Outsiders may regularly describe StoryCorps as a giant oral history project capturing snapshots of American life in the 21st Century, but Daniel Horowitz Garcia doesn’t. He says what StoryCorps does is right there in its name. It collects stories.
“At its best,” said Horowitz, who heads the nonprofit’s Atlanta office, “StoryCorps is two people who know each other having a conversation about something that’s important to them.”
Horowitz believes that studying history requires something more than just recording memories. It’s something a historian does; it’s active, not passive. StoryCorps’ storytellers describe events as they recall them, not as a historian records them or interprets them. Doing history requires comparing memories to recorded facts.
Sometimes what people forget can be as interesting as what they remember about an event, he said. At StoryCorps, “we talk to people with direct knowledge of the past,” he said. “We don’t critically engage with the past.
Horowitz has thought this through. The amiable 53-year-old is a historian himself. He trained at Georgia State University in how to collect and analyze the facts of history, including the personal interviews used in oral history. For the past nine years, he’s worked at StoryCorps’ Atlanta branch, where he’s now regional manager.
StoryCorps is probably best known for brief conversations broadcast regularly on National Public Radio. The organization started 20 years ago in New York. It has spent the past couple of decades gathering, recording, and archiving people’s life stories.
The nonprofit’s recordings are filed in the Library of Congress and the snippets played on NPR as just a small part of the organization’s library of recorded stories, which usually last 40 minutes apiece.
StoryCorps does talk to lots of people, or at least listens as they talk to one another. The organization says it has recorded conversations among more than 630,000 people. Participants, usually chatting in pairs, talk about their lives, memories, thoughts, philosophies, relationships. The nonprofit has programs to actively pursue life stories from members of groups that sometimes have been overlooked by past historians. StoryCorps claims its online archive is “the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered.”
In 2009, StoryCorps came to Atlanta in a partnership with WABE radio that created one of three regional StoryBooths in the country. Then, 10 years ago, StoryCorps opened a permanent recording booth at the Atlanta History Center to capture stories from Southern states. It opened similar booths in cities from New York to Chicago to San Francisco and other cities, although most now have closed. StoryCorps reports its Atlanta-based operation has recorded more than 5,500 conversations.
“The StoryCorps partnership greatly benefits from this high-profile and easily accessible public site for the recording booth,” a spokesperson wrote in an email, “and being situated within a site that serves as a historic resource reflects StoryCorps’ own mission, too, and reflects the historical importance of the stories we record. The unique offerings and location of the complex have helped expand StoryCorps’ reach to visitors, many of whom may have never heard of StoryCorps.”
Horowitz says the organization’s recordings provide snapshots of personal history that historians can study, but also offer a way for families to pass their stories from generation to generation. “I see what we do as a historical service, but also as a family service,” he said.
Some of those moments might otherwise be lost, he said. In StoryCorps sessions, he’s heard World War II veterans talk about their time at war, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employees recount their front-line response to deadly disease, and an Atlanta academic who studied prostitutes describe the spread of AIDS in the 1970s.
People’s stories are the stuff of history, and StoryCorps wants to help keep stories around for the future. “It’s a big deal for people that your story is part of the Library of Congress,” Horowitz said. “It becomes part of the official story of the United States of America.”
For more, visit storycorps.org.