Making History

From WWII soldiers to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, more people are sharing their own memories.

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Of course, like all stories, oral histories can be embellished, misinformed, contradictory, confusing, and incomplete. Everyone knows someone whose tales grow slightly taller with each telling. But to focus on the individual shortcomings of these accounts is to miss the larger truth. These narratives are a mosaic—the more pieces collected, the clearer the overall picture. Scholars studying oral histories say that the most challenging aspect is not the accuracy of the accounts per se but the sheer volume of material. Using oral histories is like writing a Russian novel, says Burns. "You piece together the stories of 50 people and interweave and braid them together [to] merge the public and private archives."

The notion of history itself, in fact, comes from age-old oral traditions. The Greek writer Herodotus, called the father of history, was one of the first to include personal accounts of events in his histories. As early as the 1890s, the U.S. government made an effort to record American Indian languages—and history—on wax cylinders. During the Great Depression, the government's Federal Writers' Project sent artists, writers, and historians to document the diversity of the various states. Some 10,000 stories were recorded by such future luminaries as Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and Studs Terkel, who would later revive the genre as a historian in the 1980s with books like Working and The Good War. Though most of these interviews, conducted with farmers, factory workers, and former slaves, were recorded with notepads, some audio recordings from the project still exist. And in 1948, Columbia University's Allan Nevins launched an oral history department that today holds more than 8,000 taped memoirs.

One of the best-known modern-day oral history projects is StoryCorps, a radio project by producer David Isay. Since 2003, the project has taken some 10,000 oral histories from ordinary people around the country. Excerpted on National Public Radio, the project records many of its tales in a sound booth in New York City's Grand Central Terminal. Participants reserve a time and sit in the booth and conduct a 40-minute interview with a family member or friend on any topic the person desires. A staffer offers question prompts as needed. "If we take the time to listen, we find wisdom and poetry in the lives and stories of people around us," says Isay.

StoryCorps employs professionals to handle the technical aspects of its project. But recording technology today is basic enough that nearly anyone can record an oral history suitable for the Library of Congress. Susan Kitchens, who got into recording oral histories by talking to her 99-year-old grandfather, runs familyoralhistory.us, a website that offers advice for recording and organizing oral histories and digital scrapbooks. "The trick to oral histories is actually getting it done before it's too late," she says. The Veterans History Project and most libraries accept a variety of digital and analog audio- and videotapes.

Whatever the format, many vets are just happy that someone is listening. As Bernard Moulton winds down his oral history (ending with a description of shelling German positions from his ship during D-Day), he says it is flattering that his story will be preserved in the country's official repository. "It'll be there long after everyone who lived through the war will be gone," he says, slowly walking his chronicler, Karen Sider, to the front door. "You know," he calls to her as she climbs into her suv, "I have more stories that we didn't have a chance to get into today, if you'd like to come back and hear more."