Coney Island Voices and StoryCorps: Recording and preserving the oral history of America
While oral history collections existed long before digital technology, the use of digital recording devices and storage systems has revolutionized the way these archives are created, accessed, managed, and preserved. Because of the ease of recording oral histories, and the potential for storage and access through databases, oral history projects are currently undergoing a renaissance.
This essay will provide a brief introduction into oral history projects and discuss in detail two oral history archives: Coney Island Voices, which is attempting to capture a tableau of the Coney Island beach boardwalk and neighborhood and preserve them under the threat of community redevelopment; and StoryCorps, a much larger project with superior funding, which is more ambitiously attempting to capture the voice of all of America.
After exploring the purposes and motivations of these projects, describing the technical details of their recording and storage systems, and reviewing their long-term archiving plans and techniques, this essay will analyze their success in terms of their recording and storage efforts, as well as their potential for long-term preservation.
Digital technology and the explosion of digital recording and rendering formats have altered the way people view many traditional media. The audio recording industry has, perhaps, been affected more than any other. Digital technology has provided opportunities for digital recording, copying, and storing of all kinds of audio content. Oral histories are among these audio media that have been given a new life through digital recording and preservation technology.
Oral histories are not a new idea. Personal stories and cultural relevancies were transmitted orally long before people learned to write on clay tablets or papyrus scrolls. Recorded audio histories are not new either:
...the modern concept of oral history was developed in the 1940s by Allan Nevins and his associates at Columbia University... The discipline came into its own in the 1960s and early 70s when inexpensive tape recorders were available to document such rising social movements as civil rights, feminism, and anti–Vietnam War protest. ("Oral History," 2007)
Therefore, digital tools for recording, transmitting, listening to, and preserving oral histories didn't create a concept but revolutionize it in terms of quality and potential. This potential is described by the Oral History Association, which says, "We have reached the point where scholars, archivists, folklorists, and others recording oral history interviews and other sound documents no longer need to sacrifice recording quality for convenience and cost" (Oral History Association, 2011). Digital technology has opened the door for oral history projects to capture large collections of the cultural landscape that would otherwise never be heard, and certainly not preserved.
The viability of recording and preserving oral histories has long been possible, but its value has been debated, and expected benefits vary from project to project. Graham Smith, writing on behalf of The Institute of Historical Research based at the University of London, emphasizes that there are many methodologies for oral history projects. Smith (2008) explains:
Within this movement oral historians have approached the collection, analysis and dissemination of oral history in different ways. In broad terms while oral historians in Western Europe and North America have often focused on issues of identity and cultural difference, oral historians in Latin America and Eastern Europe have tended to pursue more overtly political projects.
For Smith, the specific purpose or method is not as important as the cumulative result that oral histories allow everyday people to contribute to the historical record. He explains, "Oral history continues to be an important means by which non-academics can actively participate in 'making history'" (Smith, 2008).
This point could not be made more clearly than through the lens of another oral history project, also based at a university in England. The East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA), part of the University of Leicester, describes the value of oral history in its training manual, "What is Oral History":
Oral history can give a voice to individuals and groups who are sometimes marginalized in 'conventional' histories . . . It can provide new information, alternative explanations and different insights which are potentially of enormous value. The spoken word can convey feelings and emotions with immediacy and an impact that the written word cannot match, as well as preserving a record of local dialects and accents. (East Midlands Oral History Archive, 2008)
Smith's and EMOHA's views of oral history projects accomplish similar goals: to record the everyday voices of everyday people. Most importantly, both consider these voices valuable to the cultural record.
In order to delve into the more technical aspects of
oral collections and archives, two examples, the Oral
History Archive: Voices from Coney Island (abbreviated
to Coney Island Voices) and the StoryCorps project, will
be described in detail. These projects are extremely
different in size, scope, financial assets, management,
and long-term preservation plans, but both are working
toward the same goal: to collect and preserve the oral
histories of a specific culture.
Like many businesses at Coney Island, the Coney Island History Project (CIHP) operates out of a boardwalk booth. The Coney Island Voices staff works in a space the size of other boardwalk amusements, in the shadow of Coney Island's famous roller coaster, the Cyclone. The core employees are extremely dedicated to collecting and expressing Coney Island's history.
The project's goal, according to the History Project Website's "About" page (2011a), is to "increase awareness of Coney Island's legendary and colorful past and to encourage appreciation of the Coney Island neighborhood of today." The Voices homepage (2011b) lists a separate goal, to "record and preserve memories of Coney Island."
Charles Denson, the Coney Island Voices executive director and Coney Island native, believes his project moves beyond these goals. He explains that the History Project and Voices archive are not just about preserving memories but recording the potential for socioeconomic unity. In Eleanor Bader's (2008) article, "Coney Island History Project Preserves the Past for Future Generations," Denson says, "This is not about nostalgia... It's about capturing Coney Island's essence and heritage. Coney Island is one of the most diverse places on earth, a place where all socioeconomic groups have been able to meet, mingle, and have fun".
Interviews for Coney Island Voices are collected in person or on the phone, by appointment. Tricia Vita, CIHP's administrative director, says, "several hundred oral histories have already been collected and are available to listeners through CIHP's website," (Bader, 2008). According to Seth Kaufman, CIHP's oral history database manager and software developer, Coney Island Voices has captured approximately 350 interviews, ranging in length from only one minute to over two hours. Kaufman explains that typically the shortest interviews are from tourists, but that "we record anyone who has anything to say — anything can be relevant" (personal communication, November 15, 2011).
The Coney Island History Project was created as a non-profit organization in 2004. The project is increasingly important to Coney Island fans, residents, and historians as an ongoing urban development project changes the face of the Coney Island community.
Kaufman has worked for Coney Island Voices for six
years. While discussing the resources and staffing for
the project, his explanations paint a picture of a
dedicated group of core employees with many revolving
volunteers. The number of employees varies, but is
usually "about half a dozen, and they tend to be
historians or have archival background, and often a
background in oral history, storytelling, or radio
production" (personal communication, November 15, 2011).
The non-specific number of employees is due to unstable
funding. The project's Membership and Support page (2011c) unapologetically solicits
much-needed donations and asks people to sign up and pay
for membership. The project receives funds from many
sources, but cannot fully rely on them: "There's
donations from local businesses, limited funding from
the city, and less from the state. There is a lot less
than there used to be. Basically everything now goes to
paying people's salaries." He continues, "The good part
is that The History Project doesn't pay rent!" (S.
Kaufman, personal communication, November 15, 2011).
Coney Island Voices' problem with unreliable resources is evidenced in their choices of hardware and preservation equipment, as well as their long-term preservation strategies. Kaufman explains that their server uses a Linux machine CIHP paid for with a grant, but that the technology is now becoming dated. Money concerns also show Coney Island Voices' choice of database system: "For the database we use CollectiveAccess open source — It's free and it's easy to use" (S. Kaufman, personal communication, November 15, 2011).
The limited resources of the project are spent on editing and cataloging for the archive:
The cleaning is minimally invasive — they cut things that have nothing to do with Coney Island, and noise... Usually the editing process is solely concerned with pulling out the chunks at the beginning and the end and dead air. The rest of time is spent on cataloging, subject headings, and metadata. (S. Kaufman, personal communication, November 15, 2011)
Due to limited staff time, this process is far from immediate and a large backlog of interviews exists. Though the goal is to make these available to the public, "the editing and cataloging process can take a long time and the backlog gets long, especially during the summer season" (S. Kaufman, personal communication, November 15, 2011).
The recording and preservation format has not changed from the beginning of the Voices project. All interviews are captured as WAV files on digital recorders (these have been purchased and donated) with Flash memory cards. Coney Island Voices preserves both the unedited and edited WAVs and archives the Flash cards. Kaufman says that Coney Island Voices uses LOCKSS, backs up files onto DVDs, and periodically migrates the database to offsite machines. When asked about long-term preservation, Kaufman says, "We're aware of the concern, but we'll have to deal with it as it comes. The kind of material we're dealing with gives us the luxury of not going crazy. Audio and WAVs haven't changed in a while and they're stable" (personal communication, November 15, 2011). He's proud to point out that Coney Island Voices has lost only one interview due to equipment failure, and only three ever. All the losses beyond that, he explains, were due to human error and were recovered through one of Coney Island Voices' redundant storage systems (personal communication, November 15, 2011).
Despite irregular funding and apprehensions about long-term viability, Coney Island Voices is accomplishing its goals: "The quality of the interviews is excellent even when they are phone interviews. There is no additional software needed to play the interviews which helps increase wider access to the material" (History in the New Media, 2011).
The Coney Island Voices project is an excellent example of a small archive doing its best with limited resources. The project has received recognition in the archival community. In 2008, the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York (ART) presented both the Coney Island History Project and Coney Island Voices with the Award for Innovative Use of Archives. During the ceremony, "ART acknowledged the Coney Island History Project for its remarkable success in documenting and communicating the history of Coney Island" stating "the Awards Committee commends Coney Island History Project's novel and innovative methods in documenting a beloved landmark and cultural institution. Through the Project's efforts, the Coney Island community has been enriched and empowered" (ART, 2009). Coney Island Voices is recording interviews, making them available, and preserving them in terms of format and the LOCKSS system. Though they have not made concrete plans for file migration or prepared for another institution to ingest their files if they have to close, at least the files themselves, for now, are safe.
The StoryCorps plan, like Coney Island Voices, is to collect audio interviews and to build a comprehensive snapshot of cultural life. The scope, however, is much greater. StoryCorps' mission "is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives" (StoryCorps, 2011a). Their plan is to build themselves "into an enduring institution that will touch the lives of every American family" (StoryCorps, 2011a).
David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, was a radio interviewer and documentary maker prior to starting this project. He was inspired not only by what he had learned in his own work, but also by a previous "every man" history project. According to the journalist Jessica Dye's (2006) EContent article "Making History: StoryCorps Puts Digital Recording in the People's Hands":
StoryCorps was inspired by an early twentieth-century program, the Work Progress Association's Federal Writers' Project, which was introduced during the Great Depression to keep invaluable personal records from those who had lived through momentous nineteenth century events from slipping into oblivion.
The process for recording an oral history with StoryCorps is far more formal than the Coney Island Voices process. StoryCorps interviews take place in StoryBooths, which are soundproof interview rooms. Each contains digital recording equipment, a microphone, two chairs, and a desk. Interviews are by appointment, typically last forty minutes, and involve the principal interviewee and a family member, friend, or StoryCorps facilitator. Before the interviews, photographs are taken and waivers are signed allowing StoryCorps to keep and reproduce copies of the interview. After the interview, documents are scanned into PDFs, images are stored as JPEGS, the interview is uploaded into the StoryCorps database, and the subject receives a copy of the interview on audio CD (T. Cooper, personal communication, November 11, 2011). Later, the interview is sent to offsite storage and to the American Folklife Center at Library of Congress (StoryCorps, 2010).
Since the initial StoryBooth opened in New York City's Grand Central Terminal on October 23, 2003 (Isay, 2010), the StoryCorps project has created permanent StoryBooths in San Francisco, California at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and in Atlanta, Georgia at the WABE studio. There is also a MobileBooth in a modified Airstream trailer that travels the country; door-to-door teams that record at specific locations; and StoryKits, packages that contain an audio recorder, microphone, and camera, as well as waivers and directions, which can be used at home before being shipped back to StoryCorps (T. Cooper, personal communication November 11, 2011).
For an archive so well managed in terms of ingesting content, the number of recorded interviews is unclear: the StoryCorps Web pages list variously 30,000 and 35,000. According to Tayla Cooper, Senior Archive Coordinator for StoryCorps, the number of interviews (as of November 11, 2011) was approximately 40,000. In fact, ten interviews had been recorded on that day by 4:15 PM EST (personal communication, November 11, 2011). Public Broadcasting Online, the webpage of WABE in Atlanta, Georgia, claims 50,000 interviews have been conducted (PBAonline, 2011).
Though there is no consensus on the number of interviews, it is at minimum over 30,000 and growing. Isay explains why it is important for the project to collect as many interviews as possible. In the article American Muslims to Record, Preserve Oral Histories with StoryCorps July 4th, Isay explains, "StoryCorps tells the true American story — that we are a people defined by small acts of courage, kindness and heroism. Each interview reminds people that their lives matter and will not be forgotten" ("American Muslims," 2011).
StoryCorps, like Coney Island Voices, is an independent non-profit corporation based in Brooklyn, NY. Both record born digital audio files and use the WAV file format, but the similarities stop there. The StoryCorps staff numbers over 100 people. David Isay presides over a five person executive team, and the board of directors boasts the former president of The New York Times Company Foundation and former senator Bill Bradley (StoryCorps, 2010).
The operating budget for StoryCorps is also far greater than that of Coney Island Voices. StoryCorps' revenue for the 2010 fiscal year was $6,326,314; expenditures equaled slightly less at $6,213,713 (StoryCorps, 2010). Deborah Levheim (n.d.) discusses funding for StoryCorps: interviewees are often expected to pay a $10 donation, but the majority of funds come from government institutions, foundations, and private donations. These income sources include "the MacArthur foundation, NPR, Delta Airlines, and the National Endowment for the Arts," (Levheim, n.d.) among dozens of others. The differentiated income streams provide StoryCorps with financial security that Coney Island Voices and many other digital archives don't have. In terms of size, finances, and connections, StoryCorps is by far the largest and most able oral history collection and archive in the world today.
StoryCorps has its technical work cut out for it. The project captures interviews, takes photos of interviewees, creates digital copies of release forms and paperwork, and stores it all with the goal of permanence. In keeping with their mission, the staff at StoryCorps has to make this information safe from damage and degradation, not just now but in the long term. StoryCorps must assure the quality of their digital objects, standardization of their structure, and safe uploading to their server.
Unlike Coney Island Voices, StoryCorps has the financial potential to do this by the book. StoryCorps uses the proprietary Drobo Pro database system to archive their WAV files (called "assets") in digital packages with associated JPEGs and PDFs ("units"), in their server in Brooklyn, New York, according to Cooper (2011). She explained that some of the technical aspects are not released, but provided this information:
I can tell you, they've just migrated out of using disparate FileMaker databases, they've custom built a new database management system on Drobo software, which they're very excited about... Besides being more up to date and simple to handle, this allows for an easy spread of file units and assets throughout the Drobo Pro system for redundancy. (personal communication, November 11, 2011)
When asked about file redundancy, Cooper explained, "StoryCorps keeps a copy, the interviewee gets a copy, and a copy is sent to the Library of Congress. Also, we have offsite back-up on an MS server" (personal communication November 11, 2011).
In addition to this, many institutions hold small sections of the collection. StoryCorps boasts that there are "100 local StoryCorps archives in America" (StoryCorps, 2008). For example, the La Crosse Public Library in La Crosse, Wisconsin has 116 StoryCorps interviews in their circulating collection. The librarians at La Crosse were the first to create item-level records for StoryCorps interviews, and were instrumental in developing the cataloging structure. They created a new template for StoryCorps bibliographic records and helped format them for uploading to OCLC WorldCat (Doering & Klug-Hefte, 2011).
Most of the true long-term preservation is handled by the Library of Congress. In Cooper's words, "They're the Long Term Preservation partners, and they make sure the data and assets are safe... That's the nature of our relationship with them" (personal communication November 11, 2011). Isay (2010) enlisted the help of the Library of Congress before recording the first StoryCorps interview:
I made a cold call to the center's director, Peggy Bulger. I told Peggy about this crazy idea I had called 'StoryCorps' and asked if the Folklife Center might consider housing the collection. Miraculously, she had the vision and foresight to say 'yes' on the spot.
The Library of Congress publicized the relationship in their press release, "American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to House the Storycorps Archive." Their commitment to preservation is made clear:
The Archive of Folk Culture will be the repository for the StoryCorps collection. The Library's folklife specialists will be responsible for ensuring that the collection is preserved in digital form, appropriately indexed and cataloged . . . In this way, the StoryCorps collection will be available to future generations of researchers and family descendants. (Dalrymple, 2003)
Still, the Folklife Center doesn't hold all of the StoryCorps interviews. The copying process for interviews is not automatic: only "with the permission of the participants, a copy of the interview on CD-ROM will also go to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress" (Levheim, n.d.). According to the StoryCorps FAQ page at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, just over 16,000 interviews and 28,000 photos have been received (StoryCorps, 2011b). 16,000 is less than half, perhaps as little as one third of StoryCorps' total collection. With their financing and management, as well as the backing of the Library of Congress, this low number is a concern. However, StoryCorps is confident that at least these 16,000 units are being properly preserved in the long-term.
The scope of the StoryCorps project is large, and it is ostensibly performing at a highly professional level. According to Cooper, at least, StoryCorps has never lost an asset. She credits this to their offsite storage, the trustworthiness of the Library of Congress, and finality, to the fact that, "We use the LOCKSS principle. There are tons of copies. The staff is just too committed to lose an asset" (personal communication, November 11, 2011).
Still, there are concerns. It is unclear why the estimated range of StoryCorps interviews varies by as much as 20,000, or why StoryCorps' website offers both 30,000 and 35,000 as the total number of interviews. StoryCorps is performing its due diligence by employing LOCKSS, which is the safest way to maintain record integrity, ensure zero loss, and check for bit loss. However, their arranged longterm preservation partner has in its possession, by its own count, less than half of the interviews collected by StoryCorps. This information is vexing, to say the least.
Despite these problems, StoryCorps has received a great deal of well-deserved recognition from participants, archivists, and media organizations. In fact, StoryCorps was awarded the rare Institutional Award during the 66th annual Peabody Awards in 2007 (Library of Congress, 2007). In any event, StoryCorps has set a new bar for large-scale oral history archiving. As long as WAV files are usable, the stories they have collected will be preserved and available for listening.
Coney Island Voices and StoryCorps have the same purpose: to record and convey a group of people and the spirit of an area in its voice. However, they have very different scopes. Coney Island Voices is interested in a single community and beach boardwalk. StoryCorps, on the other hand, is interested in recording the totality of American stories.
Accordingly, the funding of these two organizations differs tremendously. StoryCorps, with its budget in the millions and the backing of national organizations, has resources and potential that Coney Island Voices will never have, and the Library of Congress provides for StoryCorps' long-term needs better than Coney Island Voices can provide for its own.
Coney Island Voices does not aspire to this level of preservation, wanting instead to record as many interviews as possible, as quickly as they can. Coney Island Voices is "not an intellectually ambitious project. It's interesting, but not ambitious. It's a small slice of American History being done with a very broad brush" (S. Kaufman, personal communication, November 15, 2011). When comparing Coney Island Voices to other oral history archives, Kaufman (2011) — with no prompting from the interviewer — discussed StoryCorps:
At a very low level you have extremely specific oral history projects, and a high level you have StoryCorps that just talks to people and there's no thematic unity — it's pure story telling. There only needs to be one StoryCorps. We're in the middle. (personal communication, November 15, 2011)
He concludes by stating, "In the middle is a very interesting place to be because documenting a thing broadly makes it hard to set the boundaries and it just goes on forever. We want to go on as long as there's Coney Island history to record," (personal communication, November 15, 2011).
StoryCorps is more efficient, more managed, more secure in its resources, and has a stronger long-term preservation system. Coney Island Voices, on the other hand, has never had the database or migration difficulties of StoryCorps, and answers only to its own mission and purpose, rather than to its funding sources. Somehow, despite these differences, the two share basic similarities. Both record interviews in the WAV format. Both store them using LOCKSS. Neither has taken precautions for a move away from WAV files or is prepared for a "hand off" if their organization fails. Most importantly, both, in their own way, are preserving history and making sure that it exists for the future.
American Muslims to record, preserve oral histories with StoryCorps July 4th. (2011, May 24). PR Newswire US. Accession Number: 201105240800PR.NEWS.USPR.PH07413. Retrieved from: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/american-muslims-to-record-preserve-oral-histories-with-storycorps-july-4th-122495763.html
Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York. (2009, Winter). New York Archives awards ceremony, November 17, 2008. Metropolitan Archivist, 14(1), 23-24. Retrieved from: http://www.nycarchivists.org/Resources/Documents/2009_1.pdf
Bader, E. (2008). Coney Island History Project preserves the past for future generations. The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved from: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2008/07/local/coney-island-history-project-preserves-the-past-for-future-generations
Coney Island History Project. (2011a). About Coney Island History Project. Retrieved from: http://www.coneyislandhistory.org/index.php?g=about
Coney Island History Project. (2011b). Oral History Archive: Voices Of Coney Island. Retrieved from: http://www.coneyislandhistory.org/voices/index.php/Voices/About
Coney Island History Project. (2011c). Membership: Support the Coney Island History Project. Retrieved from: http://www.coneyislandhistory.org/index.php?g=membership
Dalrymple, H. (2003, Sept 30). American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to house the Storycorps archive. News from the Library of Congress. Retrieved from: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2003/03-168.html
Doering, A.T., & Klug-Hefte, J. (2011, March 30). For the record: Wisconsin catalogers help raise the bar for StoryCorps. OCLC News and Events. Retrieved from: http://www.oclc.org/news/membership/2011/announcement2.htm
Dye, J. (2006, April 7). Making history: StoryCorps puts digital recording in the people's hands. EContent, 29(3), 14-15. Accession Number: 20221006. Retrieved from: http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/News/News-Feature/Making-History-StoryCorps-Puts-Digital-Recording-in-the-Peoples-Hands-15306.htm
East Midlands Oral History Archive. (2008). What is oral history? Oral History Information Sheets. Retrieved from: http://www.le.ac.uk/emoha/training/no1.pdf
History in the New Media. (2011). Coney Island Comparison. Retrieved from: http://historynewmedia.wikidot.com/coney-island-comparison
Isay, D. (2010, May). Everyday existence. American Libraries Magazine. Retrieved from: http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/features/04112010/everyday-existence
Levheim, D. (n.d). The WPA and the StoryCorps: Oral traditions and preserving Americans stories. Retrieved from: http://www.gigahurts.com/StoryCorps_archive_paper.pdf
Library of Congress. (2011, Sept 2). StoryCorps collection (AFC 2004/001): Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/storycorpsfaq.html
Library of Congress. (2007, April 9). StoryCorps project wins Peabody Award. News from the Library of Congress. Retrieved from: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2007/07-072.html
Oral history. (2007). The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. Retrieved from http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/oral+history
Oral History Association. (2007). Technology. Retrieved from: http://www.oralhistory.org/technology/
PBAonline. (2011). StoryCorps Atlanta. Retrieved from: http://www.pba.org/programming/programs/storycorps_atl/
Smith, G. (2008). The making of oral history: Sections 1–2. The Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved from: http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/oral_history.html
StoryCorps. (2008). StoryCorps annual report 2008. Brooklyn, NY. Retrieved from: http://storycorps.org/about/annual-report/
StoryCorps. (2010). StoryCorps annual report 2010. Brooklyn, NY. Retrieved from: http://storycorps.org/about/annual-report/
StoryCorps. (2011a). About us. Retrieved from: http://storycorps.org/about/
StoryCorps. (2011b). FAQ. Retrieved from: http://storycorps.org/about/faqs/
Chris Burns is in his final semester at San Jose
State’s School of Library and Information Science. His
main areas of professional interests are art
digitization, image preservation, research, and
rearranging stacks. Chris has interned for the ongoing
digitization project for the San Jose Museum of Art and
volunteers at the Airport Library and Museum in SFO. He
loves going to concerts, events at museums and art
galleries, the circus, and fairs. Chris lives with his
fiance in San Francisco.
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