StoryCorps may perhaps be the United States’ most familiar and largest oral history project, yet many oral historians have trouble knowing whether to embrace it as such. Guest contributor Aubrey Parke suggests that another lens through which to consider StoryCorps is digital humanities, with its ethos of crowdsourcing and collaborative forms of publication. What can StoryCorps’ digital app for recording interviews suggest for the field and our methodologies?
By Aubrey Parke
Several months ago, I sat with my grandparents on their sunny screened-in porch and asked them how they fell in love. They told their story like a patchwork quilt, stringing together dozens of memories about Winstead’s drive-in and wringer-washer laundry on Saturday mornings. Behind all these anecdotes lay a background of economic and cultural forces that shaped their daily lives: a series of massive railroad mergers, anti-Catholic sentiment in the American Midwest, and shifting gender politics in the 1950s, to name a few. While we chatted, I recorded our conversation on the StoryCorps app. Forty-five minutes in, the recording automatically shut off. I snapped a picture of my grandparents, tagged our location, and uploaded the interview to the StoryCorps online archive.
Since the advent of StoryCorps as an independent non-profit in 2003, historians have debated whether recorded conversations like these qualify as “oral history.” The 2008 Oral History Association annual meeting even erupted into a contentious debate about the status and purpose of StoryCorps. Many historians have questioned whether the project would produce a useful historical record or just a random, nostalgic mass of individual memories. According to the Oral History Association (OHA), the discipline of oral history underwent a “paradigm shift” in the 80s and 90s as practitioners began to not just gather interviews as primary source materials, but to actively construct historical narratives from oral sources. StoryCorps corresponds to the earlier form of oral history, which sought to create a popular record, not to analyze or construct narratives.
Oral historians have also criticized StoryCorps for creating an inaccessible archive. The nonprofit started with physical listening booths where anyone could record a 40-minute interview with an acquaintance or loved one in the presence of a moderator. Since its founding, StoryCorps has yielded approximately 75,000 interviews. Staff have edited a small fraction of the recordings into animated short films and weekly NPR audio features; the American Folklife Center section of the Library of Congress is the project’s official archive, but potential users must make a special request to access full interviews.
Access to interviews suddenly expanded in 2015, when StoryCorps launched its app. People who record interviews on the app can choose to upload them directly to the StoryCorps online archive, a publicly searchable website. Copies of these interviews also go to the closed archive at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps and the Library of Congress have encouraged app users to tag their uploads with thoughtful keywords, such as “immigration” or “First Nations,” so that archivists and researchers can locate them. Currently, StoryCorps is in the process of making some interviews recorded in physical listening booths available online as well. Once published to the online archive, interviews can be heard in their entirety, not just as radio-length soundbites.
With a searchable online archive, StoryCorps has gained new potential to claim scholarly space in the field of Digital Humanities (DH). Although DH is famously difficult to define, “The Short Guide to the Digital Humanities,” describes it as “new modes of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, trans-disciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching and publication…in which print is no longer the primary medium.” Lacking a specific research objective, perhaps StoryCorps is not in and of itself a DH project, but the app and online archive belong in the world of DH as tools for crowdsourcing a diverse oral record of U.S. history. The StoryCorps app has great potential to facilitate new, collaborative modes of teaching and publication.
The application is intuitive and easy to use. After making an account, users can prepare an interview by entering their name, date, and location, and by customizing a list of questions. Users can swipe through their questions on the app while recording. When the interview stops, the device automatically saves the recording. The app then prompts users to fill out fields such as summary and keywords and, if they wish to make the interview public, upload it to the StoryCorps website. Perhaps most importantly, the app allows people to store and share large audio files. For the average smartphone user, storing multiple hour-long .WAV or .MP3 files is unrealistic and sharing those files with other people is clunky at best. StoryCorps allows people to store their interviews online for free and share them by simply copy-pasting a link into a text or email.
The StoryCorps app enables crowdsourcing, a key tool of the digital humanities. A study presented at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference defines “crowdsourcing” in the digital age as “online projects entailing the active contribution of an undefined public.” The StoryCorps app has great potential to become a tool of generative crowdsourcing. For example, StoryCorps launched the Stonewall OutLoud project and asked people to use the app to “interview an elder and/or another remember of the LGBTQ community.” StoryCorps provided comprehensive guidelines to help participating individuals and organizations build organize and archive their interviews with relevant tags so future researchers could locate the records.
Any third-party organization can use the app and online archive as tools to create a searchable collection, such as the Labor Stories project launched by StoryCorps employees to demand better working conditions. In a 2015 article for the Oral History Review, Alexander Freund argued that StoryCorps is antithetical to social history because it promotes individual storytelling rather than the systematic study of social groups. Crowdsourced projects like Stonewall OutLoud or Labor Stories could void Freund’s critique by using a targeted initiative to solicit stories from defined groups.
Scholars who want to incorporate oral history into their research can search the StoryCorps online archive and even create their own communities, circulating calls for digital contributions via social media. StoryCorps could better accommodate scholars by including more detailed instructions in the app about keywords and tagging. If interviews are well-coded, scholars and archivists will be able to locate them in the online repository. Public interviews can be downloaded, allowing researchers to use these digital texts in multimedia projects like documentaries, websites, and podcasts (pending, of course, permission from the original interviewer).
Oral historians who resist embracing StoryCorps as a product of their field could view it as a useful interdisciplinary tool from the Digital Humanities, one that enables researchers, teachers, and students to engage with oral sources as an important part of the historical record. One Chicago educator uses the StoryCorps app in her African-America history courses because she wants her students to “become creators of information…preparing narratives that will be archived in the American Folklife Center.” I struggle to think of something more synchronous with the spirit of Digital Humanities than a decentralized network of young people using cell phones and family histories to consciously build an archive. At the time of writing, StoryCorps users have already uploaded OVER 1300 interviews tagged as “COVID-19,” many of them recorded by students for online school projects. While some were obviously made with little effort and preparation, others offer insights into how the pandemic has affected working-class families, college students, and healthcare workers. Such crowdsourced collections would be a goldmine for future historians. And perhaps if somewhere, someday, a researcher wants to write about U.S. Catholicism or railroads in the 1950s, they will come across the conversation I recorded with my grandparents on September 19, 2020.
Aubrey Parke is an M.A. Public History student and Graduate Assistant at Duquesne University. In the past, she has worked as an oral historian, community archivist, and consulting firm analyst. She is from San Antonio, Texas, where she dedicates her spare time to work surrounding immigration and refugee issues.