At its best, oral history challenges and complicates our understanding of ourselves. In place of sweeping historical narratives, we get the fine-grained perspectives of people who lived through history. In place of authoritative voices, pronouncing from on high, we hear everyday people speaking directly about living extraordinary lives. Your grandparents, your neighbors, your friends have stories to tell—stories that can change how we see the past and the present.

But it can be hard to get started: what kind of recorder do you use? How do you archive your interviews? how do you get transcripts made?

Biograph is a new app that takes the headaches out of oral history. To conduct your interview, all you need is your phone. Biograph will record high quality sound files and generate automatic transcripts that you can download and edit.

Best of all, Biograph allows you to set up interviews remotely and asynchronously. You can post your questions; your interviewees can respond on their own time, when they feel comfortable and safe. All Biographs are private by default, so your interviewees will feel comfortable being honest and open. Biograph encourages spontaneity, curates comfort, and creates the conditions for a great interview.

Master interviewer Studs Terkel writes, “What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you’re listening.” Biograph is simple, reliable, and easy to use. Instead of worrying about a complicated recorder or getting reliable transcripts, you can focus on the part of oral history that matters most: establishing a human connection with the people who live—and make—history.  

Oral History in the Carl Sandburg Apartments

James Wilson has lived in the Carl Sandburg Village in Chicago since they were first built in the 1960s. He’s watched the population change over the years: from old-school Chicagoans to young professionals. After he retired, he became the apartments’ unofficial historians, curating a small archive at the Chicago History Museum, focusing on the community’s architecture and its notable residents.

But he wanted to do a ground-up history of the community, focusing on the everyday experience of the residents who make their lives there. It would be impossible to schedule in-depth interviews with every resident—or even a reasonable percentage of them. So James used Biograph instead, posting open calls for memories, stories, and reminiscences.

The project started small, with James’ friends and neighbors in the village posting stories—but it quickly gained steam. Soon, James was gathering detailed stories about life at Carl Sandburg from people he’d never met. When he was finished, he downloaded the transcripts and audio and donated them to the History Museum as a living record of everyday life in the heart of Chicago.

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