StoryCorps: Citizen History in Bite-size Chunks

14 Feb

The popularization of citizen journalism has seen an upturn in recent years alongside the rise of the internet, social media and smartphone access. This in turn has led to an increase in “oral histories” collected by non-professionals that often amount to little more than patched together sound bites.  The work of professional oral historians sometimes seems buried underneath an onslaught of these pop-histories and many oral historians cringe at the prospect of amateurs assuming their duties.

A principle player in this arena is StoryCorps, whose mission is “to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives”.[1]  The StoryCorps website consists of a collection of over 50,000 oral history interviews from a wide variety of contributors.  They are archived at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and are available at http://storycorps.org/.  The organization also has a companion smartphone app and website (www.storycorps.me) that make it even more convenient to participate in the StoryCorps project.

Beginning in 2003, StoryCorps has invited ordinary people to conduct oral histories with each other in sound-proof “Story Booths” in locations around the country including Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.  A technician facilitates the process and works the equipment – sometimes acting as the interviewer if a visitor is alone.  More often the interviews are conducted by relatives or friends and can be quite fluid.  Each recording session is 40 minutes, but are later edited down to a few minutes and posted to the StoryCorps website along with a photo and a description of those interviewed.  Some selections are aired on NPR, who is one of StoryCorp’s many sponsors that include the NEA.

On the StoryCorps website, users can sift through over 750 stories which can be searched by state, category (e.g. Latino, love stories, LBGTQ, 9/11, etc.) or year.  The quality of the recordings is excellent and the site itself is playful, easy to navigate and user friendly. There are no groundbreaking technical innovations in this endeavor.  It is the vision expressed in their mission statement that makes StoryCorps stand out.  Stories cannot be easily downloaded but there are provisions for researchers through the Library of Congress.  Enhancing the interviews greatly is the addition of animation to the oral histories.  These can be quite whimsical or thought provoking depending on the subject matter and the imagination of the animator.  So far none of the interviews have been videotaped, which would be an excellent option.  As Michael Frisch points out in the American Historical Review article Interchange, video adds to an oral history because facial expressions and body language are conveyed.[2]  Transcripts of the edited version are available but it would be wonderful if the full transcripts were available as they would contextual the interview.  As it stands now the stories are so highly edited that it is difficult to gain any substantial insight into those interviewed.

Amateur historians cataloging their remembrances through programs like StoryCorps are no substitute for professional oral historians because armatures lack training and versatility.  Family members may fail to ask tough questions and they lack objectivity.  Amateurs often cannot tell the difference between a leading question and an open-ended one.  However, no self-respecting historian will argue that collecting more history is a bad thing.

[1] “About,” StoryCorps, accessed January 21, 2017, https://storycorps.org/about/

[2] Cohen, Daniel J., Michael Frisch, Patrick Gallagher, Steven Mintz, Kirsten Sword, Amy Murrell Taylor, William G. Thomas, and William J. Turkel. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (2008): 452-91. doi:10.2307/25095630.

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