“100 years from now, what will it mean to have recorded and preserved the voices and experiences of everyday people?”
Celebrating its “10 years of listening to America” this month, Storycorps asks that very question. The oral history project’s mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve their stories. And, the Library of Congress is committed to safeguarding those stories as well.
According to Stephen Winick of the Library’s American Folklife Center (AFC), project founder David Isay intended the audio recordings to be preserved in the AFC. Today, more than 45,000 audio interviews comprise the StoryCorps project. They join other complementary Library collections, including like the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, the Veterans History Project and the Civil Rights History Project.
Ordinary Americans from all walks of life participate in these interviews. They are intimate and detailed, personal and poignant, charming and amusing.
“We find urban and town life, teachers, traumatic memories and coming-of-age stories,” said Winick. “There’s an unparalleled wealth of firsthand recollections.”
“You see, the thing of it is, I always feel guilty when I say I love you, to you, and I say it so often, I say it to remind you that as dumpy as I am, it’s coming from me- it’s like hearing a beautiful song from a busted old radio. And it’s nice of you to keep the radio around the house,” said Danny Perasa, in an 2004 oral history excerpt from he and his wife Annie.
The Perasas came back to Storycorps a few more times, including when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, and Annie alone seven years after Danny’s death. “You know, like people say, ‘You must miss Danny terribly.’ No. It was an honor to be married to him. So it’s not terrible that I had the time to be with him. You know, life is too short. You come and you’re gone. But Danny didn’t go. He’s not gone because of StoryCorps.”
In 1991, Bryan Lindsay, who was 7 at the time, was hit by a van and almost killed. Rowan Allen was the paramedic on the scene. The two recently recorded a StoryCorps interview to remember the day.
“You had a massive dent on your forehead. And I remember your mother asking me in the ambulance, ‘Is he going to be all right?’” said Allen. “I played it down. And I said to her, ‘Oh it’s just a little bump on the head.’ But to this day when I start thinking about the details, I get choked up.”
“You know, just to be here with you is more than I could ever ask. And it’s a privilege to be around you. I really sincerely thank you,” said Lindsay.
Aside from StoryCorps being an opportunity to preserve people’s stories and life experiences, the project also serves as a study in sociology and cultural history.
“The audio recordings also allows researchers to study language itself,” said Winick.
In addition, the StoryCorps interviews lend themselves to a variety of projects. Currently, National Public Radio broadcasts them as part of a regular feature and has made animated shorts, which can be viewed on NPR’s website. The collection can also be useful to the information technology industry for such things as speech-recognition software.
“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,” said Sharon DeLevie-Orey, who conducted an oral-history interview with her grandmother in StoryCorps’ first stationary recording booth in New York’s Grand Central Station in 2003. “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.”