How a Mobile App Preserves History and What You Can Do To Help

This weekend, StoryCorps is asking us to interview our older relatives about their lives and upload it to the Library of Congress. What a wonderful way to spend your holiday.

For many of us, this weekend is about turkey, football, and annoying relatives we normally can’t stand to be around. Even for those of us who actually like our relatives, it is sometimes difficult to sit down and have a real conversation.

StoryCorps wants to change all that.

This Thanksgiving, the organization is asking high school students, parents, and others to interview a grandparent, neighbor, or family friend who is over the age of 65. Dubbed "The Great Thanksgiving Listen," the goal is to “preserve the voices and stories of an entire generation of Americans over a single holiday weekend.”

"With The Great Thanksgiving Listen, StoryCorps hopes to capture the rich diversity of a generation of American lives," Colleen J. Ross, director of marketing and communications of StoryCorps, told NBC News. "As always, we are especially committed to honoring those whose stories might otherwise be omitted from the historical record, and to reminding people, through the collection of voices we will document, that every life matters equally and infinitely."

For the unfamiliar, since 2003 StoryCorps has collected over 65,000 stories from over 100,000 participants. It is an oral history project — funded by National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and others — that attempts to preserve for future generations the stories of our elders. Those important fundamental narratives that guide and create culture.

What makes this weekend’s event important is that for the first time, StoryCorps is providing a mobile app that allows individuals to conduct the interviews. With the app, anyone with a mobile phone can record an interview and upload it to the American Folklife Center and the Library of Congress.

"In this time of great disconnect and division, we hope the Great Thanksgiving Listen will prove a unifying moment for the nation," said StoryCorps' founder and president, Dave Isay. "Together we will collect the wisdom of a generation and archive it for the future, while at the same time reminding our grandparents how much their lives and stories matter."

Developed with support from the 2015 TED Prize and the 2014 Knight Prototype Fund and further support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, StoryCorps has partnered with school districts in Atlanta; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; and Philadelphia to bring the app to their classrooms. The goal is to teach students:

  • Research, archiving, and planning skills.
  • Speaking skills that enable students to express ideas clearly and persuasively.
  • Listening skills that reflect increased comprehension, lead to critical analysis, and advance discussion.
  • An increased connectedness, to community and to school.
  • A deepened sense of social awareness, exhibited by appreciation of diversity and respect for others.
  • Although StoryCorps encourages young people to conduct the interviews, anyone over the age of 13 can participate.

    The truly wonderful thing about this app is that it leads users through the interview in order to create a delightful experience for both participants. The app provides interviewers with “help preparing questions, finding the right environment for your conversation, recording a high-quality interview on your mobile device, sharing the finished product with friends and family, and uploading your conversation to the website.”

    Narrative, first-person history is a special thing. Even more so when it involves our families. Rarely, do we take the time to sit with our relatives and ask personal, insightful questions about their past. Knowing where they came from, how they lived, and who they loved, informs and makes our lives deeper and more fully experienced. Their insight into witnessed history is singular.

    My deceased great-grandfather saw the beginning of the 20th century. He was part of a world before indoor plumbing and electricity. He had a unique view of history, more so because he was a part of it. But, I never took the time to record his experience. I never deliberately asked him questions about the happiest moments in his life. Or who had the biggest influence on him? What lessons did that person teach him? What were the most important lessons he learned in his life? How did he experience racism, war, death? Imagine the answers I would have gotten. Imagine the education I would have received.

    This weekend we have a chance to ask those questions and more of those closest to us. While you are visiting family, I can think of no better way to spend your time. Download the app, upload the interview to the Library of Congress, and record for posterity the living history of your family. I look forward to listening.

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