How it all began
The idea for this site got its start about 6 years ago from a scrappy little cassette recorder with a built-in microphone and a battery compartment door held shut by a band-aid. That cassette recorder–along with several blank tapes and spare batteries– was given to my grandfather on his 99th birthday by his son. “Dad, use this to tell stories about what you’ve experienced in your lifetime,” my uncle said. Three and a half weeks after that birthday, I arrived back east to spend a few weeks with Grandpa in the dead of winter (He lived alone in a house in upstate New York). One night, I grabbed the recorder from the shelf, popped in a tape, thumbed the red record button down, and said, “Okay Grandpa, what is the meaning of life?”
Maybe not the best question, but you have to start somewhere. I soon learned how to ask better questions, to be a little more specific, in order to draw out the tale. But the questions—“What happened when…” and “Tell me the story about…” did add up to that first question, what IS the meaning of life—your life?
We filled up six cassettes with stories by the time of my departure. My uncle came to visit us during my stay. He said to me, “Get those tapes typed up.” I took the tapes back home with me, and they sat on a shelf. My uncle sent an occasional reminder email, “Have you gotten those tapes typed up? I’ll help pay for it.” But I hesitated. I procrastinated. I was afraid.
How the stories got digital
These tapes were originals. I didn’t want to let them out of my sight. What if the unthinkable happened and they got lost in transit, or lost by the typist? No way would I let that happen. I’d make duplicates and keep the originals pristine (So pristine, I hadn’t even listened to them yet.) But how? I figured I could get my hands on another cassette deck and play the tape back on one deck and record on the other. But the logistics of borrowing a cassette deck, and who to ask, and this and that, well…. My idea fizzled from Too Much Logistics. Like I said, I procrastinated.
Later that year, though, I decided I needed a new CD-ROM drive for my computer—one that could not only read, but also write (or burn) CD ROMs. I bought one and it came with some software, which had a little accessory application that proudly advertised the ability to “digitize your old Vinyl LP or Audio Cassettes and make Audio CDs!”. Aha! Forget the cassette duplication, I can make an Audio CD and keep the original tape! Yee-hah!
I connected my cassette deck to my computer, and launched the Audio-to-CD software. Then, to start transferring to the computer, I pressed “record” in the software, and began playing the cassette. I felt a thrill when I saw that squiggly line appear on the monitor. That waveform is my grandpa’s voice. The squiggly line is a story about his life. Now it occurred to me that the drawbacks of the irreplaceable original—once lost it’s lost forever—gave way to possibilities: Hey! I can make each story into a distinct track. Anyone can go right to the story about Grandmother ripping up her paycheck. (Disc 3, track 1). Or the story about when Grandpa—as a boy—wanted to work in the mines: (Disc 6, track 6). Hey! I can make as many Audio CDs as I want—-I can make copies for the whole extended family (um, and one of these days, I will. Really. Hear that, my brothers and cousins. I seriously will)!
So. Back to what I was hearing while the computer drew little squiggly lines as it laid down all that audio to disk. The sound quality wasn’t the best…. I heard a constant whiny buzz—the built-in microphone picked up the sounds of the cassette motor. And many of these conversations took place at mealtimes, so my grandfather chewed as he talked, and our conversation was punctuated by random clinks of silverware and taps from setting down drinking glasses.
I had the recordings. And I made them into Audio CDs. And took a set of discs to a transcription company, which in turn delivered a text document—All in time for a visit to celebrate Grandpa’s 100th birthday. But now I wondered, how can I do it better? What should I do? Are there better ways to ask questions? Should I get some different equipment? This led me on a path of research that has included reading books, attending workshops, and taking a college class on the basics of audio.
I learned that this thing I was doing is something called “Oral History.” Oral History is the method of recording the spoken recollections of someone who was a participant or witness to some event in history. Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing with Grandpa. There’s an entire academic discipline of oral history, and people whose job is to gather and curate personal recollections of certain historical events.
Several prominent and current projects are the Veterans Oral History project, collecting accounts of war veterans from 20th century wars; the Voices of Civil Rights project, for those who’ve witnessed or participated in the Civil Rights movement. The Shoah Project is devoted to gathering eyewitness stories of the Nazi Holocaust in WW2. The StoryCorps Project drives closer to the heart of what I focus on here on this site—personal stories. Stories of family. Stories of people personally known by the interviewer.
David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, says that one of his radio documentaries sparked the idea of StoryCorps—he gave tape recorders to kids in a public housing project:
I saw that when these kids took these tape recorders and interviewed say, their grandparents, that having a microphone and laying in bed with their grandmother and asking her these questions, allowed these kids to ask questions they wouldn’t normally get to ask. And created bonds that existed long after the tape recorder got turned off. And then when these relatives passed away, these tapes became enormously important to these young men.
I nod my head in agreement. Yes, the process of recording allows unasked questions to get asked, and untold stories get told. Yes, what happens in the lives of the two people who hold this conversation reverberates beyond the recording sessions. And yes, after Grandpa died a little over a year later (having lived through the entire 20th century), I am so glad I have those recordings. I am so glad I made them, I am so glad I spent the time with him, and I’m glad to have his voice. Yes, David Isay, yes yes yes. I know what you mean, and I wholeheartedly concur.
You don’t have to be a radio documentary producer, nor do you have to wait till StoryCorps comes to town to do this yourself. Now is a happy time for personal digital media—the current crop of computers handle audio and video, and are able to work with large file sizes as a matter of course. The ability to burn a CD-ROM or even a DVD-ROM is a standard option. The result is the explosion of personal media—“I can create my own movies, songs, and radio programs.” So let’s add the gathering of family stories to the large and happy fray. You probably already have some of what you need to do it yourself.
At its heart, a recorded oral history is a conversation. It’s a bit more formal, and it has the added distraction of dealing with equipment while holding that conversation. But it’s within easy reach of anyone with some recording equipment and a computer.
The topics I’ll cover on this site
“I talked to my grandpa about his life. I asked him questions and he answered them. I recorded the conversation. Then I took that recording into the computer. I did some stuff with some software. Now I’ve got some audio CDs.”
The topics I’ll be covering take their cue from that statement.
I talked to my grandpa about his life. I asked him questions and he answered them.
What makes a good conversation? What can roughly first-time interviewers learn from people who do this all the time? What other resources are there for asking questions, and having a good conversation?
I recorded the conversation.
This is a biggie: Using what to record? What kind of recorders are there out there? Options range from the old stand-by, the cassette recorder, to DAT (digital audio tape, on the wane), portable mini-disc recorder, and now to solid state recorders (which record directly to memory chips). Solid state recorders are undergoing lots of innovation and growth; I’ll follow those trends.
Microphones. What will you use to capture the sound that goes into the recorder? Which one to use, and what do all those terms mean? I’ll write about how to get pretty darn good recording quality without being driven crazy by arcane audio technicalities.
My philosophy is that it’s most important to have the conversation. Record it, yes. Better yet, use an external microphone. But let’s not kid ourselves about all the latest techno recording gizmos. the most important thing is to have that conversation.
Oh, and all these questions apply for video, too. I know less about video than I do about audio. But there was a time when I knew hardly anything about audio. I love learning new things and sharing what I learn, so I’ll do that here.
Then I took that recording into the computer.
What do you use to import the audio from the recorder to computer? Cables, connections, setup. I’ll cover them all.
I did some stuff with some software.
Which software? What? How? Lots to discuss here.
Now I’ve got some audio CDs.
Cool, but what ones to use? Are there some that last longer than others? Is an Audio CD the end of the line? What should I do to make that audio CD last as long as possible?
Doing this process touches on some closely related issues.
Longevity. There’s the issue of longevity—Digital lasts forever… or 5 years, whichever comes first. Formats die all too quickly. How do you create a recording so that someone who stumbles on it in the family attic 80 years from now can play it and understand it? I’ll take the long view.
Now what? Now that I have these recordings, what next? What do I do with them? Transcribe them? Give them to family members? Donate them to a local historical society or library? Write a memoir or biography? Use them for another kind of project—-a digital scrapbook, documentary, digital storytelling? Or some mash-up for a family reunion?
And that leads to… Legality. Sigh. Who owns these? Do I have to do anything with legal documents? Permission? Sigh, sigh. This is the realm that I really don’t want to have to deal with. But it’s still necessary. So I shall.
News. Who else is doing this? I’ll follow news of other oral history projects, hunt out cool sites, and resources.
And yes, a podcast. What would a web site about using digital tools to collect stories be without its own podcast? I won’t be playing you my family stories, but talking to people about tips, techniques, and trends. Yes, okay, maybe I’ll slip in a story here and there. We’ll see.
About Susan A. Kitchens, your host
Who am I? Besides the person related to all the people whose pictures are on this site, I’m a designer (print and web), writer and do-er of new media deeds. I’ve written how-to books for using graphic and multimedia software (I won a Computer Press Award for one of them, wOOt!). And I’m delving into the stories of some remarkable individuals who grew up at the beginning of the 20th century—I just so happen to be related to them.
Disclosure: I hope that this site will help pay some bills. I plan to implement both advertising and online shopping (where I provide links to vendors for relevant items, and get a small fee from the sale).
Let me know!
Are you interested? Please let me know what topics you’re interested in! What questions do you have? I want this site to be a structured conversation, too. Please comment about the site, any problems you encounter, things you’d like to know, stories of what you’ve done. All of it.
Thanks for reading!
Congratulations on the launch! As promised (isn’t RSS wonderful?) I have linked to this site on my Oral Histories Links page at
Keep up the good work - if you have any technical questions, please let me know.
[edit: I fixed link so it works—Susan]
Great site! and wondeful info. I plan to give this to my workshop participants!!!
Excellent website! I like your style and your goals.
Do you know about the Association of Personal Historians? I am a member of the APH and I think you might find it a worthwhile organization to check out also. You can access the APH website at: http://www.personalhistorians.org
In any event, good luck to you with the wonerful work you’re doing!
Bruce, yes, I’m aware of APH.. we have a nodding acquaintance. I nod at it, and it <strike>nods</strike>... well I don’t know what it does toward me. . was just visiting the personal historians dot org site recently, and I think I linked to the site a while back… why yes, here and here. I wish to get in contact with someone from the APH who’s in the Southern California area, to learn more. (um, my ToDo list for this site is lengthy… got as far as looking through the directory and that was that. But I’ll let this be a reason to try again)
Lee, thanks! Workshop participants? Please tell more!!
And Richard, thanks! You know you’re up for one of my first fone-call-to-podcast interviews.
(My last message disappeared in the middle of writing it, so I’ll try again).
I’ve enjoyed the story of recording your Grandpa. I had a similar experience in discovering “oral history” with my Nanna before she died. My method is now so much more sophisticated, I’m wishing I had that equipment back then. Please visit my site to see my work. Your proposed site has enormous potential and I wish you luck. Are you coming to the International Conference in Sydney, July 2006? I’m the Secretary of OHAA in Queensland and love “oral history”.
Good luck, Suzanne Mulligan
Wonderful start to recording and sharing oral history! Way to go. Your site is inviting, and meaningful to me as I attempt to get digital storytelling going in my/our part of the world.
We have been working with school children in our area to record personal, meaningful stories about family and friends.
I look forward to hearing more oral histories on your podcast.
Kent from Canada!
Hey Aunt Susan!
Wow this site looks great! Just stopping by to say a quick hello and congradulations!!! Hope to see you soon
Awwwww, Haley. Thanks for commenting. You just made my day ! :D
great to see the new site. I will refer to it often as I have some of the same techical problems and I’m phobic to boot. fun to see the public birth of this project after having been privy to its conception!
I am 41-years-old male from South Korea. (Not the North Korea with nukes aiming at other countries)
I heard your podcast today. I really liked your story, especially the idea of recording your grandfather’s life story. I vaguely thought maybe I should try that with my father who never had much talk with his sons for the whole of his life.
I also expect to hear from you many tips on transfer of audio information to CDs.
Keep up the good work!
Congratiulations with your work! Our organization (http://www.xpeditions.be) is also doing Oral History projects. Feel free to have a look on our website or contact us (i couldn’t find any contact info on this website).