This is a guest post from Julia Kim, Digital Assets Specialist at the American Folklife Center. This Thanksgiving, StoryCorps invites everyone to take part in The Great Listen, a national movement that empowers young people–and people of all ages–to create an oral history of the contemporary United States by recording an interview with an elder using the free StoryCorps App. Interviews become part of the StoryCorps Collection at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Take part and learn more at thegreatlisten.org.
For almost two years now I’ve had the privilege of working with StoryCorps as we archive their ever-growing collection of interviews and oral histories. Many people are probably most familiar with their facilitated or Signature Interviews – those conducted in their traveling Airstream recording studio, city booths, or door-to-door recording kits with a trained Facilitator responsible for recording the interview, collecting metadata, and cataloging the interview. Now, with the introduction of the StoryCorps App, anyone anywhere can contribute their story to the Library of Congress and make their interview available on the StoryCorps Archive platform. StoryCorps has resources available online to guide each participant using the app to best describe their interview through a few key mandatory fields, like interview’s title and interviewee name.
In addition to those fields, the StoryCorps App allows you to tag the interview with keywords, ideas and topics that define what your interview is about. Keywords are essential. Without them it can be difficult to find content on the digital files we receive. When you tell your story and record it, when you add keywords, you give us searchable terms so that we can find it for the researchers, students, and other family members visiting the American Folklife Center reference desk in Washington, D.C. each day.
Researchers may come in and ask us to find oral histories around broad themes, time periods, locations, and demographics. They may, for example, ask for StoryCorps interviews around “disability” or “Native” histories. When we get these requests, we search through over 70,000 StoryCorps Signature (non-app) interviews for these keywords or, in the future, through the interviews recorded with the App (over 120,000 and counting). Keywords matter on a day-to-day basis here at the American Folklife Center’s reference desk. Keywords mean access. The more keywords you add, the more words we can search. Archivists are inundated with recordings; we cannot listen to and transcribe them all, we rely on keywords to tell us what the themes and topics are. Keywords should help everyone understand the value of the recording.
In the previous example, the reference archivist might broaden their search of “Native” to include “Indigenous,” but she might have wanted to also pull interviews of Aboriginal communities in Australia. However, if an interview was tagged “aboriginal” the reference archivist may not find it. Nor would she necessarily have found “First Nation” or “Inuit.” With the StoryCorps App, the interviewer and interviewee can determine how to identify themselves and what the themes of their stories are. In that sense, they are the “first archivists” in interpreting and recording what they think is important. If there is a main point of this post, it’s ultimately to underscore that each participant is able to decide for herself what keywords are relevant. But it’s also important to remember that these decisions directly impact an archivist’s or researcher’s ability to find your interview.
Keywords then, in addition to the title, summaries, and any questions you include and add to the app, help researchers and archivists understand the who, what, where, and when of the interview. Keywords strike a balance between specificity, such as when you enter the full names of the people participating in the interview, and a generalization for example, when you enter the keywords “Family” or “Mother” to indicate that the conversation is about or with family or a mother. In that sense, keywords also help us to categorize and sort.
StoryCorps has examples to help you understand how to make your interview accessible. Summary descriptions can be multiple sentences long; they may add nuance by noting the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee. App interviews automatically capture the time of the recording, but you should also think about major events that might also indicate the “when” – like “the Great Depression” in a previous example. Again, if topics are not made explicit in these keyword fields, it’s not possible to find them among the many interviews in the collections. Recently, the reference desk has handled research questions for interviews about: first responders to 9/11, the Detroit riots of 1967, community gardens, Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in 20th-century Chicago, the Berlin Wall, chronic health conditions and work, adoption and foster parents, and immigration enforcement. The AFC reference staff works carefully with each researcher to find suitable interviews. Knowing the types of things people look for may help you understand the impact of choosing to add “Mexican” or the most popular keyword used, “Family.” But it’s ultimately up to you!
A recent StoryCorp App participant created a series of interviews tagged as “the Great Ramadan Listen,” in which she included another feature of the app and noted the questions asked (”Do you know the story of why or how our ancestors came to this country?”). In the example below, Muslim and Islam related keywords are almost the only keywords listed. The title is “Eid in Portland, Oregon” and the description is “A Ramadan discussion between Jenny and Teresa in Portland, OR on Jenny’s Ramadan Rail Trip.”
Contrast this example with some of the StoryCorps interviews recorded through a partnership with the Muslim American Leadership Association (which were not recorded with the phone app). In some of these interviews, “Muslim” and “Islam” are not noted in any of the keywords. If I searched “Muslim” or “Islam,” I might not have found them. In contrast, in the example below, pulled from the internal StoryCorps database of Signature Interviews, the keywords the trained Facilitators chose include: advice, aging, art, college, university, divorce, ethnic, identity, beauty, cultural expectations, independence, leadership, modeling, psychology, volunteerism. I listened to the interview and these keywords aptly describe the broad range of topics and themes discussed. Muslim and Islam were not focal points of the interview, however it can be assumed that the interview has a Muslim background. Perhaps the interviewee has ambivalence around claiming a Muslim identity? Or, maybe this is none of our business? I don’t know. From the standpoint of a reference archivist dependent on keywords, titles, and summaries for locating interviews, the broader and more consistently applied the categories of description the better. In this case, perhaps “Muslim” might have all helped me later pull this story, but as helpful as that might be, these types of keywords necessarily simplify. Keywords, especially in regards to identity, necessarily flatten our complex, intersectional identities and are based on broad assumptions.
This is why classification systems are complex and contested. It’s hard to manage, classify, and label things consistently; it’s even harder to classify ethically! Library knowledge classification systems have been in place for over a hundred years, and ethical questions about their application have been around for years, as well. Unlike keywords, which are “uncontrolled” (i.e., you can put in any word you want into the StoryCorps App), libraries use authoritative controlled vocabularies for terms appropriate for each subject (ex: Library of Congress Subject Headings, the American Folklife Center’s Ethnographic Thesaurus). Local groups may create their own “authorities” as we’ve seen in StoryCorps.Me App campaigns in which the same keywords are repeated consistently within a StoryCorps Community or app campaign’s interviews. In a StoryCorps Signature Interview a trained Facilitator present during the recording applies fixed keywords, which were created with reference to both the Library’s authorities as well as to colloquial, contemporary language found in StoryCorps facilitated Signature interviews. This StoryCorps fixed vocabulary is broken down into larger topics such as beliefs (includes 29 sub-terms), community (29 terms), education (25 terms), and emotions (26 terms). Fixed words for different subjects makes for more consistent keywords than found in the StoryCorps App. Below are some examples of a keyword list applied to StoryCorps’ Signature facilitated interviews. While the emotions keywords below might not be directly relevant to your interview, this excerpt may give you a better sense of terms you may choose to describe interviews. Think of incorporating some of these, if relevant:
In Figure 4., the Facilitator was able to find many Fixed Keywords, but also supplemented the list with General Keywords, People, and Places sections that are not controlled. By showing you this distinction, I’m hoping to point out the advantages and disadvantages to both fixed and ad-hoc, general keywords. The fixed keywords in the regular StoryCorps interviews, like many other classification systems, push individuals to choose the same word rather than a synonym or an uncommon slang term. Instead of typing in “mom” or “mommy,” for example, it pushes interviewers to choose “Mom” exclusively. However, since the fixed keyword list is not all-encompassing and cannot fully capture the diversity StoryCorps always seeks in its stories and participants, anyone can add additional words to the ad-hoc general keywords in the non-app based StoryCorps, too. In continually adding previously unheard voices through local partnerships with community organizations, StoryCorps pushes the boundaries of its fixed keywords lists. These StoryCorps Signature Fixed Keywords are periodically reviewed by StoryCorps and AFC staff for necessary updates.
In short, at a minimum use Keywords and other fields to cover who, what, where, and when questions about the interview, but always make sure to also:
- Provide us with the full names of participants as we will later search for them
- Clarify the relationship between participants
- Give us a sense of the topics and themes covered in the conversation
- Provide city and state location keywords
Using keywords carefully allows us to understand your interview. Think of the individuals who come into the American Folklife Center each day asking to listen to StoryCorps interviews. When you go out and use the StoryCorps App, you yourself can decide what’s worth noting for future users.