Signing a family member up for StoryWorth takes two minutes, tops. Enter one name, one email, and click to okay the pre-written text that will be sent to their inbox: Hey, what do you think about recording some of your life stories for the family? No credit card needed; the first month is free.
StoryWorth is just one of a new crop of online platforms that make it easy to start recording family histories, for a price. The StoryWorth model is based on email: one subscriber invites friends and family members (the fill-in-the-relationship box on the site suggests everyone from your sister-in-law to your grandma and your grandma’s partner) to tell stories. If they say yes, StoryWorth emails each storyteller once a week with a probing question, written by the subscriber or selected from StoryWorth’s list of suggestions: What were your favorite children’s stories? How did you experience Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon? Do you believe that people can change? Responses are recorded through the email inbox – StoryWorth makes it easy to write text, upload photos, and record voice messages – and forwarded, weekly, to family and friends in the storyteller’s network. Other services like Life on Record focus on call-in technology instead of email; users can record their favorite memories, and Life on Record will edit and package the recordings as birthday gifts and family heirlooms. And businesses like StoryKeep, an online publisher offering to create narrative books and videos from family records, remind us that the idea behind these companies isn’t new; personal historians have been selling the service of narrativizing family history for years. Sites like StoryWorth are just a bit shinier, and a bit more DIY.
It seems like these types of services should have a lot in common with larger public archives, goal-wise. Like public archives projects, techy services like StoryWorth work to document honest, detailed reflections of ordinary and extraordinary life. They collect written records (which might be comparable to diaries), voice memos (like oral histories), and family photos (as do archives). And it seems like the information they collect, if compiled, would be an incredibly rich source for public archives: families telling the histories that are important to them. Archives are never complete, and today we also see them as full of holes, and lopsided towards people who’ve historically held social and political power. If not completely devoid of bias, the histories that people choose to tell, package, and pass on to their children are histories in which they have agency.
But the conversation between new private history services and traditional public archives doesn’t seem to be happening. StoryWorth, Life On Record, and StoryKeep are all private companies. They don’t advertise any connection to public records, neither through funding nor archival partnership. StoryWorth is particularly explicit about information control, dedicating a huge portion of their website to specific assurances about how passwords, files, browsers, and payments stay completely secure – and completely private.
From the other direction, public archives aren’t doing any widespread solicitation of stories from personal history projects, either. In some ways, that makes sense. Private history services work for people who can pay to use them, and public archives are meant to hold documents of a more general community, the whole public. Creating direct connections with for-profit history services might mean prioritizing the histories of people who prioritize recording them. And that might be inherently opposed to the purpose of a public archive.
If archives are meant to serve the whole public, though, to give people access to the materials they need to understand and document their own histories, then some collaboration – or at least some learning – might make sense. We know that not everyone donates personal documents to public archives, that not everyone knows how they could or why they would. We know that most people do not go into archival libraries or historical societies to find the stories they really care about in the history of their families or their communities. We know that archives have gaps. By providing simple tools to not only record, but also to create documents that make historical records feel like they matter, services like StoryWorth seem to be doing a lot of the work that archives are meant to.
People care about their histories; they pay StoryWorth $49.99 per year to send emails because those emails amount to a story they know should last. And a lot of the time, that’s the same story that archivists are looking to save. But what makes StoryWorth work for people is that their emails are bundled into a format that’s accessible and engaging – not only to the people reading weekly in their inboxes, but also to the generations who might find them later. I’m not advocating for the privatization of archives, or trying to claim that public records are not useful in their current form. But as we struggle to bridge the gap between mountains of paper archives and the gaping hole of internet information, tools that successfully motivate people to tell their own stories might point us in a useful direction. They could help us expand who wants to share histories, and they could also help curate the material that people care about most. At the very least, it seems like there should be some collaboration here – or archives might be missing out in a big way.