MOSCOW, Idaho – A project to record interviews with Americans across the nation is looking for Palouse stories.
Organizers don’t want history in a traditional, names-and-dates sense. They’re looking for introspection and emotion, personal experience and insight – “the rich lives of reflective people,” said Mary Reed, director of the Latah County Historical Society.
StoryCorps, the largest oral history project in the country, will bring a studio-equipped Airstream trailer to Moscow for 12 days at the end of August as part of a national tour. Seventy-five interviews with local residents will be recorded and archived.
“Oral histories are very precious to us,” Reed said, “but it’s been very difficult to get people to do them. There’s this hesitancy to reveal yourself.”
Washington State University’s Northwest Public Radio is hosting the event and working with historical societies in the Palouse and the city of Moscow. The station will also air some of the interviews.
“Nothing is more intimate than radio,” said Mary Hawkins, program director for the station. “Nothing is more intimate than the sound of a person’s voice.”
StoryCorps aims to collect a quarter-million interviews over the next decade, building soundproof recording booths across the country. It’s modeled on the Works Progress Administration efforts to record oral histories in the 1930s.
“We’re here to help you interview your grandmother, your uncle, the lady who’s worked at the luncheonette down the block for as long as you can remember,” the project’s Web site says.
The project has already recorded more than 2,000 interviews, with booths at Grand Central Station and other places. Some of the interviews have been broadcast on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” The mobile booth coming to Moscow is one of two Airstreams that began touring the country in May.
The project aims for interviews between friends and families – it provides advice on how to conduct interviews and all the recording technology, but doesn’t conduct or organize the interview.
Hawkins, Reed and others are now working to identify some people they will seek out for interviews, looking for a mix of people reflecting the region’s long history and current culture. Of the 75 hour-long interviews recorded in Moscow, about 45 will be prearranged; residents will be able to reserve another 30 spots that are expected to go quickly when reservations open Aug. 11.
The Aug. 25 arrival of the StoryCorps Airstream will coincide with the reopening of an expanded Friendship Square in downtown.
Reed said the best oral histories come from people who are naturally good storytellers – and who have some story that connects everyday lives to historical events.
At a press conference Wednesday in Moscow, project organizers played examples of interviews that had been edited for radio. In one, a daughter interviews her dying father about Auschwitz, something he was very reluctant to do. He told her that telling her the truth about the concentration camp would let her into a room that she could never leave.
At the start, “I remember he looked at me and he had real anger in his eyes,” the woman said.
After she persuaded him to tell her about it, she said, “It was painful and scary and sickening,” she said. “And he’s right: Once you’ve gone in that room, you can’t get out.”
In another interview, a precocious 10-year-old girl asks her mother how parenthood changed her life. Her mother said it helped her overcome a persistent dread of death.
“I stopped having all this focus on myself,” she said. “Me, me, me – and then there was you.”
The Latah County Historical Society has been gathering oral histories since the mid-1970s, when it recorded them for the country’s bicentennial, Reed said. Digital technology has made recording easier and longer-lasting, and more people are doing their own.
Reed said the Latah County Historical Society’s transcripts of oral histories are among the group’s most-requested items.
“What’s really important for historians – and they haven’t always grasped this – is that recent history is important history,” she said.
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