By Corey Boling

WITNESS and StoryCorps both recognize the value of personal stories in tackling larger issues.  People are at the heart of each organization, anchoring the abstract in the human experience.

Imagine sitting down with your grandmother and having a conversation.  You chat about 1960s youth culture, the arrival of the personal computer, life before Twitter, and the election of America’s first black president.  She rambles and you coax.  And for 40 minutes, you relate to each other in a new and profound way.  Then a recording of your conversation is sent to the Library of Congress.

StoryCorps is dedicated to providing a diverse cross section of the American public with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve their stories.  Archiving over 40,000 interviews from over 80,000 participants since 2003, this non-profit’s success stems from its commitment to harnessing a culture-of-listening as a vehicle for public service.  Mariel Gruszko, Facilitator of StoryCorps’ Door-to-Door Program, emphasizes that “from the beginning there has been a sense that oral history in general, and StoryCorps in particular, ought to exist as a way to record stories of people who aren’t really represented in mainstream media or who are marginalized in other ways.”

So how does StoryCorps accomplish this goal?  Offering three tiers of service, StoryCorps is able to cater to a wide range of communities all across the US.  With its permanent venues in Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco, a mobile Airstream trailer crisscrossing the country, and StoryKits delivered directly to your door, the organization clearly believes that every voice matters.  Its Online Question Generator helps guide participants while its Animated Shorts and National Day of Listening initiative find new resourceful ways for fostering engagement.

Three examples of Animated Shorts from Storycorps, left to right: “She Was the One”; “Always a Family”; “Danny & Annie”

But commitment to inclusion isn’t just a lofty goal; it is a formalized part of the StoryCorps model.  “All of our different recording venues have statistical requirements in terms of the percentage of interviews recorded so that they are demographically representative of the US population,” states Gruszko.  And with digital recordings funneled directly to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and broadcast weekly on NPR, these slices of American life contribute to the preservation and dissemination of the shared humanity at the heart of StoryCorps’ mission.

So all of this is great, but why do we need StoryBooths or Door-to-Door service in a digital age boiling over with recording devices?  Can’t participants just record themselves on their mobile phone or upload a video to YouTube?  Sure, but that’s not what StoryCorps is about.  StoryCorps’ goal is not to document factual information, but rather to gain insight into the personal stories that make up the lived experience.

By facilitating interviews between friends or family, the act of visiting a StoryCorps site serves as a sort of ritual that prepares you to speak in surprising ways.  Notes Gruszko:

There definitely is something about this StoryCorps experience that opens up possibilities for relating to each other in a different way. And I think it has to do with the fact that we’re giving people someone with whom they’re fairly intimate to talk to, so they’re comfortable but at the same time we’re taking them out of their everyday surroundings.

Consciously opting solely for high quality audio recordings in today’s video-driven age, StoryCorps-founder Dave Isay’s background in broadcast radio isn’t the only reason for not filming participants.  “It was his feeling that when you have people that have no experience talking to media, or producing their own storytelling materials, they’ll freeze up if you put them in front of a camera.”

But high quality audio recording poses its own unique challenges. “I’ll position the mics and then they’ll freak out.  It’s a fairly large microphone and it’s a fist’s widths distance from their face. It’s something that you do still notice and people will often recoil or try and lean away from it,” reflects Gruszko.

And while this may seem a daunting obstacle, it also presents a unique opportunity for guidance.  By seating partners in a specific way and encouraging eye contact, the technology fades into the background.  But aren’t participants uncomfortable with having a StoryCorps facilitator in the room?  “The facilitators that record the conversations model good listening, so just the very fact of having someone seated a few feet away from you who is only there to listen, I think makes people feel that they are being paid attention to in a very purposeful way and for the person asking the questions it shows them how to listen intensely,” notes Gruszko.  “I think that part of what makes the magic happen is constantly erasing my role while I’m performing it.”

StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, an organization that is showing the greater nation how to listen intensely. Do you know about other oral history projects in your community or your country? Please share them with us in the comments.

Check out WITNESS’ storytelling curriculum for further information about the importance of storytelling in human rights video.


Corey Boling is a graduate student in Museum Anthropology at Columbia University and a Program Intern at WITNESS.

2 thoughts on “Oral History as Storytelling: Sharing the Fabric of American Life

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *