Terra Sigillata

i-080b7a7d1beefbcdb9944de5c0facd67-storycorps.jpgThe recent passing of Studs Terkel and my conversations with African American colleagues after the Obama victory has given me pause to think about our life stories, especially the life stories of our elders. For example, I lost all of my grandparents before I could get their life stories on videotape, digital recorder, or writing – I also said I was going to do it during some visit home. My grandparents had some incredible stories about The Great Depression, the World Wars, even the history of my hometown that was farmland in the middle of factories only a dozen miles from one of the largest cities in the world.

So I was delighted when I received an e-mail from StoryCorps Marketing and Communications specialist, Kathleen McCarthy. Kathleen remembered me from my commentary on the exploding bra story they aired on NPR last June and my admiration for Stetson Kennedy, the civil rights activist captured in a StoryCorps oral history.

StoryCorps is “an independent nonprofit that has helped more than 40,000 Americans record their stories. As one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, it is our mission to help people honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.” Highly-decorated radio documentary producer, Dave Isay, launched the initiative in October 2003 as a recording booth at Grand Central Terminal. A couple of StoryCorps Airstream trailers cross the country where people can sign up to interview a loved one or discuss a friend or family member who has passed on; two CDs are made, one for the participants and one archived in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. When the mobile studio showed up in my town, reservations were completely booked up in just over a day.

Since many of USians are gathering for Thanksgiving this weekend, StoryCorps has partnered again with NPR to sponsor the first annual National Day of Listening on Friday 28 November.

This holiday season, ask the people around you about their lives — it could be your grandmother, a teacher, or someone from the neighborhood. By listening to their stories, you will be telling them that they matter and they won’t ever be forgotten. It may be the most meaningful time you spend this year.

To get started, download our free Do-It-Yourself Guide (PDF).

While there are instructions for making a semi-professional recording, the idea is to encourage each of us to use this occasion to start a home archive of stories from those most important to us. Heck, a webcam is probably good enough but there are instructions on what kind of equipment to buy if you want to visit the going-out-of-business sales of your local electronics chain.

I know what you’re thinking? I’m not a professional interviewer. How do I even get started? Geez, this sounds like a lot of work. I’d rather just sit back on the couch with beer or wine and some football.

Well, this is where StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening project makes the idea so, so accessible: here’s a standard list of questions categorized by the type of person you’ll be interviewing that’ll easily get a good conversation going. But the real gem is this interactive Question Generator that’ll take about 15 min to whip up a really nice series of questions based on your input.

I really, really need to do this with PharmMom but we’ll be two time zones away from each other this Friday. Instead, we’ll be visiting with PharmGirl’s family and will have the chance to set for a spell with PharmKid’s great-grandmother.

So why don’t you think about doing this on Friday with a loved someone in between eating leftovers. It could be a lot of fun and give you and your family the start of a really nice collection of oral histories, even if one of them is about Uncle Jeb riding the train back to town after getting out of prison the second time.


  1. #1 msphd
    November 27, 2008

    Cool concept. And then I’d like to see some meta-analysis of these life stories and what it says about changes over the generations.

  2. #2 kiwi
    November 27, 2008

    Some of the best stories are the wacky ones. We have one in our family about the great whatever grandfather who lost a title (and loads of money) playing cards. Serve him right silly old bastard.

  3. #3 Liz
    December 1, 2008

    I love listening to the StoryCorps pieces Friday mornings on Morning Edition – and they’ve got a podcast, too.

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