Technology Brings History Up to Speed

Tomorrow's history students will literally see and hear about the past from the people who lived through it — not just read about it in textbooks.

Two projects currently under way — "Telling Lives" and StoryCorps — are collecting audio and video recordings of ordinary people's histories. The hope is to use modern technology to create an archive in which future generations can experience history more vividly than those before them.

"We want people to connect through history," said Richard Rabinowitz, president of the American History Workshop (search), the group responsible for "Telling Lives: The Video Memory Bank." (search)

Click Here for Sample Audio History

The project, which recently spent several weeks at the New York Historical Society (search), videotaped 500 to 600 regular people who reminisced about the common experiences such as going to school, according to Rabinowitz.

One 94-year-old woman who participated described riding to school on the runners of a horse-drawn sleigh in 1912 in Duluth, Minn. Another man remembered having to beg other students for lunch during World War II because his family was too poor to pack food for him.

"What's valuable about oral histories is that they give you access to episodes that don't generate any documents," said Bernie Carlson, a University of Virginia associate professor of technology, culture and communications. "Everybody's story needs to be preserved and told."

The project seems to be a paradox in today's world, where technology is often seen in opposition to history and learning.

"History is about preserving the past and technology is about the future," Carlson said. "History is about cultural meaning, and technology, we assume, is constantly obliterating that."

But ultimately, the goal of "Telling Lives" is to bring history and tech together, and make a database of videotaped stories available at libraries and museums nationwide. The project heads next to Atlanta, then Hartford, Conn., then Los Angeles and finally Toronto.

Sound Portraits Productions' StoryCorps — set to begin this month at Grand Central Terminal in New York — collects oral recordings of personal histories. The stories will be told in audiotaped interviews between family members, couples or friends; the plan is to take the project around the country and create an archive of oral historical accounts in the Library of Congress.

"Family histories get lost," said StoryCorps Director David Reville. "People don't listen to each other as much as they did in the past. This project is happening at the right time, not just because it's enabled by technology but because it's required by technology."

The spoken accounts that StoryCorps hopes to collect will likely make history spring to life in a way it might not when it comes from a textbook.

"The expression in the voice is so important — and gone when [the person] is lost," Reville said. "Given the fact that families collect photographs, adding the voice to that is so valuable."

Similarly, the "Telling Lives" video recordings of stories from the past can capture details that print cannot.

"Video is very interesting," said Rabinowitz. "I see your body language, your mode of expression. Some people tell stories by reenacting. Some think of themselves as far removed from their own past."

Oral history on tape has a long tradition in America dating back to the 1930s, when the federal Works Progress Administration had former slaves tell their stories on audiotape and Columbia University set up its Oral-History Research Office (search), a collection of history on audio.

Despite the sometimes disparate concepts of history and technology, the WPA project and those currently under way illustrate that the two can be used in harmony.

"People are using technology to do things better, faster, cheaper but also to make sense of their experience and seek meaning," said Carlson. "It's not surprising that people take cutting-edge technology to get at feelings and concerns and beliefs that are very important to them."

And in this reality TV age, the chance to experience actual real-life stories is welcome.

"I don't think a project like StoryCorps is inspired by reality TV, but it's in reaction to it," Reville said. "This is our beachhead against 'The Bachelor.' It's about real reality."