Tell me a story: U professor works to preserve oral histories

The recording studio for YourStory could be mistaken for a comfortable living room. Two leather couches, one soft chair, a glass coffee table and chocolate-brown cabinets complement the living space. About the only things setting the room apart are pieces of recording equipment strategically placed around the room.

YourStory is a project dedicated to preserving oral histories. It is spearheaded by Meg Brady, a U English and Ethnic Studies professor who discovered her passion for otherwise untold stories when she taught a class called life story at the U during the 2003 Fall Semester.

Brady said students recorded life stories from elderly people living in the Multi-Ethnic Senior high-rise, which were later transcribed and bound into books.

This process led to the creation of YourStory, where for $10 any person can speak for an hour into the microphone and tell his or her story.

“When people tell the stories of their lives, they reveal things that are always remarkable,” Brady said.

Many World War II stories are told, Brady said, but YourStory is not just for the elderly. Some customers have said they want to bring their children in on every birthday to make a recording.

Edie Kochenour, a volunteer at the studio said, “I think this is an important way of recording history; to catch stories before they disappear and die.”

Brady said elderly people often become invisible members of society who have stories to tell.

“People feel special that U students are paying attention,” Brady said. “It makes them visible.”

Students currently taking the life story course at the U are supposed to analyze the life story of Don Dessimone, who claimed in his recording to be the 1992 king of the hobos.

Brady asks her students to compare his story to that of another hobo in a Patrick Mullen book called Listening to Old Voices.

“Values emerge through telling stories,” and the repetition that exists in interviews allows students to analyze them, according to Brady.

“Relationships form between students and interviewers,” Brady said. “People try to teach the students things.”

People usually think through what they are going to say before coming in, but Brady will ask questions if they need some prompting, according to Kochenour.

Brady said transcribing one hour of audio might take five to seven hours, but that she has never heard a boring life story.

“A four-hour shift is really tiring,” Brady said, but afterward it’s hard not to feel energized and jazzed about the work.

Stuart Culver, chairperson of the English department, said YourStory is a “good way to link what we do in the C0llege of Humanities to the community.”

Brady has ambitious plans to extend the reach of YourStory.

“I hope to secure funding for a mobile recording studio by summer,” Brady said. “Then we could do workshops all over the state at high schools, to teach people about oral histories.”

Brady also said she hopes to get involved with the Huntsman Cancer Institute to record the life stories of cancer patients. However, it’s not always easy to get the elderly to participate.

Brady said one woman asked her 93-year-old mother to record her life story, but the mother said, “I’ll do that when I’m old.”

All people who record their stories at YourStory take a CD home with them, and with their permission, a copy is added to the Special Collections at the Marriott Library.

YourStory is located at the Museum of Utah Art & History, 125 S. Main and is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The studio is booked for about two weeks in advance, so appointments should be made for one-hour recording sessions by logging onto www.yourstory.utah.edu, or by calling (801) 581-7993.

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