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Preserving America’s Voices: Who’s Listening?

Note: This blog post is reprinted from Library of Congress Magazine, for which it was written by Stephen Winick and edited by Audrey Fischer.  The full issue contains two more articles about the American Folklife Center’s oral-history collections.  You can download it here.

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The StoryCorps Mobile Recording Booth has visited the Library of Congress several times, collecting interviews in front of the Madison Building. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

Preserving America’s Voices: Who’s Listening?

How Can We Use Oral-History Collections to Better Understand Ourselves And Our World?

The Library of Congress recently marked the 10th anniversary of StoryCorps, an innovative oral-history project through which ordinary Americans record one another’s stories. From the beginning, project founder David Isay intended the audio recordings to be preserved in the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress. The award-winning radio producer was impressed by the center’s wealth of oral-history collections, most notably those from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, which documented Americans’ life stories during the Depression era.

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An interview is in progress in this StoryCorps mobile
recording booth. Photo by Rob Lowell. Used by permission of StoryCorps.

Today, the more than 45,000 audio interviews that comprise the StoryCorps project reside in the Library of Congress. They join hundreds of oral-history collections, including the Veterans History Project and the Civil Rights History Project, which make the American Folklife Center one of the most significant oral- history archives in the country. Many Americans first became aware of the StoryCorps interviews through the compelling excerpts played on NPR’s “Morning Edition” every Friday. (You can hear many of these online at this link.) When they hear that the collection is preserved in the Library of Congress, people often ask what value they have beyond the radio show.

In the StoryCorps model, interviews are conducted by ordinary Americans in all walks of life, mainly with people they know and love. This process typically results in a particular kind of interview: intimate, detailed and focused on personal rather than societal history. The top three topics are relationships with parents, children and siblings. Also in the top 10 are workday life, education, marriage and death, as well as encounters with prejudice and intolerance. Broadening our glimpse to the top 20, we find urban and town life, teachers, traumatic memories and coming-of-age stories.

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Another interview in the booth. Photo by Tony Rinaldo. Used by Permission of StoryCorps.

A closer look reveals that these recordings are a bonanza for social and cultural historians. They contain the perspectives, recollections, and opinions of a broad range of ordinary Americans on a wealth of intimate topics where unguarded firsthand accounts are otherwise scarce. Whether one is writing a social history of marriage, examining the nature of the family in 20th-century America, or studying race relations or education, there’s an unparalleled wealth of firsthand recollections touching on each of these topics. Looking beyond the top 20 topics, there are almost 10,000 interviews about music, more than 6,000 about food and an additional 6,000 about immigration. Each of these is a fruitful topic for chroniclers of American culture.

Some topics have already been researched using the StoryCorps collection in the Folklife Reading Room. Sociologists and psychologists interested in physical and psychological trauma have explored stories of bullying, physical abuse and rape. These sensitive topics are often not discussed publicly, but the StoryCorps project provides a safe environment where such stories can be told.

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This Library of Congress photo shows the StoryCorps Mobile Booth being towed into place for one of its visits to the Library of Congress.

Another intriguing aspect of the interviews is that they aren’t just raw data, but stories told in the compelling voices of those who experienced them. That makes a range of projects possible. The ability to broadcast the audio interviews on the NPR radio show is one way to make them accessible. They have even been used to create animated shorts, which can be viewed on the NPR website. In addition, The New Museum in New York worked with StoryCorps staff and producer Krissy Clark to create “Hear and There,” a walking tour and online map of lower Manhattan, in which individual locations are matched with oral interviews about those locations. Participants who take the tour or visitors to the map are able to hear stories about the locations they’re examining, in the voices of the people who experienced them. This creates a multi-voiced firsthand account of what the neighborhood is like and how it has changed over the years. This type of documentation is known as “narrative archaeology.”

The audio recordings also allow researchers to explore language itself. At more than 22,000 hours of recordings, the collection represents a significant corpus of recorded American speech. The StoryCorps collection can thus be a boon to the area of language research, providing better descriptions of regional, ethnic and other variations in American speech.

The collection also provides an opportunity for the information-technology industry to recognize and synthesize speech. Imagine speech-recognition software that is familiar with a particular dialect and can work almost immediately out of the box, or software that can generate accurate dialect speech from artificial voices.

Finally, there are purely personal reasons for doing research. Sharon DeLevie-Orey, who conducted an oral-history interview with her grandmother in StoryCorps’ first stationary recording booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal in 2003, explained it this way.

“Last year my sister and I came to StoryCorps with my then-91-year-old grandmother. We had this fantastic interview, in which my grandma was candid and funny and loving. Yesterday she died. I just took out my StoryCorps CD and noticed the date, a year to the day. Tomorrow will be her funeral. I could only listen to about 20 seconds before bursting into tears. But I am so grateful that I have this. Sure, I could have taped her anytime in the last 41 years. But I didn’t. Now the reward is so huge. Everyone should do StoryCorps—because we don’t live forever.”

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