EMU creates mobile oral history recording booth to collect stories of ordinary Ypsilanti residents

Eastern Michigan University Archives staff are hitting the road to gather oral histories of even more alumni and Ypsilanti residents.
Eastern Michigan University (EMU) Archives staff are hitting the road to gather oral histories of even more alumni and Ypsilanti residents, thanks to the purchase of a mobile recording booth dubbed the EMU Aerie. After four years of planning, grant-writing, and pandemic-related delays, Archives staff used EMU's homecoming in October as a test run for the Aerie.

The mastermind behind the project is Matt Jones, lecturer with the EMU Archives and EMU oral historian. Jones conceived the idea during a Funding Preservation course with EMU historic preservation professor Nancy Bryk. 
EMU Archives lecturer and oral historian Matt Jones.
"We have an oral history program here, and people come in and sit down with us, but not everybody can make it," Jones says. "A lot of oral history interviewees are older, and there are mobility barriers we need to work around with getting to EMU."

For a classroom project that involved interviewing people from Ypsilanti, Bryk booked a room at the Ypsilanti District Library. She says the room was "a lovely space, but very large for an intimate conversation," and that Jones had a "great idea" to create a trailer outfitted with equipment for collecting oral histories on the go.

"You need a space that's quiet, pleasant, and non-threatening, something you can take anywhere you want to go," Bryk says. 

The Michigan Humanities Council declined to fund Jones' original proposal seeking $5,500 for a new trailer, but Jones wasn't ready to give up on the idea. He just needed to find an alternate funding source.

While he worked on another project for an exhibit development class at EMU, he started reaching out to donors for objects to contribute, and made friends with an 86-year-old EMU emeritus named Irene Allen. When Allen heard about the oral history trailer project, she asked to see the grant proposal and ended up funding it herself.
Inside EMU Archives' Aerie.
"She's become such a friend of mine and of the Archives. She's invaluable to us, and not just financially," Jones says.

Alexis Braun Marks says that when she took over as EMU's university archivist in 2011, she emphasized filling gaps in the existing records. For example, there wasn't much material on student groups and activists, although big names from the university's history were well represented.

"We realized our existing oral histories were of a small, select, elite group of decision-makers at the university, like regents, presidents, deans, department heads," Braun Marks says. "But there was not a lot that documented the everyday life of faculty, staff, and students."

Jones' trailer project was right in line with her mission to fill those gaps.

"If a student comes to me with an idea of how to be creative in thinking about how we collect history, make our history more accessible, and really democratize the process and make it more inclusive, I will always say yes," Braun Marks says. "In this case, it was really fun for me to be able to support Matt's vision."
EMU university archivist Alexis Braun Marks.
Bryk also is interested in making sure ordinary people's stories are preserved. While EMU has one of the largest historic preservation graduate programs in the entire country, collecting oral histories is somewhat new to the program.

"Oral histories are great to document the lives of ordinary folks," Bryk says. "There might not be a lot of information about the homes of the working class or those often overlooked in conventional sources, and the only way to find out is to talk to them. When I'm teaching students, I tell them that ordinary folks have great stories. A community's ordinary folk history has to be captured, recorded, honored, and preserved, and often the way to do that is through oral interviews. I'm hoping [the historic preservation program] can utilize this wonderful trailer as well."

Jones' work on the trailer project led to him developing a class in oral history techniques for the historic preservation program. He'll teach the class next this fall.

"Students love it," Bryk says. "... We're slowly but surely infusing the importance of oral histories into what we do in the historic preservation department."

The trailer's debut in October was a success, although only five stories were captured.

"It was so much fun, and part of the reason it was so much fun is really simple: archives employees don't get out very much," Jones says with a laugh. "Just getting to go out and feel like the Archives were part of something happening in the present was amazing."

There were a few hiccups. An inebriated attendee threw up right outside the trailer at one point, and there were concerns about being drowned out by the EMU marching band.

"But people did stop in and wanted to hear more about it," Jones says. "While the number five might sound low, we were so happy. It was good to get over our nerves and start hawking it a little bit, like, 'Come in! Tell a story!'"
Alexis Braun Marks and Matt Jones inside the EMU Aerie.
The first five participants were invited to talk about their history with EMU for about 10-15 minutes each. One woman told the story of meeting and getting engaged to her husband on campus. EMU superfan Carl Ebach also visited the Aerie.

"He's famous for his fandom, for attending something like 3,500 sporting events at EMU," Jones says. "We talked to him about why he is so interested in EMU sports. He says that, growing up as an orphan, he had no family, but EMU is his family. Every one of these events is a family reunion for him."

In the future, Jones would like to take the trailer to community fairs and festivals, and set up collaborations with community groups from Ypsi Pride to SOS Community Services.

"We are starting to move into the community, because the community and EMU are so intertwined," Jones says. 

For instance, one of the Archives' recent projects has been interviewing area residents about the passage of Ypsilanti's anti-discrimination ordinance in the late '90s. Jones says the ordinance was spurred initially by an LGBT student group at EMU that was denied service at a printer outside of EMU, after which the community organized to pass the ordinance.

"Another community organization I would love to work with is SOS," Jones says. "It started here, with the school of social work, but connections like that exist all over the place."

EMU Provost Rhonda Longworth has long been a supporter of the Archives in general and the Aerie project specifically. 

"Matt and Alexis and I had a meeting of the minds on this project, and they have run with it," Longworth says. "It far exceeds anything I could imagine."

She notes that she shares the desire to document ordinary people's history and the close connection between EMU and the city of Ypsilanti. She says that in the last five to 10 years, EMU has strengthened its mission to engage with the surrounding community.

"It was kind of unique timing, when COVID came along," Longworth says. "I think we at EMU have always tried to be a good contributor to the community, but it's a good moment in history to think about what our shared common interests are and what we can do to lift up communities and people in those areas. It's a project I would have supported at any time, but in the last couple years, it's very easy to understand the value of it."

Much of the EMU Archives' collection is available to the public online. A set of sound recordings, including oral histories, is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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