Everyday history saved on tape
NEW YORK — Tell me about your first kiss. What was the neighborhood like that you grew up in? What was your happiest moment? What should the next generation know about our family?
Intriguing questions. The answers help form the history of a family. And every family has its own story. More and more, they're recording it for future generations.
For years Americans have traced their genealogies. But the coming of the new millennium and life-changing events such as Sept. 11 have spurred new interest in gathering contemporary accounts from family members while they are still here to record them.
Now two programs using 21st-century technology are making it easy for family members to record their stories.
"Telling Lives" is a pilot project of the American History Workshop, a consulting group founded by Richard Rabinowitz in 1980 to bring together historians, scholars, curators, filmmakers, artists, designers, and architects to find new ways of engaging citizens with history. Itaims to create a North American databank of memories from 100,000 people.
The first location, at the New-York Historical Society through Sept. 24, is capturing people's stories about their early school experiences.
The interest in the lives of North Americans - ordinary and extraordinary - has been growing, say Mr. Rabinowitz and others in the field. Biographies of both the famous and not-so-famous have become popular. "We're [still] interested in Ben Franklin or John Adams, but from a much more whole perspective," he says.
At "Telling Lives," visitors sit down at a computer terminal and record a 10-minute video about their early school days. They're prompted by a set of questions generated by the computer program, such as "I am (am not) the person I was in school."
In a waiting area outside the recording cubicle, a videotape of previously recorded interviews primes the mental pump for visitors. On it, one woman recalls how she took grade school so seriously that she was disdainful of other girls who brought their dolls to the first day of school.
Another remembers a student who paired up with a deaf girl to help her learn to read and in turn learned to read herself. Yet another adult tells of having a science project rejected because the teacher doubted the student had the ability to do it.
Eventually, Rabinowitz hopes to store the recordings at the University of Toronto so they can be easily searchable by topic. If the program wins funding to continue, he wants to explore other themes, such as family meals (which should reveal regional and ethnic differences), learning to drive (attitudes toward technology), and "my first job" (attitudes about work).
The "Telling Lives" project is "part of a larger cultural trend that says we're interested in diversifying the voices of the stories that are in museums, we're interested in the museum as a place of dialogue, we're interested in involving visitors as historians," Rabinowitz says. "In the last 25 years we've become much more interested in social history and the history of ordinary people."
"It's very important for us to understand how important our own stories are and to celebrate and honor that," says David Isay, a public-radio documentarymaker and the founder of StoryCorps.
Next month, this nonprofit organization will install its first soundproof StoryBooth at Grand Central Terminal in New York. Aided by a facilitator, visitors will be able to record their personal histories on a 40-minute audio CD for a nominal fee. StoryCorps will retain a copy for its database and for possible use in making public radio documentaries.
Mr. Isay (pronounced EYE-say) hopes to win funding to install StoryBooths around the country. For those unable to come to a booth, his organization will offer StoryKits for recording personal histories anywhere. They'll include a minidisc recorder, microphone, headphones, and instructions.
Today there's a "need for individuals to tell their own story, maybe because there's a need for it in a culture where mass media flattens out the contours of individuality," says Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University in New York. She notes that oral history is "unabashedly" about each person's unique identity: "It's about their gender, their culture, their color, about their work."
Recording of audio or video reminiscences has taken hold since the invention of the portable tape recorder. Perhaps the most famous example occurred in the 1930s when the federally funded Works Progress Administration hired 300 unemployed writers to interview about 2,300 former slaves. Those recordings have become an invaluable resource to researchers studying African-American history.
More recently, filmmaker Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation videotaped some 51,000 Holocaust survivors, who told of their experiences. And today, the Veterans History Project, sponsored by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, is in the process of collecting reminiscences from veterans of World War I through the 1991 Gulf War.
Besides these large efforts, smaller projects have collected stories such as those of the Assiniboine Indians, passed along by those who watched the Lewis and Clark expedition cross Montana, and the braceros, Mexican immigrant farm workers who played a key role in America's food production during World War II. And all across the country, towns and historical societies have made individual efforts to capture the recollections of local citizens.
"Telling Lives," funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the University of Toronto, will expand to other sites later this year in Hartford, Conn.; Atlanta; Los Angeles; and Toronto.
Today, laptop computers with CD burners and DVD players, along with high-quality low-cost digital audio recorders, make it easy and cheap to capture and edit personal histories.
"My dream is that someday kids will be passing around MP3s [compressed music files] of the oral histories they've done, and put together with music or whatever," Isay says. "I think that would be amazing."
For Cathy Ogden, who heads an oral-history project for Greenwich, Conn., these reminiscences can provide gripping evidence of the past. The town has collected more than 700 recollections since 1973, producing 131 bound volumes of material.
One of those accounts is from a man who recalls the 1938 hurricane that hit the town. He was only 14 at the time and walking near a seawall when a giant wave washed his friend off his feet. While the friend clung to a telephone pole, he managed to throw him a rope and rescue him. When listening to this story, Ms. Ogden says, "you just go right back to that scene" with that boy.
Both Rabinowitz and Isay emphasize that they want to make "living" archives of people's lives that can and will be utilized and enjoyed. They don't want to, as Rabinowitz puts it, "wind up with a shoe box of tapes" that no one ever listens to.
"Each of us is uniquely a bridge to the past which would be lost if it were not for our history, our memory," he says. Each person "may be the only witness, the only connection" to some past event. Capturing those memories is "just tremendously important.
"We're all getting filled up with images generated by the media, and I'm very concerned that we are forgetting, we're just erasing a lot of history all the time," Rabinowitz adds. "We are in danger of losing a sense of who we are, and [are] adopting a kind of identity that really is rooted in stories that are generated by other people. It's a kind of 'Disney memory' people have, instead of their own memory.
"The stories of ordinary people are more important and more interesting than the stories of celebrities," he says. "Certainly to the families themselves."
You don't have to be a professional historian or researcher to record wonderful oral histories of your friends and family. But a few tips may make the experience more enjoyable and yield better results.
If you're interviewing someone you know well, for example, some special care is needed.
At first you may get very short answers or evasions such as "Why are you asking me that question? You know the answer" or "Just like I told you last time," says Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Oral-History Research Office at Columbia University.
In this situation, create a little formality by thinking of yourself as an "interested stranger," she suggests. Imagine you're recording for a grandchild two generations down the line who won't know the specifics of today's world. So don't be afraid to ask about the ordinary: Fifty years from now the price of a subway token or a ham sandwich will actually be interesting.
Be sure to ask people how they felt about events, says David Isay, who makes documentaries for public radio and is founder of StoryCorps, a new nationwide oral history project. That will get them away from "the rehearsed narrative of their lives."
Other suggestions from Dr. Clark, Mr. Isay, and other oral historians include:
• Decide on your equipment and medium: An audio interview (on a tape recorder) may be less intimidating for the subject than speaking into a video camera. Highly recommended equipment includes headphones that allow you to hear how the interview is sounding and a separate microphone (clipped on or hand-held) that can be put near the mouth of the speaker.
• Try to learn about the person beforehand. Read about the times and places in which he or she lived.
• Bring along old family photos or letters to jog memories.
• A chronological approach makes for an easy format: Just begin at the beginning.
• Allow silences and take breaks if you're doing an extended session. Remember that the result may not be a tidy summing up of the person's life. Real lives are complex and "often there's no good end to a story," Clark says .
• Try to keep remarks tied to events the person witnessed firsthand rather than events he or she might have heard about secondhand.
• "Don't stay away from the tough stuff," Isay urges. He once interviewed his Uncle Sandy and asked him about the death of his wife. Afterward, his uncle was glad he'd spoken about it. "He said, 'It's good to be able to cry and talk about this stuff.' Telling the truth always feels good."
What questions to ask? The list is endless: Did you have a nickname growing up and why did you get it? How much money did you make on your first job? What were your grandparents like? How did you know that your spouse was "the one" to marry?
But remember that it's crucial to follow up with your own spontaneous questions, including "why?" Let the interview grow "organically," Isay says. "And you always follow the good stuff.... When I'm doing an interview and something interesting happens, it's almost like you can see the sparks coming out of people's mouths."
If you listen closely, listen with respect, and treat your subjects with dignity, he adds, "amazing things will happen."