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T & T’s Archive Cheat Sheet

Everything you didn’t know you needed to know about the StoryCorps Archive.

We have a confession to make…this week, we’re going to completely nerd out. There is a StoryCorps department surrounded by mystery and allure that we can’t quite explain, but are totally intrigued by: the Recording and Archive department.

“What are they doing in there?” we often wonder, passing by the glass windows of their long office room. What secrets could be hiding in that behemoth collection of 50,000+ interviews known as the StoryCorps Archive? Talya Cooper, Archive Manager, and Tamara Thompson, Archivist, seemed exactly like the two women who could shed light on our quandaries.

Surrounded by tapes and hard drives, and ever-donning headphones, Talya and Tamara plug away daily at updating, maintaining, and improving our archive. That’s hard work if you think about it. After all, every StoryCorps interview is in there. That’s EVERY story we’ve ever recorded, in all their full length, unedited, glory.

Talya and Tamara can attest–there is far more than meets the eye in the StoryCorps Archive. So here it is…

“T & T’S ARCHIVE CHEAT SHEET”

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Talya Cooper (left) and Tamara Thompson (right) AKA T & T.

ON THE STORIES

Both Talya and Tamara agreed one of their favorite parts of the job was listening to the stories. It makes sense. After all, the stories are really the heart of the archive, and the heart of StoryCorps. They spend anywhere from 10 – 15 hours a week listening to the interviews (2-3 hours daily).

“I’ll admit, sometimes I feel like an intruder,” Tamara told us, “Some stories seem so personal I almost feel like I shouldn’t be listening. At the same time though, I think it is so generous of the participants to open up and share a piece of themselves. Some of these interviews are so poignant, the full 40 minutes needs to be heard. I’m glad we can make the full interviews available to partners and they can get these interviews to the public.”

Talya agreed. “The produced pieces present a section of an interview that has some kind of arc–a beginning, middle, and end. But a good storyteller often goes on a million tangents that wouldn’t make sense in a produced piece. A storyteller who has a less assured delivery can often tell a moving, funny, or fascinating story that might not work for a 2 minute broadcast.”

Of course, as dedicated individuals to this enormous collection, Talya and Tamara don’t necessarily like to play favorites when it comes to the stories they hear. Nonetheless, they let us know there would always be certain types of stories that have peaked their interests.

“As a New Yorker, I especially love stories about New York City back in the day and then their polar opposite–interviews about growing up on farms and ranches,” said Talya. “I’m also regularly overwhelmed by the breadth of experiences our Military Voices Initiative participants describe.”

On the other hand, Tamara had a couple of interviews she remembered, for very specific reasons. For instance–a woman remembering meeting her husband “over a bottle of urine.” “The two met in a lab where they studied blood and urine samples,” she said. And the quietest participant? “A participant brought in a stuffed rabbit, Mr. Fluffy Bunny, as her interview partner.”

Talya636pxON THE KEYWORDS

After every story is recorded, StoryCorps facilitators fill out the necessary paperwork and make a record of the interview into the Archive’s database. Keywords, which help to identify what was discussed in an interview, are added into the record so the stories are searchable by topic. “Because I’m an archivist, I really enjoy working on our keywords list and thinking about how they’re being used and how they can help make our interviews more accessible,” Talya told us.

So what are the participants talking about? Perhaps not surprisingly, family was certainly a front-runner. “Almost every interview touches on family relationships, so keywords like ‘Parenthood’ or ‘Relationships: Sisters’ tend to be the most common,” she mentioned. Maybe a little more surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly at all) was how much social media made its way into the stories. “In 2012, one of the most frequently written-in keyword was…well…’Facebook,’” said Talya. For 2013, however, it was “deployment,” “homelessness,” “volunteering,” & “diversity.” Talya guessed that this could be thanks to our many initiatives, causing an uptick in interviews about both military & social justice issues.

ON THE “REAL” ARCHIVE

“The funny thing about a digital archive is that you can’t pay it a visit,” Talya admitted, after we asked if they’d ever actually got to visit the physical archive. “So it’s not quite as romantic as a giant collection of antique movie posters or LP’s or whatever people think of when they imagine an archive.”

“I have seen the computer terminals where they access the servers that store our files,” she added. “We go to the American Folklife Center at least once a year to meet with the librarians, archivists, and folklorists who work with our collection.” She described how much she enjoyed getting a chance to look at some of the other collections during these trips–the objects they have on display, which collections they are processing, and how StoryCorps fits in. “How amazing is it that our interviews are preserved alongside these treasures?” Talya said. “In effect, our recordings tell the histories that led to these artifacts’ creation, and the emotions they evoke.”

Tamara636ON OTHER WAYS TO USE THE ARCHIVE

The StoryCorps Archive’s vast range of story topics often lead outside researchers to request access to our collection for different projects at any given time.

“We’ve had someone who wanted to listen to every interview that mentioned Nathan’s Hot Dogs in Coney Island, a project analyzing interviews with teachers talking to other teachers about teaching, and of course, our awesome sound-walk StoryCorps Hear and There,” said Talya.

ON OUR PARTICIPANTS

Tamara and Talya told us about a unique section on our interview datasheets that give participants the chance to identify themselves in their own words. “Responses–which range from life philosophies, to jokes and drawings, to confessions of love for Robert Pattinson–are also always a highlight of processing files,” said Talya.

Some favorite “self-descriptions” from participants include:

  • “Adorable. sassy-mouthed, irascible, devious and incredible.”

  • “I am an Autumn breeze on a hot summer day.”

  • “Lean mean napping machine.”

  • “Godzilla.”

Once Talya and Tamara got started, we just couldn’t get enough of the endless factoids on the StoryCorps archive. In We Are StoryCorps’ own nerdy opinion, we finally learned what they do in that office of theirs–magic.

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What do you want to know about the StoryCorps Archive? Let us know in the comment section below!



5 Responses to “T & T’s Archive Cheat Sheet”

To preserve the StoryCorps mission and experience for our readers and participants, comments are subject to the StoryCorps Terms of Service. Comments may be held for moderation or removed if deemed offensive or off-topic. Please do not resubmit your comment if you don't see it right away, it will be approved as soon as possible. Thank you.

  • Such an informative yet light hearted story!

    Comment from teresa on February 6, 2014 at 11:30 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • My parents both recorded interviews with you in 2010 in Fargo ND Shirley Naismith with her sister Audrey Swanke and Donald Naismith with friend and colleague Harold Dowell. My dad died January 16, 2014 and in a search for memories I found his photo with Harold. I do not have a copy of their interviews and am wondering how I could get one. I would love to have his voice recorded. Shortly after the interviews his memory and mind started slipping noticeably.

    Please let me know how I go about retrieving these precious interviews.

    Margo

    Comment from Margo Naismith Bergene on February 6, 2014 at 8:02 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • I just want to nerd out with you for a minute. I am currently working on a photo archive for a two television programs that have a combination of 55 years worth of media. I just did my first ingest into Lightroom and brushed 100k photos. I love your thoughts on keywords, looking at them introspectively and trying to make them better is actually something I get excited about. I am a subscriber of StoryCorps and love reading the stories, and StoryCorps is like the netflix of stories, there is no where else I can go for a robust database of stories to consume. Just wanted you all to know I personally appreciate everything that you do, keep up the great work!

    Comment from Tony on February 6, 2014 at 3:45 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Favorite blog post ever!

    Comment from Jeremy on February 6, 2014 at 3:36 pm - Reply to this Comment

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