The StoryCorps Collection

A Conversation with Virginia Millington

storybooth photo
Storybooth in Grand Central Terminal, NYC.

Virginia Millington, Recording and Archive Director at StoryCorps, talks with Choice about the StoryCorps collection, an audio archive of social and cultural history.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

Virginia Millington, Recording & Archive Director, StoryCorps, has worked at StoryCorps since 2010. She currently oversees a team responsible for maintaining mobile and stationary recording venues across the country and archiving over 5,000 StoryCorps interviews every year. She has previously held positions at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Walker Art Center, and she received her MLS from the Pratt Institute.

The StoryCorps collection is a born-digital audio archive comprised of tens of thousands of hours of conversation, millions of words and exclamations, dozens of languages, and countless stories, anecdotes, and recollections shared between loved ones. I often describe the StoryCorps collection as a social and cultural history of the last century, told by the people who lived through its major events and myriad shifts—or heard about them through the lens of their family members’ experiences and memories. But the StoryCorps collection is also an archive of relationships, of gestures, and of meaning forged by individuals absent or excluded from official records. From another perspective, the StoryCorps collection is a living archive that has evolved and continues to evolve over time. At StoryCorps, we both create and archive our own materials, and the content of our collection reflects the ever-changing nature of our own mission and values, a cultural landscape in constant flux and adaptation, and, of course, the needs of the StoryCorps participants.

To be a bit more specific, the collection numbers over 65,000 interviews with over 110,000 participants. Included in the StoryCorps Archive are interviews conducted in every state, in a range of communities, with participants who come from a remarkably vast range of backgrounds. In 2015, we launched the StoryCorps App, and over 75,000 interviews between people all over the world have been uploaded to StoryCorps.me. These distinct gatherings of voices make up the StoryCorps Archive.

Can you describe the trajectory of an interview, from its initial recording to its ultimate archival?

StoryCorps’s permanent exhibition and StoryBooth at the Chicago Cultural Center.

The StoryCorps interview usually (but not always) takes place between two people who know each other and, in the traditional StoryCorps model, each interview is facilitated by a trained StoryCorps staff person. The location of each interview could be a physical StoryBooth, the traveling MobileBooth (housed in a retrofitted Airstream trailer), or on site at a partner institution or other location. The length of every StoryCorps interview is usually around 40 minutes.

After each interview, StoryCorps participants are provided with information about our multitiered release system. Signing a general release means that StoryCorps can share the interview with the Library of Congress or another partner, or edit the interview for broadcast or publication. Signing a restricted release means that StoryCorps will limit usage of the interview, and not make the interview available online or to partners other than the Library of Congress. We also always offer the option of not signing a release to our participants, after which they will receive the only copy of their interview, and StoryCorps will destroy our copy of the interview and any related materials. We employ a liberal take-down policy, which means that participants can request that their interview be removed from our archive at any time. StoryCorps also supports and allows for anonymous or pseudonymous participation.

All StoryCorps facilitators undergo an intensive two-week training that prepares them to record, log, and database a full-length StoryCorps interview, after which it is delivered to the StoryCorps offices in Brooklyn to undergo further archival processing and quality control. The majority of this work is performed by Tamara Thompson, archive associate manager, along with support from the department and a remarkable set of interns.

StoryCorps launched the StoryCorps app in 2015 after being awarded the $1 million TED Prize, an award supporting a high-impact idea or global project. Interviews recorded using the StoryCorps app are uploaded directly to a website (StoryCorps.me) and, in general, are shorter and more casual than interviews recorded using the traditional model.

The archive accounts for over 50,000-plus hours of recorded audio. The prospect of organizing such a massive collection of interviews is intimidating, to say the least. What are some of the challenges involved in organizing that much information? What strategies do you implement to overcome those challenges?

Time-coded audio highlights compiled from hand-written log notes.

Every StoryCorps facilitator goes through an intensive training in order to learn the skills to record a full-length StoryCorps interview from start to finish. StoryCorps facilitators are also trained in the archival techniques central to our work in order to be able to catalog each interview at the time of recording. Facilitators keep detailed, time-coded log notes during each StoryCorps interview and, following each interview, facilitators are responsible for entering interview and participant information into our web-based content management system. In addition, amidst many other responsibilities, facilitators are carefully trained to describe the contents of our release form to participants, answer any questions about our voluntary participant datasheet forms, and support the recording of powerful interviews through carefully timed questions and follow-ups.

As a result of each of these specific aspects of the interview process, each StoryCorps interview is accessible through multiple points of access. Every interview is associated with a wide range of descriptive information, including participant information, release form status, and information about the content of the interview, including log notes and both fixed and general keywords. A small percentage of interviews have full transcripts. It is certainly worth mentioning that we are extremely fortunate to receive support and consultation from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, especially with regard to our cataloging and taxonomic systems. In fact, we regularly provide the AFC with lists of the fixed keywords we’ve added to our own system, and the AFC uses this information to inform the continued development of the Ethnographic Thesaurus.

Can you tell us about the StoryCorps app and its advantages and disadvantages? I imagine that there is a possibility that the authenticity of these interviews, which makes them especially compelling in this age of digital identity construction, might be more elusive without the supervision of a facilitator.

The StoryCorps app is a wonderful tool that allows us to extend the StoryCorps experience to anyone who has access to a smartphone or tablet. And the app itself is built on the same principles that informed the development of the StoryCorps Archive: we encourage users to interview a loved one, and we provide users with the opportunity to enter interview descriptions and keywords to make their interviews more accessible in the future.

The term “authenticity” is one that we don’t use in the context of the StoryCorps collection very often. From our perspective, the content of each interview should be determined solely by the participants, and the value of the interview to the interview participants is as important to us as any long-term archival importance. In our department, we don’t fact-check StoryCorps for accuracy; for us, the importance of each StoryCorps lies in the telling.

Example of individual StoryCorps interview entry.

What is the process like for selecting which interviews go on the website? Surely the editors at StoryCorps can’t listen to every interview.

The editors at StoryCorps definitely can’t listen to every StoryCorps interview (we record about 5,400 interviews every year!), but they find powerful interviews to edit using a variety of methods. Facilitators will direct our production team to interviews of particular interest, or our production team will search the StoryCorps Archive for interviews that might be particularly relevant to an upcoming holiday or anniversary—or reflect a particular content-related goal of the production department. The StoryCorps production team uses keywords and interview descriptions to find interviews, just as we hope researchers and educators will do in the future.

What are some of the issues with making the archive fully accessible online? Do you have any future developments you’d like to share with us?

In the spring of 2016, we were informed that the National Endowment for the Humanities had decided to provide StoryCorps with funding to make the StoryCorps Archive more accessible to the public, which includes researchers, educators, documentarians, and anyone else who might find this collection compelling, helpful, or of general interest.

We began work in earnest on this project in May, and we’re moving thoughtfully and carefully toward our goal of a more accessible archive through conversations with an Advisory Council, workshops and feedback sessions with our developers, and with thorough consideration of the issues at stake. It is our mission to make this collection more accessible and, above all, respect the wishes and concerns of the tens and thousands of participants who have taken part in the StoryCorps project, and enriched and enhanced our collection by doing so.

Browse view of StoryCorps’s customized interview database.

Does StoryCorps cooperate with other archives or projects? How does it serve different disciplines today?

StoryCorps is deeply committed to providing copies of interviews to our community partners, and to collaborating with local, regional, and national archival institutions to make StoryCorps interviews available to different communities and through a variety of points of access. In 2015, we provided over 150 archives to institutions around the country, including places like the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Advocates for Indigenous Language Survivors, and the National September 11 Museum & Memorial. We also partner with over a dozen local radio stations each year through our MobileBooth program.

Although all of our partnerships are important, I want to highlight a few examples of particularly powerful ongoing partnerships:

Schomburg Center for Research & Culture: StoryCorps has worked closely with the Schomburg Center and has contributed over 200 interviews to the Schomburg’s “In the Life Archive,” a collection of materials related to the Black LGBTQ experience under the direction of Curator Steven Fullwood.

Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin: Launched in 2009, StoryCorps Historias is an initiative to record the diverse stories and life experiences of Latinos in the United States. Fully released Historias recordings are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and in a special collection at the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.

American Folklife Center, Library of Congress: The AFC is StoryCorps’s national archive partner, providing long-term storage and preservation of the StoryCorps collection as well as on-site access. The importance of this partnership cannot be overstated, nor can the impact and influence of the AFC on our own collecting practices. Simply put, many participants choose to participate in StoryCorps because of our longstanding ties to the Library of Congress, and we are grateful for their support, guidance, and collaboration.

Although the StoryCorps Archive is not currently accessible to the public, we have fielded and fulfilled dozens of research requests over the last six years, with inquiries coming in from a variety of academic fields including gender studies, history, sociology, geography, medicine, and more.

Booth with marching band.

How do you imagine someone in academia would use the archive versus someone in the general public? And what, if any, are the differences in how you provide access and support to these groups?

We have always been aware that the StoryCorps Archive could be used in different ways by different groups, and an interest in supporting and encouraging all kinds of access has always factored into our planning. And although I imagine that users will overlap somewhat in their approaches to the StoryCorps collection, in general I think that there will be some users who will access the StoryCorps content on a highly individualized, specific level, and others who will want to access the collection at scale. To put this in a bit of perspective using examples, I can imagine a scenario in which a middle-school student might be interested in learning more about a StoryCorps participant’s experience of trying to vote prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, at the same time that an academic researcher might seek to aggregate hundreds or even thousands stories of related experiences into a discrete project that incorporates multiple perspectives. Listening to a StoryCorps interview in full can be a captivating and rich experience, but a bird’s-eye perspective on the collection offers its own insights and rewards, too.

History is often presented as a coherent narrative starring select figures, when in reality it is a labyrinth composed of an infinite number of small, intricately linked details. Do you think that, in one hundred years, StoryCorps will serve as a tool to help us remold our conception of history?

I think that in 100 years, or even 50 years, the StoryCorps collection will serve to provide a glimpse into the world of the 20th century through the words and stories of the people who lived through the events that shaped our social and cultural history. The last century has shown us a profound shift in the way that we communicate, spend our time, and relate to one another in both a geographic and social sense, and I think the StoryCorps Archive will provide the ability for any number of people, from researchers to family members, to get a sense of what it was like to be alive and to be making memories within a specific span of time.

Above all, the StoryCorps Archive is a collection shaped and molded by the input and (sometimes competing) visions of an enormous and influential cohort of StoryCorps staff, advisors, participants, and partner institutions. In many ways, we have tried to be unflinchingly honest in evaluating our own policies and approaches, and adapting and updating our methods to incorporate perspectives that expand and complicate the original intent of the StoryCorps project. The first question I always receive when I speak about StoryCorps is when will the collection be accessible to search. But the question I would like to pose to ourselves as we move forward is: how can this collection be made useful to the participants whose voices, stories, and contributions make this archive a powerful and compelling repository of emotion, history, language, discord, conflict, and meaning? I don’t yet have an answer to this question, but I’m looking forward to pursuing it as we move ahead with our plans and goals.

Explore StoryCorps at https://storycorps.org/

This interview was conducted by Anna Denton and Emma Raddatz. They are editorial interns at Choice and students at Wesleyan University.