Where Are the Voices From Our Past?

A recent editorial in the New York Times got me thinking. Why is that we have boxes, albums, and electronic devices full of photos but few, if any, recordings of the voices of the people in those photos?

In his editorial, So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved, writer Verlyn Klinkenborg, postulated that part of the reason is that there is a documentary formality in recording voices that has vanished from taking photos. I don’t disagree, but I wonder: Why is it that we feel okay about taking photos without formal “permission,” such as at a family gathering, but we are hesitant to record voices?

I enjoy photos as much as anyone, but for the most part, photos are one-dimensional. Voice conveys emotion, timber, dialect, accent, vocabulary choices. Photos without captions soon become irrelevant but a recorded voice can stand alone forever.

In my own work as a personal historian for nearly 13 years, my intention has always been that the final project would be the stories in the actual voice of the storyteller. Initially, other personal historians were skeptical. It was their contention that people would only want their stories in a book or on video. Only slightly daunted, I pushed ahead, and with each passing year, I’m more and more convinced of the value of preserving that amazing, unique, and too easily forgotten voice—the one that means the world to you and that, chances are, you’ll never get around to recording, as Klinkenborg notes in his editorial.

“I remember the regret I felt after my mom died, years ago, that we had no recording of her voice on tape. And yet when my dad died in 2008—same thing. Plenty of photographs, but no record of the sound of his voice.”

So why are there relatively few voice recordings from our past? I have a few ideas:

In our culture, everyone takes pictures. And if you don’t take photos, people wonder what’s wrong with you. On more than one occasion I’ve suggested, “Why don’t you just look at that sunset and enjoy it rather than trying to take a picture of it?” The truth is, few sunsets or other such scenes will ever look as good in a photo as they do right now in real life.

In our culture, everyone is always in a hurry! It takes less time to look at photos than to listen to recordings because, as the editorial says, “sound is always a function of time.” Plainly put, it takes more time to record something than it does to snap a picture. It also takes more time to listen than to glance at a photo. Perhaps we need a reminder to stop and “listen” to the roses in our lives.

Sound can be “messy” when more than one person is talking at the same time. This can make it challenging to listen to. In normal conversation, our brains can handle more than one voice at a time, but it’s different when we listen to a recording of voices, as a recent National Public Radio story on what is called the “cocktail party effect” documented.


Maybe there are so many “voices,” so much noise in our everyday life, that we just don’t think about the value of voice.

Voice is complex, it’s alive, it’s multi-dimensional, it’s extremely intimate, and (without substantial editing) it’s absolute.

“Did I say that?” Yes, you did. Perhaps people are afraid of the permanence of the recorded voice.

In my personal history career, I’ve developed a passion for recording the voice; and I’ve thought a lot about why people might be hesitant to record their voice or that of a loved one. Next week, in part two of this post, “Why Are We Hesitant to Record Voices?” I’ll look at some of the challenges.

~~ APH: Life, Story, People ~~

About today’s contributor: A child of the 60s, Gloria Nussbaum feels she was born at the opportune time to make her the perfect age to be a Personal Historian. She is old enough to remember wringer washing machines and transistor radios but young enough to love her iPad! She discovered the Association of Personal Historians in 2001 and that same year began her business, Real to Reel, recording personal stories. Gloria is passionate about preserving the actual voice of the storyteller.

Photo of APH Conference by Brina Bolanz.

This entry was posted in Conferences, Family Stories, Life Stories, Life Stories as Audio, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Where Are the Voices From Our Past?

  1. Enid says:

    So true Gloria. In the life story class I facilitate I always record the participants written stories so they can listen to them and share them on CD with their family. Also, listening to the recording gives you a different perspective than just hearing yourself read it.

    • Fran Morley says:

      Recording students’ stories during workshops is a great idea, Enid. How wonderful for them to be able to share the stories with families in that way – a nice added benefit to the class.

  2. Linda Austin says:

    I find that people feel uncomfortable with audio taping because they’re afraid of saying something “wrong” and having it on permanent record. If they know it’s just so I don’t have to worry about taking notes, they do get over the awkwardness. I prefer setting up a videocam to record two people or a small family group relaxing and enjoying their stories. They forget about the camera if they’re talking TO someone, and the video makes it easy to id who is talking. I can edit if needed or on request (using free PC or Mac software). A voice recording is great to have, but these days people are more likely to sit down and watch a movie than just listen – that’s our short-attention-span society you mention.

  3. Mim Eisenberg says:

    I so regret not having my parents’ voices–or laughter–on tape. I can hear them in my head, but it’s not the same.

    By the way, Verlyn is a guy, though he does have a feminine-sounding name.

  4. Sam says:


    So true! Thank you for sharing. One of my clients lost her best friend/husband in six weeks from diagnosis to death last year. Her son had the foresight to sit at his father’s bedside and record his stories and sometimes just the two of them chatting.

    She now has six hours of audio on her computer waiting for the right time to listen to her dear one’s voice. She cried gratefully that one day she’ll be able to hit “play” and be ready to revisit that precious voice.

  5. Leah Abrahams says:

    We want instant–coffee, photos, answers, pleasures. I think that the ipad and smart phones are equipped to satisfy instant voice recordings and people need to learn to use them for the purposes Gloria described and then download them the way we download photos.

    As Mim said, I can still hear my parents’ voices, but not really, and not for long.

  6. Annie Payne says:

    Gloria, my Life Story Circle runs weekly at Campbelltown Library in Adelaide every Wednesday morning at 10am where a group of 15 seniors come together to talk for around 3 minutes about the topic of the week.With ages ranging from 61 – 95 each story is different and trained volunteers record and upload their stories each week into an online vault to share with their family.We all enjoy the stories and the emotion behind them, which can be easily heard when listening to the stories later.

  7. Janet Boyer says:

    I so agree it is so much better to hear our loved ones voices that are no longer with us. I lost my 1st born but gave him all of his pics when he was growing up before he was killed now I don’t have any of him. I watch some of the videos others have made of him on different sites & it means so very much to me to hear his voice & see him as he was & how he loved life & his family. Videos & taped voices are so very comforting.

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