Everyday Existence

The founder of StoryCorps talks about the central role of libraries in this national oral history project that records the lives of ordinary people.

April 11, 2010

A confession: I am a library freak.  I believe deeply in the importance of libraries and think of librarians as some of the most amazing, committed, brilliant, and radical professionals I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet and work with. I believe that the future of the organization I founded, StoryCorps, will be tightly entwined with libraries.

Libraries have played a huge role in our work to date: When I needed to get away for a few weeks to focus on the manuscript for the first StoryCorps book, Listening Is an Act of Love, I escaped from our base in Brooklyn to a heretofore undisclosed location (the Wallingford Public Library in Connecticut) and holed up there to edit and write. When our MobileBooths travel the country to record the stories of this nation, they site themselves at the most central and community-oriented spot possible in each town: Most often it’s right in front of the local public library. Our first two StoryBooths outside of New York City were located in the Milwaukee Public Library and the Nashville Public Library. Our Door-to-Door facilitators have recorded countless stories inside scores of public libraries from coast to coast. MobileBooths? StoryBooths? Facilitators? What is this thing called StoryCorps?

StoryCorps is built on a few basic ideas: That our stories—the stories of everyday people–are as interesting and important as the celebrity stories we’re bombarded with every moment of the day. That if we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder, and poetry in the stories of the people all around us. That we all want to know our lives have mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten. That listening is an act of love.

Participating in StoryCorps is a simple process. First, you make an appointment to visit one of our recording booths.  Bring anyone you choose—your grandmother, your dad, your sister, your best friend, the waitress at the local diner whose story you’ve always been curious about.  A trained StoryCorps facilitator will greet you, take you into the booth, and shut the door.

Inside, the booth is completely silent. The lights are low. The room is cozy. You sit at a small table across from, let’s say, your grandmother, looking into her eyes. There’s a microphone in front of each of you. The facilitator sits down in front of an audio console and presses "Record." You begin to ask your questions:

“What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?”

“What did your mother sing to you when you were a baby?”

“How do you want to be remembered?”

At the end of 40 minutes, two broadcast-quality CDs have been created. One goes home with you. A second becomes part of our archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, so that your great-great-great-grandchildren will someday be able to get to know your grandmother through her voice and stories.

StoryCorps has dozens of local archives in libraries across the country. Excerpts of interviews are broadcast each Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition.

I was a public radio documentary producer for years before I started StoryCorps. In many ways, the idea came to life at the Library of Congress, where I first encountered the WPA recordings that emerged from the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. These 78-rpm records were made by a small cadre of historians and folklorists who drove across the country, lugging enormous acetate disc recorders in the trunks of their cars, to capture the stories and songs of everyday people.

On these recordings you can hear the voices of former slaves reflecting on their lives, prisoners in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary singing work songs, Harlem fishmongers hawking their wares, pool players in Washington, D.C., talking about the bombing of Pearl Harbor the day after the attacks. Many of these were perfectly recorded.

I was in my mid-20s, and I was mesmerized. Hearing these voices transported me back in time in a way that no photograph, movie, or book ever had. I wondered why nothing along the lines of these WPA interviews had been undertaken since, top-quality recordings of the voices of everyday Americans across the nation.

A few years later, I produced a radio documentary about the last flophouses on the Bowery in New York City, where homeless men could sleep in prison cell–sized rooms covered in chicken wire for as little as five dollars a night. Later, the documentary was turned into a book of photographs and oral histories. I remember bringing early proofs of the book into a flophouse and sharing them with the residents. One of the men looked at his story, took it in his hands, and literally danced through the halls of the old hotel, shouting, “I exist!"

I was stunned. I realized, as never before, how many people among us feel completely invisible, believe their lives don’t matter, and fear they’ll someday be forgotten.

Out of these and myriad other experiences and influences, StoryCorps began taking shape in the summer of 2002. Having seen the positive impact that participating in documentary work could have on people’s lives, I wanted to open the experience up to everyone. I hoped to create a project that was all about the act of interviewing loved ones, with only a secondary emphasis on the final edited product—in essence, inverting the purpose of traditional documentary work from an artistic or educational project created for the benefit of an audience into a process principally focused on enhancing the lives of the participants.

From there it was a matter of figuring out the details and finding the right partners. I hoped beyond hope that the StoryCorps collection might live at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, home to the WPA interviews I so admired.  I made a cold call to the center’s director, Peggy Bulger. I told Peggy about this crazy idea I had called “StoryCorps” and asked if the Folklife Center might consider housing the collection. Miraculously, she had the vision and foresight to say “yes” on the spot. And so it began.

StoryCorps opened its doors on October 23, 2003, in Grand Central Terminal. The great oral historian Studs Terkel, who was 91 at the time, flew in from Chicago to cut the ribbon.

“Today we shall begin celebrating the lives of the un-celebrated!” Terkel proclaimed. “We’re in Grand Central Station. We know there was an architect, but who hung the iron? Who were the brick masons? Who swept the floors? These are the non-celebrated people of our country. In this booth the non-celebrated will speak of their lives. It might be a grandmother speaking to a grandchild. It might be a kid talking to his uncle. It might be a neighbor talking to a neighbor. And suddenly they will realize that they are the ones who have built this country!”

Since launching more than six years ago, we’ve become a national project with booths, mobile booths, and Door-to-Door teams (facilitators armed with recording equipment in backpacks) gathering stories around the country, year-round. To date, StoryCorps has recorded more than 30,000 interviews with around 60,000 participants. Each session represents an act of love and respect: 40 minutes set aside to ask important questions and listen closely to the answers. The interviews honor our families, friends, and elders: ordinary people we find all around us who, in their day-to-day acts of kindness, courage, and humanity, embody the true spirit of our nation.

The broadcasts, podcasts, books, and animations we produce from these interviews remind us how much more we share in common as a nation than divides us; that if we spent less time shouting at each other and more time listening we’d be a better, more thoughtful, and compassionate nation.

We are only at the very beginning of a long journey with StoryCorps. In the coming years, we hope to touch the lives of every American family with the project. We hope that much of this work will be done in concert with libraries and librarians. I can imagine a day when libraries across the country have StoryCorps listening stations; a day when teams of StoryCorps facilitators rotate through libraries every day of the year recording this nation’s story; when libraries and librarians help students and families record their own stories–bringing StoryCorps Do-It-Yourself to millions. I hope and believe that public radio, libraries, and—with a little luck—StoryCorps have the potential to become infinitely more important to this country and its people than they are even today: forming three of the most trusted, safe, and valued cornerstones of our communities and our society at large.

StoryCorps and libraries both stand as strongholds of authenticity in a culture where phoniness often rules the day. They are about permanence in an evermore-disposable society. They remind us of what’s really important in the midst of all of life’s distractions. They encourage us to connect despite endless temptations to detach and disengage.

We consider each StoryCorps session sacred, and we place great value on every story that’s been recorded as part of the project. It is a joy and honor for all of us at StoryCorps to do this work and a privilege to work so closely with libraries and librarians to bring this project to the nation.

Hear StoryCorps founder Dave Isay in person at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., Sunday morning, June 27. Following the program he will sign copies of his latest book, Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps. Enter American Libraries' "Win a Spot with StoryCorps" essay contest by April 15.


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