Now is the Time to Quiz our Elders — from a Distance

Gathering memories, from a distance.

Once, I recorded three hours of my Aunt Betty’s fabulous stories over coffee sitting in her kitchen. Now, there’s a new time for harvesting such precious memories.

What better way for a tech-savvy grandchild to behave in confinement or from safe distance than to become the one to assure through a remote conversation or two that a beloved voice and important family stories are safe. And there’s a lot of new help to make it happen.

StoryCorps began in 2003 with a recording booth in New York City’s Grand Central Station for people to create oral histories together between trains. In 2015, it did its first Great Thanksgiving Listen to encourage families to record shared stories before and after the traditional family dinner that characterizes that holiday in Canada and the United States.

In March 2020, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, StoryCorps closed its five physical recording centers and launched StoryCorps Connect as a way to capture oral histories remotely. The audio and a still photo from each interview goes into an archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Users also can download their recordings.

“This is an opportunity to speak to the future, to pass wisdom down, to ask questions like ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ ” StoryCorps founder and president Dave Isay told Wired.

The New York Times Learning Network has basic oral history tips for teenagers built into lesson plans for teachers about teaching World War II. Also, advice to teenagers for making podcasts comes in suggestions from students who have won awards in its annual podcast contest.

If the older adult on the other end needs some help, the teenagers who volunteer for Cyber Seniors- Connecting Generations can assist. Through this nonprofit people can either sign up for a webinar or online group tutorial or a one-on-one tech session with an experienced teenage mentor. An international reach means help can come in English, French or Spanish.

“The young people who work with Cyber-Seniors have already helped these most hard-hit victims of the COVID - 19 pandemic connect with their families while also getting the chance to learn from them and in many cases are recording these memories,” says Brenda Rusnak Cassaday, managing director.

General tips for doing a long-distance session formed a core segment of a 31 March webinar from The Oral History Association based at Baylor University (Texas). That segment, starting at 45 minutes 30 seconds into the recording, helps in thinking about how to plan a session, and not over-plan it.

In early April 2020, four British Library oral historians and some colleagues created a comprehensive guide for patrons who could no longer do face-to-face interviews during the pandemic. They included a very detailed technical section that explains things like why recording in WAV format might be a better idea than mp3.

In Spain, teenage journalists from several schools interviewed their confined grandparents then did profiles of these “extraordinary people” for the RED Report, a digital school newsmagazine [original version in Spanish].

But no matter the format, the key is to get it done, because it’s really not until you don’t hear a voice anymore that you realize how much you’ve lost, simply because you never thought of recording it.

I spent the early days of my own confinement finally transcribing those recordings I did with Aunt Betty a decade ago. Miraculously, they had survived the often backstabbing evolutions in software. I then made small podcasts (pretty easy to do with free offerings: Audacity audio editing software — with some helpful tips from my cousin Joe Gould — and the podcast platform fidbak.audio).

Her stories of growing up amid the immigrant population of the Northern New York mining town of Witherbee had historical merit, and the town historian wants to make them available to patrons. The rest confirmed, expanded and clarified family lore.

But best of all was simply being able to hear her voice again, and especially that laugh.

— —

The author is an advocate of inter-generational conversations with a journalistic twist, an advisor for Cyber Seniors and a founding director of the Global Youth & News Media.

Based in France, I love to encourage and help news media worldwide to better serve, support and engage young audiences.