Missed Opportunities – Video and Photographic Histories

Daisy Carson, my grandmother, is the teacher near the center with her hands on her head. I wish I knew more but there's no one left to ask. Look through your oldest photos with people who know the stories.
Daisy Ellison Carson, my grandmother, is the teacher near the center with her hands on her head. I wish I knew more but there’s no one left to ask. Look through your oldest photos with people who know the stories. Record the stories as you hear them.

I recently spent several days going through boxes of family photos left to me in my mother’s estate and given to me by my sister just months before her passing. I scanned each photo and attempted to add a meaningful tag on the title of the jpeg file. Many of the photos have a question mark where a name should be, but everyone who would know these relatives from the early 1900s has died.


When I managed a state park visitor center for eight years in Illinois, one of the more common conversations I had was with elderly men who recalled experiences from the 1930s when they worked in the park for Civilian Conservation Corps as young men. Those were missed opportunities. We had no easy way to collect and store personal stories and just did not see the importance at the time. Many of them could have provided photos and anecdotes about the unique times working with the New Deal program that built the lodge, shelters and many of the bridges in that park.


Digital images have made it easy to shoot videos of conversations with guests and scan old photos and documents. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we often do not slow down and collect the story or archival photos that someone might provide. Here are a few thoughts on how to facilitate these archival collections at an interpretive site:


  • Post an invitation on the wall at your facilities and online that lets people know you have an interest in historical stories about the locale or people living in the community. Provide a place they can upload still photos or videos if you have more advanced website capabilities.
  • Keep an appropriate camera and digital storage equipment in a place where staff talk to guests and train them in how to use it to collect a personal story and appropriate support information.
  • Pre-script some questions to start the conversation.
  • Have the guest sign a photo/video release when collected, so that you can make use of the items shared. Keep contact information on each storyteller so you can ask followup questions later.


Story Corps is an organization doing this on a very broad scale and they store their archives at the American Folklife Center. They also share their stories on National Public Radio on a regular basis. There are many other organizations who keep personal story archives on varied themes.


Keeping your own organizational archive of stories as videos, still photos and written narratives will always have a value to your staff. When doing research for a new program or exhibit, these resources are invaluable. They also serve as an institutional memory. Staff members move on and their knowledge of what happened over the years is lost unless it is recorded somewhere carefully in your own archives.


Digital resources are easy to share with others. I sent my collection of family photos by flash drive to nephews and nieces all over the U.S. in hopes that our collective memory of our own family will not die in a cardboard box in the garage or be dumped into a yard sale. Archives of photos and stories are valuable resources and can now easily be shared for families, communities and organizations.


– Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

4 thoughts on “Missed Opportunities – Video and Photographic Histories

  1. Very good Tim! I like this a lot, and recognize the struggle with all our own material, the photos the stories etc. I try to do something, but it always seems too late… But the idea of ask for stories in the nature center (for example) is a great idea! I will take it to my friends working in these places. (-: /TomasC Sweden

    1. Thanks, Tomas. I used to think this was all very difficult, beyond my technological skills but these new digital recorders and compact digital storage make a lot of these easier. Getting student interns or employees from video editing fields would be a great way to get material edited and organized. Tim

  2. Hi Tim,

    As you may know, I run the consultancy Interpretaction and we specialise in digital storytelling. It’s great to see this post about the value of collecting stories.

    I am currently working on a pilot app (funded by the University of Dundee Design in Action programme) which will allow communities (of any size, and how ever dispersed, families would qualify!) to create an instant digital identity online over any timescale – could be a year, could be a day – or even an hour!

    If you don’t have the family ‘paper trail’ as many sadly don’t, it’s never too late to start. ScrAPPbook could help extended families connect to say ‘this is us’ in a simple and collaborative way, wherever in the world they are. Anyone interested in finding out more can get in touch with me via http://www.scrAPPbook.net – we’re looking for pilot projects/communities with whom to work in partnership.

    1. Thanks, Verity. I like the idea of this very much. Many interpretive sites do not feel enough comfort with the technology to collect digital stories. If people can do this on their own and connect them as communities and families, it could work very well. I will look into your app through your website.

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