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Looking for our nation’s forgotten stories? Turn up the volume.

Why We Wrote This

Ordinary folks often get left out of history books, but an overlooked medium may encourage a more inclusive historical record: audio. Sound recordings offer a more nuanced story of our past. 

David Dishneau/AP
Gabriella Rinehart interviews great-grandmother Mae Ridge in the kitchen of Ms. Ridge's home in Leitersburg, Md., in late 2015. The interview was part of the Great Thanksgiving Listen oral history project on StoryCorps. Audio storytelling is currently enjoying a resurgence.

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As technology makes good storytelling more accessible, all things audio, from podcasts and audiobooks to radio, are enjoying a resurgence. That bodes well for the historical record and for the people who typically get left out of it, says Beverly Romberger, a communications professor at Susquehanna University who specializes in oral histories. 

“Audio history … provides us with insights into the meanings everyday people are giving to daily events we see in the news,” says Dr. Romberger. “Polls tell us numbers about the political context. Stories let us hear the individual citizen’s recounting of events, emotions, the life dreams, the hopes, the anguish. Ordinary people have a voice through audio history.” 

In an era seen by many as fraught with political divisiveness and “fake news,” preserving audio artifacts may be more important than ever, adds Charlotte Nunes, director of digital scholarship services at Lafayette College. “Due in part to the current surge of open white nationalism, archives are under more pressure to deliberately and collaboratively build collections that document and preserve diverse histories of who constitutes our nation, today and historically.” 

Today’s news climate might well be one of sound and fury, but it turns out the actual soundtrack to our cultural and political history is there for the taking and the listening. And it’s a soundtrack being tenaciously preserved by librarians and archivists who recognize that much of our history and culture can be found and experienced through audio. 

“Audio history, or what I think of as oral history, provides us with insights into the meanings everyday people are giving to daily events we see in the news,” says Beverly Romberger, a communications professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Penn., who specializes in oral histories. “Polls tell us numbers about the political context. Stories let us hear the individual citizen’s recounting of events, emotions, the life dreams, the hopes, the anguish. Ordinary people have a voice through audio history.”

In fact, all things audio, from podcasts and audiobooks to radio, are enjoying a resurgence as technology makes good storytelling accessible anywhere. While good storytelling engages and transports listeners, audio storytelling is particularly intimate because it invites listeners to create their own images of characters and scenes as they listen. And audio history tells the stories that often fall through the cracks, says Dr. Romberger, adding “audio history lets us tell our stories.”

Unearthing everyday stories 

It takes some digging to unearth hidden historical and cultural archives and turn ordinary voices into compelling stories. But Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva know how to dig. As the long-running audio production team The Kitchen Sisters, the pair is reintroducing podcast and radio audiences to the importance of audio narrative not only for entertainment, but also for the preservation of our culture at a time when many archivists and librarians feel it’s more important than ever to preserve the nation’s diverse cultural history. 

Working on audio journalism about two decades ago, they realized that the archivists, curators, historians, and librarians who were their shepherds through these audio landscapes were, in fact, the stars of their own stories. 

That realization gave birth to “The Keepers,” a podcast series that unearths the stories of the people who find and preserve the touchstones and artifacts that make our culture what it is. 

And these grass-roots oral stories and unofficial histories are essential elements of our culture, says Charlotte Nunes, director of digital scholarship services at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn. 

“Oral history is extremely important for a more inclusive historical record that includes communities, narratives, and histories,” she says in an email. These often-overlooked stories create what Dr. Nunes calls “community-generated memory” that captures the real stories bubbling up from our culture rather than the official “top-down” stories deemed important by those in power. 

Ms. Silva likes to tell a story about a librarian whose library had become a haven for the homeless, so she asked them what her staff could do for them. “She thought she knew the answer,” says Silva. “But what they wanted were telescopes. And classes where they could learn about the night sky. Because they’re out there and they’re looking at the night sky and they wanted to better understand what they were seeing.” 

For their productions over the decades, Ms. Nelson and Silva have sifted through hours of tape on everything from home recordings made by families to songs by Ku Klux Klan barbershop quartets. They once found undiscovered recordings that Tennessee Williams had made with a lover in a penny arcade in New Orleans in 1947. 

He just stored his stuff under a friend’s bed,” says Nelson. 

Courtesy of Michael Stravato
“The Kitchen Sisters,” from left, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, “interview” shrimp. The audio journalists turn the spotlight on the “unsung heroes of the nation,” archivists, curators, and historians who preserve our history, in the podcast series, “The Keepers.”

‘Unsung heroes’ 

In an era seen by many as fraught with political divisiveness and “fake news,” preserving audio artifacts is more important than ever, say some archivists. 

“Due in part to the current surge of open white nationalism,” says Nunes, “archives are under more pressure to deliberately and collaboratively build collections that document and preserve diverse histories of who constitutes our nation, today and historically. Deliberately inclusive collection-building is a direct counter to the xenophobia and fear-based exclusion that drive our national politics.” 

Nelson and Silva call the people who are working to preserve audio records “unsung heroes.”

“They are the keepers of our heritage, our history,” says Silva. “They are keeping our truths.”

“We had come to think of them as unsung heroes of the nation,” says Nelson, “that here were these people quietly working, often in very isolated environments, working to preserve and protect and to keep these documents, whether it was political documents or artifacts.”

Audio takes you back in time 

“Fake news” may have a silver lining: It has encouraged some storytellers to find different ways to tell stories, and when it comes to visceral storytelling, there’s hardly a better medium than audio, says John Baick, a history professor at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. 

Whether it’s the voice of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Beatles or President Trump, he says the audio soundtrack to historical conversations provides the meaning and context that can take you back in time.

“There is a rhythm to the words that is more important than some of the actual words,” says Dr. Baick in an email. “These meetings are experienced like a concert, not like a lecture. A photo is not enough. A transcription of the speech is not enough. Even footage of Donald Trump speaking is not enough. You kind of had to be there. And sound gets us there faster than any other sense.”

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