of creation. The OHA asks hiring organizations to work with both contracted oral historians and narrators/documented communities to collaboratively establish appropriate rights agreements. Given the precarious nature of freelance and contract work, all hiring organizations working with independent practitioners should proactively cite and credit an oral historians’ labor in archival documentation and in public-facing and derivative works. Finally, unless explicitly refused by the narrator, contracted oral historians should be able to include oral histories they have co-produced within their portfolio of work.

The OHA recommends that hiring organizations envision longer term partnerships with contract oral historians. This includes granting contract oral historians first rights of refusal for any subsequent work on a given project for which they are qualified and where they have an existing familiarity with the project’s scope, origins, and aims. Investing in longer-term relationships with contracted practitioners is a win-win for organizations. It allows stronger partnerships to develop, fosters better understanding of institutional culture and goals, and creates a foundation for better projects, which encourages more ethical stewardship of oral history collections. This practice also supports oral historians by creating reliable work and promotes reparative relationships for both independent practitioners and documented communities, who often have to unnecessarily weather new relationships in organizations that use a “revolving door” model of contract labor. 

The OHA also encourages hiring organizations, when appropriate, to consider equity budgeting.[2] This approach calls for fair compensation for oral historians and cultural workers as well as for all narrators and community collaborators instrumental in the success of an oral history interview, project, or program. Further, equity budgeting promotes fair pay, fair ownership standards, fair crediting, and first rights of refusal for both contract practitioners and narrators and community collaborators. This is especially important for projects working across significant power imbalances weighted in favor of the hiring organization and/or oral historian. Examples include a predominantly white organization working within a BIPOC community, or a dominant-language practitioner interviewing within a marginalized-language community.

These provisions, taken together, help support a more accessible, sustainable, reparative, and diverse field that is open to practice by all oral historians while also creating an economy in which independent oral historians not only can survive, but thrive.


[1] Please see the American Folklore Society’s guidance on calculating rates for contract employees at https://americanfolkloresociety.org/our-work/position-statement-compensation/. We thank them for their concise articulation of factors influencing pricing, which we mirror closely here.

[2]Equity Budgeting is a phrase and praxis that has arisen, specifically, out of the context of the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program in Marion, Ohio, and follows from conversations and contributions from Jess Lamar Reece Holler, Johnnie Jackson, Sarah Dziedzic, Danielle Dulken, and others; and which works out of the lineage of radical Black-led movements centering economic justice for racial justice. For more on equity budgeting, visit Marion Voices’ website. Also see Jess Lamar Reece Holler’s “Equity Budgeting: A Manifesto,”  “Equity Budgeting and Ownership: First Principles and Core Praxes,” and “Owning It: Ethics of Ownership, Rights, and Consent in Community-Collaborative Cultural Work: A Guide to Negotiations and Expectations for Folklife, Oral History, Documentary Arts, and Community-Based Cultural Work for Freelance Practitioners,” via Caledonia Northern Folk Studios; and Jess Lamar Reece Holler’s and Sarah Dziedzic’s “The Equity Budgeting Workbook: A Guide to Budgeting for Justice,” available via caledonianorthern.org & sarahdziedzic.com. Another important component of this lineage is the ongoing conversation on payment for oral history and cultural work narrators, including Danielle Dulken’s “Fuck You, Pay Me: An Argument for Payment in Oral History.”