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On Fridays, on NPR radio, you may have heard recordings of peoples’ life stories brought to you by StoryCorps, an organization that collects and archives average Americans’ oral histories for posterity. Well, there’s no need to wait for the StoryCorps MobileBooth to come to your town. They’ve created a smartphone app so we can all help to build the archive’s holdings of the Greatest Generation and their children. Pretty cool! Here’s a slightly edited article and a slideshow about how it works.
A smartphone app from StoryCorps can bridge generations by turning anyone into a documentarian, and save oral histories of family and friends in the Library of Congress.
Around many holiday tables, the smartphone represents much of what divides the generations. This season, put yours to better use.
My 91-year-old neighbor taught me how my phone could actually make me a better listener. It happened after Nello, a teacher for 60 years, got married this summer. For the neighbors, friends and former students who attended, it was like watching a grandparent walk down the aisle. Even our mail carrier came.
At the reception, some of us got to talking about how to capture and preserve Nello’s adventures. Every modern smartphone has the tools to record an interview and take photos. But a new app called StoryCorps adds a remarkable capability: It can put anyone’s conversation online and preserve it in the Library of Congress.
This archive of humanity’s wisdom now includes my dear friend Nello. StoryCorps may be familiar to listeners of National Public Radio, which plays the nonprofit’s recordings on Fridays. Known for capturing oral histories in professional studios with facilitators and fancy microphones, it logged 65,000 in 12 years. This year, StoryCorps opened up. A smartphone app it debuted in the spring allows even an inexperienced interviewer to become a documentarian, with guidance on where to hold the phone’s microphone and how to think up great questions.
Already, 120,000 people have signed up. StoryCorps is now leading an initiative called The Great Thanksgiving Listen for students to use its app to interview their grandparents and other senior friends, building out the archive’s holdings of the Greatest Generation and baby boomers. This good idea need not apply just to children. Imagine it: During the holidays, instead of using gadgets to ignore each other, we might use them as an excuse to look each other in the eye and listen.
The history that StoryCorps participants are gathering for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress spans the American experience, from the challenges of veterans to the untold stories of gays and lesbians. One participant, Rory Miller,interviewed his girlfriend about their first kiss, and ended up proposing marriage during the recording. Vet Vaughn Gordydescribed the time his plane was shot down by enemy fire during World War II.
A StoryCorps interview is often as much about therapy as history. Elizabeth Bell, a 32-year-old art teacher from Dallas, has been using the StoryCorps app to interview her mother, who has been suffering from dementia.
In one conversation, Ms. Bell tells her mother that she’s afraid the disease will take away her ability to speak.
“I just want to record your voice so I can listen to it over and over,” Ms. Bell says.
“Listen to this: ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’” her mother responds, struggling with her words.
I can’t play Ms. Bell’s interviews without getting misty-eyed. I asked her what motivates her to do them. “It’s just so instantaneous, so pure,” she told me. “I just pressed and spoke—it was not something I had to sit down and write.”
There’s something about the presence of a microphone in a StoryCorps session that changes the dynamic between two people. It’s a license to say things that wouldn’t normally come up, and ask questions you don’t usually get to ask.
With my friend Nello, I found using a smartphone to conduct an interview wasn’t hard. You can do it with the voice recorder app readily available on any smartphone. But downloading the free StoryCorps app for iPhones and Android handsets helps you be better prepared.
The first step is to have a conversation about recording an interview, and what it means to be posted on the Internet. Having your teenager explain the value of being on the Internet to someone in their 80s may, in itself, be an eye-opening experience.
This wasn’t an issue in my interviews, with Nello or others. StoryCorps founder Dave Isay told me that’s pretty common. The generation that might not want to broadcast every whim on Facebook doesn’t necessarily have a problem sharing deeper knowledge. “We all want to know we are not going to be forgotten and that our lives matter,” he told me.
The next step is coming up with questions. StoryCorps interviews last no more than 40 minutes, and usually five to 10 good questions are more than enough. The app offers a lot of help on this front, suggesting a range of open-ended questions that have elicited revealing answers:
• “Can you tell me about one or two people who have been kindest to you in your life?”
• “Do you have any regrets?”
• “How would you like to be remembered?”
You can put a virtual pin in these questions, or your own, to view in the app while you’re conducting your interview. In one of my sessions with Nello, I wanted to learn about an old friend he’d frequently mentioned, Victoria de los Ángeles, a renowned Catalan operatic soprano whose fame peaked in the 1960s. My questions were about her, how he’d come to know her and what she taught him.
You need to find a quiet place to do the interview, and it really must be one-on-one. In its professional sessions, StoryCorps typically records in small, soundproof booths. One I visited has the interviewer and subject facing each other at a small table, with a single table light illuminating the otherwise dark space. Not only does this minimize background noise, but it helps the subject and interviewer focus on each other.
The microphone on most phones is sufficient for StoryCorps, and I held mine about a hand’s-length away. (Leaving it on the table can make people sound distant.) I can also recommend the $100 Mikey Digital external microphone from Blue that plugs into an iPhone for easier placement and a warmer, more professional sound.
You’ll want a glass of water for your subject, and maybe a box of tissues, too. Crying is not only OK—it happens in the majority of StoryCorps interviews, even if you’re not talking about death or loss, a veteran StoryCorps facilitator told me. My interview subjects were often caught off-guard by how intense their memories felt, and how quickly their 40 minutes were up.
At the end of an interview, you save and upload it, but the StoryCorps app asks you to do two things first: Enter a series of keywords, a critical step if you want your interview to be found by future historians. Then the app asks you to take a photo with your subject. This is one instance when a selfie is perfect.
It’s possible to use the StoryCorps app to record an interview and save it just for yourself. This is also helpful if you’d prefer to download and edit your interview on a computer before posting to the Internet—grandparents can say the darndest things! You can upload audio files directly to StoryCorps.me on a Web browser.
My interview with Nello about his opera-singing friend taught me that the StoryCorps phenomenon is about more than recording history. It’s about listening more intensely than our busy lives usually allow. For the first time, I saw this nonagenarian as he sees himself: a passionate young man.
When our interview was over, we walked over to his music collection and he pulled out favorite recordings of his late friend. Then he began playing them—from “Carmen” to “Madama Butterfly”—so I could hear what he knew so intimately.
For an hour, we sat together listening to music and watching the sunset.