Folks invited to record their oral histories with the StoryCorps
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V.W.H. Campbell, Post-Gazette photosAshley Southers, 12, waits for a recording session to begin after getting comfortable behind the mike. Ashley asked her father questions at the StoryCorps MobileBooth studio parked in Oakland to record Pittsburgh-area residents' stories about their lives. The goal of the program is to collect 250,000 stories over 10 years, then add them to the oral history archives in the Library of Congress and use selected ones on NPR Radio.
Ashley Southers, 12, fills out a questionnaire as her father, Mark Clayton Southers, does the same prior to their recording session. Looking on is Nadja Middleton, a StoryCorps worker from New York City.
Writers do the best they can, stringing words together. For generations, it's the way news has been reported and history has been recorded.
But it is rarely perfect. Something is often missing: The sound of a smile telling a story. The softness of a voice revisiting a day long ago. The way words waver when the throat is tight with emotion.
This is the added dimension of storytelling -- the rich reality of the spoken word -- that is being collected by StoryCorps, a national oral history project that is archiving people's personal stories for the Library of Congress and National Public Radio.
Scott Hanley, director and general manager of WDUQ Radio, welcomed the StoryCorps MobileBooth to its parking place on the lawn of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh yesterday. The custom-built silver Airstream trailer will be in Oakland through July 2 for the purpose of recording Pittsburghers' memories and experiences -- and their voices -- onto CDs that will be kept forever.
"It's the sort of history that might be lost if not captured in an oral history method like this," Mr. Hanley said. "Everyday life in Pittsburgh 50 years ago was amazing. The mill life. The families and the neighborhoods. We want to make sure that we learn from those stories."
StoryCorps was started in October 2003 by David Isay, a documentary producer who set out to collect 250,000 stories over the next decade. The project began with two freestanding soundproof recording studios in New York City -- one in Grand Central Terminal and another at the site of the World Trade Center.
A year ago, the nonprofit effort expanded to two MobileBooths, trailers that could take the recording studios to the people, one for each side of the country.
The trailers arrive in town and people are invited to come share.
"The whole thing about StoryCorps," Mr. Hanley said, "is not turning to government officials for stories of American life, but actually turning to people and getting people talking to people. Grandparents with their grandchildren, longtime friends sharing their stories.
The stories are told in the back of the trailer with the participants -- an interviewer and a storyteller -- seated across from one another at a tiny table. The lights are dim and the microphones loom large. Emotions tend to run high.
"The whole focus is a personal interview," said StoryCorps coordinator Eliza Bettinger. "We're not interested in people talking about the price of bread in 1942. The question is, 'What was the best moment of your life?'
"It's not very often that people talk like this. We see a lot of laughter and a lot of tears. It can be very emotional."
Mark Clayton Southers, a local playwright and a heavy equipment operator for U.S. Steel, was one of the first Pittsburgh residents to take part in the project. He arrived at the MobileBooth yesterday morning with his daughter, Ashley Southers, 12, who came with a clipboard of questions to ask her father.
"She asked about 30 questions," Mr. Southers said after the session. "She asked about playwriting and working in the steel mills. She was reeling them off. We talked about all kinds of stuff."
"She asked me what was the happiest moment and the saddest moment of my life," he said slowly. "I told her it happened at the same time: When she was born. I was so happy, but I was sad because of the struggle she was having. She couldn't breathe and she wasn't crying. We were really worried."
The 40-minute session also included laughter.
"She asked me where I met her mother," Mr. Southers said. "I met her at a Halloween party."
Ashley, who stood shyly beside him, thought of a question that she had failed to ask: "What costumes were you wearing?"
Mr. Hanley sees it as another benefit of the StoryCorps project. It's not only the archiving of personal stories, but the way the conversations can stimulate more dialogue between people.
"Why rely on a history book or a television documentary to tell you about growing up in the '60s when your parents, who are sitting right there across the dinner table, lived through it?" he asked.
Although many of the slots for the first week are taken, Mr. Hanley said Pittsburgh residents can still sign up by visiting www.wduq.org.
And, according to Ms. Bettinger, those who don't get a chance to participate this trip, might have another chance down the road. There has even been talk of setting up additional satellite studios across the country.
"Our boss says we're going to do this indefinitely," she said. "We don't have an ending."
First Published June 9, 2006 12:00 am