In times of strife, stories are more important than ever. They help make sense of what’s happening right now—there’s a reason everyone seems to be reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, chronicling the bubonic plague in London—and document the recent past. Stories can also connect people to shared history, and the lives of their relatives: Didn’t great-grandfather live through the Spanish Flu? Was his experience anything like yours?
StoryCorps has been collecting these kinds of stories since 2003, when the nonprofit first started placing mobile recording booths in cities like New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. The organization invites people to visit these booths, two at a time, and record interviews about their lives—moments of triumph and tragedy, recollections of the monumental and the mundane. StoryCorps has captured the living histories of more than 300,000 Americans through the conversations in these booths and, more recently, through a StoryCorps app that allows people to conduct the interviews in person anywhere. The group says that its recordings, which are stored at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, make up the “largest single collection of human voices ever gathered.”
Now, as the world adapts to a historic pandemic, it wants to gather more. This week, the nonprofit introduced StoryCorps Connect, a digital version of its mobile recording booths. It uses the same blueprint of a StoryCorps interview, but instead of the booth, the conversations will take place over video chat. Unlike the app, which uses the microphone from a single device, both people don’t have to be in the same room.
“This is an opportunity to speak to the future, to pass wisdom down, to ask questions like, ‘How do you want to be remembered,’” says Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ founder and president.
Anyone can sign up to contribute. Start by choosing someone to interview—parents and grandparents make great candidates right now—and then invite them to register on the StoryCorps Connect platform. From there, participants can chat with each other over video while the interview records. Interviews typically take about 40 minutes, and StoryCorps provides a list of sample questions to help people get started: How has your life been different than what you’d imagined? Can you tell me about one of your happiest memories? One of your most difficult memories? StoryCorps also recently added 16 questions related to the Covid-19 pandemic: How is this experience different from other historical events you’ve lived through? What is the toughest part of your days right now? Are you afraid?
Those recorded answers—especially the ones related to the pandemic—could become a repository of primary source material about Americans’ experiences during this crisis. “After 9/11, we worked with the National September 11 Memorial to record a story with everyone who lost a loved one. It’s a great way to capture history,” says Isay. “This could be the way we gather first-hand accounts of what it was like to live through this moment.”
To Isay, though, StoryCorps has always been about creating a record of a living person to pass down to future generations. Early into the project, he did a StoryCorps interview with his father, who has since passed away. The audio recording is one of the ways he’s preserved the memory of his father and passed it down to his own children.
Now, as many Americans shelter in place and the Covid-19 crisis continues, Isay believes people have the perfect opportunity to call up a loved one and talk to them like they only have 40 minutes left on Earth together. “It takes some emotional energy to sit with a loved one and have a serious conversation. Often, there has to be an urgency to do it,” says Isay. “This is the moment of urgency.”
This will be the first time that StoryCorps interviews are not conducted in-person, but the nonprofit wanted to preserve the experience of talking to someone face-to-face. To do so, it’s partnered with Vonage to create a video conferencing platform. For now, there are no plans to archive the video streams—just the audio, as in other StoryCorps interviews.
StoryCorps is currently partnering with schools, encouraging students to interview relatives as part of a class assignment, and nursing homes, to match volunteers to older people who want to take part. At its heart, though, StoryCorps Connect is designed to make it easy for anyone, anywhere, to record a little bit of their loved ones. If not now, Isay says, then it might one day be too late.
“Everything about StoryCorps reminds you that you’re going to die,” says Isay. “A lot of people say to me, I wish I’d interviewed my grandmother or my brother but I waited too long. It’s easy to put off. Obviously, we’re in a moment where you shouldn’t put it off.”
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