create your own oral history project

A StoryCorps booth in New York City

photo: craig stephen

Recently, we stumbled on an article about StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that records personal stories, airs some of them on NPR, and archives them at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. It’s a way to preserve personal histories as well as histories of the time, and of cultures. We imagined using it to document and preserve the memories of our ancient friends in Helvetia, a unique Swiss settlement in the West Virginia Appalachians. Although we DID record the memories of some of the folks there, we were somehow never able to get StoryCorps involved.

That got us thinking about many elderly family members and friends whose stories could easily pass by the wayside…like the 92-year-old woman we know who lived through the Great Depression, worked for Oscar Hammerstein, and had an uncle who ran the Tunnel of Love in Coney Island. When the great comic actor Zero Mostel danced with her once, he swooned and said “You smell like a newly sharpened pencil”. How could we let those memories slip away?

Why not go-ahead and create our own story-telling sessions, we wondered, either using a microphone or video recorder…

…to capture lives lived with their endless miraculous improvisations?

All it takes is carving out some time, grabbing a recording device — an iPhone will do — asking some questions to get things going, then LISTENING…

The trick is to start somewhere, record 5 minutes worth, then another 5 or 10 another time, until you’ve compiled…a life story, or the gist…

One of our favorite places to hear people’s personal stories is at The Moth; the are REAL, spoken live, full of revelations. We’re waiting for our friend Anthony Giglio‘s brought-down-the-house appearance a few months ago to become available. Stay-tuned.

via StoryCorpsphoto courtesy of Craig Stephen

With thanks to Dese’Rae L. Stage

Related posts: maira kalman on life, death, work, love…
‘ordinary people, extraordinary lives’
our lives, in brief (secrets, 6-word memoirs, even obits)
before i die I want to___________
j.k. rowling on the fringe benefits of failure
the art of listening, the importance of story-telling

2 Responses to create your own oral history project

  1. azita 11.30.2012 at 11:22am #

    I really want to do this with my folks, both in audio and video format. Have taken stabs at it here and there but it’s a work in progress and easily lost in the shuffle of “to-do” lists. Thank you for the reminder to really get to it! By the way, have you heard of It’s a pretty good site (you can read more about it here: I don’t like to store my stories on their site but I signed up for their “question” emails and I like them – they give you plenty of ideas as how to interview your subjects. …

  2. Sally 11.30.2012 at 11:26am #

    Hey thanks so much for the headsup to and their “question” email. That is the part that can really get things going.
    I was talking to my sister last night about recording my mother, which we’ve talked about in the past. When we got into the idea of just doing it in small bits, with no formal set-ups or elaborate equipment, it seemed much more do-able. No need for perfection…just to be able to hear and/or see the person well enough.

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