Public invited to record theirs at the library
By Sarah Hopkinson
By the end of this year, 40 voices from Somerville will be memorialized in the archives at the Library of Congress. This is thanks to StoryCorps, a countrywide nonprofit that recently chose Somerville to be one of 10 pilot cities for its “StoryCorps @ Your Library” initiative.
Oral storytelling has a long history in human culture, where it was originally intended as both theater and a form of preservation. Over the last few decades, oral history has experienced a revival in the United States, as the nation recognizes the need to record the colorful lives of ordinary individuals. Now, with the help of the Somerville Public Library, Somerville has the unique opportunity to document its voices.
StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit that records the stories of individuals’ lives all over the United States. Thus far, they have collected over 45,000 interviews, each of which is archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and played on their weekly show on NPR. The StoryCorps @ Your Library initiative is a two-year pilot program run in association with the American Library Association. The program provides libraries with both the equipment and training to record stories, while also helps the library become a center of community life.
Somerville has a colorful populace. Squeezed between other urban hubs, the neighborhoods are bedecked with history, eccentricities and diversity, and the city has a lot to tell. According to the Library Director Maria Carpenter, Somerville is always looking for innovative projects with which to engage the community, and so StoryCorps seemed like a natural addition. Even prior to this newly launched venture, the Somerville Public Library was engaged with local history projects, and so it is well prepared to be one of its pilots.
“It has been really amazing bringing community members together,” Carpenter said. “When the project was first launched, all the volunteers from the library and our partners came together for training by StoryCorps, and it was wonderful to interact and find out why each partner was there. It is vitally important to record and preserve teen and community members’ voices and allow them to share their stories. This project is special. We are building community at the same time we are capturing Somerville history.”
Although the library encourages all Somerville residents to participate, it has chosen to focus on teen stories, as teens often have no voice but typically the most to say. As a result, the Somerville Public Library’s partners include the Library Teen Advisory Board, Somerville Public Schools, The Welcome Project, Books of Hope and Teen Empowerment, in addition to Council on Aging, Somerville Community Development Corporation, Harvard and Simmons. One of the partners, Teen Empowerment, successfully recorded their first four teen stories last week.
One of the program’s volunteers is George Michael Hakim, a local schoolteacher who learned about the program from a fiction-writing workshop at the Somerville Public Library. He was asked by a woman in his workshop to record a story with her, although they barely knew one another.
“It was almost like a first date,” he said. “We asked each other all the questions you would ask on the first date. She told me how she was doing her PhD at Harvard but was from Malaysia and had had four heart surgeries. She asked me why I was writing, and I talked about being a teacher.”
After recording his story, Hakim decided to volunteer with the program as he realized what a unique opportunity it was for Somerville to assert its identity and become a bastion of culture. Having lived in Somerville for two years, he understands how much the city has to offer.
“I have met so many interesting people here,” he said. “The neighborhoods are filled with dichotomies, from residents who have lived here their whole lives to the new young demographic leaking in from Cambridge.”
The Somerville StoryCorps project has already begun filtering through the community, and there have been 23 stories recorded to date. Carpenter, however, still encourages other volunteers to drop in throughout the year and document their stories. Now that the library owns recording equipment and has trained volunteers, she hopes the Somerville Public Library will remain a center of local and oral history, even after the pilot program has concluded.
The Somerville Public Library hosted a special Valentine’s Day recording session for individuals and families to talk about all things relating to love. One family came in to record their story. Their story was not about romantic love or unrequited love, but rather about parents’ love for their child. Stories such as these illustrate how the ordinary and familiar aspects of life are far from ordinary and, as Hakim describes, how preserving oral history is important in a way that surpasses its potential in our technological age.
Saturday, March 1, Books of Hope, a literacy empowerment program that brings creative writing workshops to at-risk urban and immigrant youth, will hold a StoryCorps recording session at the library. Anyone interested in sharing their story during any upcoming StoryCorps sessions can sign up in the Teen Room or call 617-623-5000, ext. 2936, or email Maria Carpenter at email@example.com.