Voices of the People: The StoryCorps Archive | Archives Deep Dive

Since founder and president David Isay conceived of StoryCorps in 2003, the organization has recorded over 356,000 interviews with over 640,000 people in all 50 states, in over 50 languages, with the archive housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

interior of story booth, two men talking to each other across table
Interior of the StoryBooth
Photo by Rob Lowell

It started with a single booth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The concept was simple; two people who knew each would record their interviews with a trained facilitator inside the booth.

Since founder and president David Isay conceived of StoryCorps in 2003, the organization has recorded over 356,000 interviews with over 640,000 people in all 50 states, in over 50 languages, with the archive housed at the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress.

Over the past 20 years, the organization has worked tirelessly to collect and honor the oral histories of its participants while finding new ways of sharing their contributions to the world, including National Public Radio (NPR) broadcasts, animations, podcasts, and five bestselling books. According to StoryCorps’s most recent Annual Report, in 2021, the broadcasts featured on NPR Morning Edition reached 12 million listeners each week.

“We have a scale of recordings, stories, and first person accounts of historical events that is really unmatched,” said Virginia Millington, StoryCorps director of recording and archives. The archive contains stories recalling pivotal historical events that include World War II, the rise of Hip Hop, and 9/11, as well as personal stories of happiness and heartbreak.

In order to make sure that the diversity of experiences are represented, StoryCorps has developed several initiatives over the years to target particular parts of US society. For instance, there is the Military Voices Initiative, to collect interviews from veterans, military families, service members; another initiative works to honor the stories of LGBTQ+ in initiative StoryCorps OutLoud; while StoryCorps Griot collects the experiences of African Americans.

Other programs focus on Latinos, people working in the end of life care facilities (hospitals, palliative care), juvenile and adult justice system, refugees, immigrants and Muslim communities to name a few.

StoryCorps “gives the people that participate in our interviews, as well as our listeners, insights to moments, experiences, thoughts, ideas, and memories of everyday people,” said StoryCorps Chief Programs Officer Lisa Nelson-Haynes. “We offer snapshots into the humanity of everyday folks.”



The StoryCorps archive is different from other collections that acquire items through purchases or donations. This archive is self-sustaining; it creates and preserves its own material. Millington explained that the StoryCorps facilitators and archivists work on the full cycle of each interview, from training facilitators to recording, archiving, and cataloging interviews; maintaining the archive; and reaching out to participants to handle questions or concerns and send them their recordings. The organization also chooses which interviews to showcase on its podcast, radio broadcasts, and animations, in which a 40-minute interview is edited down to a three-minute story.

“All roads lead through and to the archives,” said StoryCorps CEO Sandra Clark. “All parts of our organization actually feed into the archive.” While every story is individually important, she added, “the archive really knits together this quilt of stories that are much bigger than one person’s story.”

When StoryCorps was launched in 2003, Isay approached Margaret Anne “Peggy” Bulger, then director of the AFC, to request that it house the archive and make recordings available at the Library of Congress, said current director Nicole Saylor. People can come to the AFC, preferably with an appointment, to listen to the recordings on the equipment there, she noted.

The StoryCorps digital archive, released in 2020, offers access to the full interviews online—but people still come to the AFC to listen in person. Saylor recalled working at the reference desk when a family came to access a late relative’s interview. Even though one of them had the recording on his cell phone, they wanted to hear it at the Library of Congress. “It meant something to them to hear their loved one’s voice in this space,” Saylor said. “I thought that was really a powerful testament to the partnership.”

It’s also affirmation of power of the work StoryCorps does. The interviews allow people to be heard—invited to the proverbial table of history and memory-making, Clark noted. “What people have entrusted StoryCorps with is a little piece of their legacy. That is a gift to their families and friends, but also a gift to all of us, in terms of the stories that are there that we never get to see.”

But with that gift comes the responsibility to safeguard participants’ stories, said Millington. “We’re committed to responsiveness, agility, and above all, a commitment to supporting the words of our participants.”

That means participants can ask to modify or remove their interviews from the archive. If someone asks to remove or edit an interview, StoryCorps will comply with no questions asked as quickly as possible. Honoring people’s contributions to the archive takes priority over adding content, Millington explained, and if a contributor no longer feels comfortable with having the interview publicly accessible, for any reason, it shouldn’t be there.

However, StoryCorps is rarely asked to remove of a story completely, Millington noted. Most people request modifications, such as adding or changing a name or correcting misspoken memories.



exterior of StoryCorps booth in Grand Central Station with people walking past
StoryCorps Booth in Grand Central Station, 2003
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Because of its origins, the archive was initially very New York City–centric, Millington noted, with the first 10,000 interviews sourced from NYC, starting with the Grand Central Station booth and StoryBooths at the World Trade Center in 2005 and Foley Square in 2007. StoryCorps expanded beyond New York in 2005 with the StoryCorps Mobile Booths—retrofitted Airstream Travel Trailers—in Washington, DC, Milwaukee, and Nashville in 2007; San Francisco in 2008; Atlanta in 2009; and Chicago in 2013. The traveling Griot MobileBooth began its journey in 2006. The organization also created mobile recording kits that could fit in the overhead bin of a plane.

“StoryCorps has resonated so powerfully with people, which has meant that it’s been able to scale and to increase in scope and size dramatically for an oral history based organization,” Millington said.

In 2015, StoryCorps launched a mobile application, which meant that anyone with a smartphone or tablet would have a chance to record a story anywhere in the United States. Within the first year of the app launch, tens of thousands of people used it.

During the COVID-19 shutdowns, “we [saw] our role as an organization that strives to provide connection,” Millington said at a time when people were feeling isolated and scared. While it could have taken years to develop the StoryCorps Connect, a virtual platform for people to record their interviews through videoconference technology without having to be present in the same room, StoryCorps launched it in 2020 in response to the pandemic.

The two interview types—an interview in a StoryCorps booth and a mobile app recording—offer different benefits. The former is an interview between two people in a controlled environment, led by a trained facilitator, Millington explained. The latter has more immediacy and accessibility, as well as allowing users to catalog their own interviews and include their own keywords to allow listeners to find the interview by topic.

The mobile applications presented some hurdles from an archival perspective. Saylor noted that StoryCorps and Folklife had to ask interview subjects for a minimal amount of data to preserve privacy without sacrificing the metadata needed to make archives searchable.

StoryCorps is open to all, but over the past 20 years has been proactive in going to specific communities to ensure that their memories are preserved. Before the pandemic, the Mobile Tour would set up shop in the area it was targeting; staff would park the Airstream near a community site, such as a public library or community center, and work with the local radio station to conduct the interviews. During the pandemic, StoryCorps offered virtual sessions for community members who want to participate remotely.

The StoryCorps initiative One Small Step (OSS) provides a new twist on the model. The idea behind OSS, Nelson-Haynes explained, is to bring two people together who don’t know each other and who seem to come from very different spaces, to have a conversation. “We know that there is magic in our methodology,” she said—and that people from very different backgrounds “can find some sort of commonality.”

Now OSS is expanding with One Small Step Congress, to bring together staff from different political parties. Nelson-Haynes noted that has been more challenging, as politicians and staff can be guarded—but the focus is on their daily experiences and why they chose to work in government, rather than personal politics. “We get these great emails from people [who participated, or] we get them on tape saying, ‘Wow, that’s not what I was expecting,’” she said.

Despite StoryCorps’s many initiatives, some populations remain underrepresented. Millington noted that that there are fewer interviews with residents of rural regions and younger people, areas where StoryCorps has been trying to make inroads.



StoryCorps works to highlight its stories in multiple ways: the NPR broadcast, a podcast, animation shorts, and books. “The work that we do allows people the opportunity to slow down to reflect and to listen,” Nelson-Haynes said. Clark hopes that the StoryCorps radio broadcast would make you pull over the side of the road.

One example: the animated short “Sunday at Rocco’s” features Nicholas Petron’s recollections about family dinners at his grandfather’s house in the Lower East Side of Manhattan until the home is condemned by the city. It’s a very personal story of a family, Millington noted, but “also a story where you can see broader historical narratives of the 20th century” regarding housing and communities in New York City.

Another timely story—a conversation between two NYC bus operators, Tyrone Hampton and Frank de Jesus—aired in April 2020. The two discussed their shared experiences of being on the frontlines of the pandemic.

When selecting interviews for the podcast, animations, and short pieces, Michael Garofalo, StoryCorps’s chief content officer, told LJ, “I always start with what the Kitchen Sisters say about making narratorless radio—they call it ‘writing with other people’s words.’ I love this because it acknowledges the craft—a kind of authorship—while maintaining that the material we work with is not entirely ours.” He looks for a combination of factors, including a literary voice; strong narrative; a relationship between the people that makes the interview come to life; and a piece’s poetry, wisdom, surprises, and relevance. No single piece may have all of these traits, Garofalo noted, but three or four will work.

When an interview has been selected for a feature, StoryCorps checks with the participants for their consent that it can be edited and featured. Garofalo noted that with animations, “we work closely with participants to review family photos and get further context so that the visuals we create accurately represent the people and experiences described.”

Outside of StoryCorps and its partners, people have found a range of creative uses for the archives. Journalist and podcast host Krissy Clark, founder of Stories Everywhere, created an audio tour in collaboration with the New Museum collating interviews about specific places on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to showcase snippets of those stories; following the map, you can walk to a street and hear a first-person story set there. Interviewees might remember pushcarts lining the streets, while someone else reminisced about the same street decades later. Academic projects studying StoryCorps have included “Learning from StoryCorps: The Resilience and Empowerment of Afghan Immigrant Women” by Crystal Najib, a master’s student at the University of Maryland.

Millington thinks that StoryCorps has only scratched the surface of how the archive can be explored. But it’s critical, she says, that the organization remain clear and coherent with participants about the use of the interviews for education or research purposes. As head of programming, Nelson-Haynes wants to be sure “that the constituencies that we work with understand how their stories impact the archive and understand the accessibility of the archive.”

In anticipation of its 20th anniversary in October, StoryCorps released updated broadcasts of five classic episodes, five new animations, podcast episodes, and Jason Reynolds will host an Anniversary Gala on October 17.

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