Giving Thanks by Listening

November 25, 2008

I fell in love with StoryCorps back in 2005. "Listening is an act of love," StoryCorps founder Dave Isay told me, so I listened as he explained how this national oral history phenomenon began in 2003 with a StoryBooth in New York City's Grand Central Station, how it has grown, how the Library of Congress and National Public Radio got involved, and how he hoped libraries and librarians were going to play a huge role in bringing StoryCorps to the nation. "It is our intention," he said, "that everybody has access to this and that everybody knows about it. I believe the best way to do that is through the library." Many of us inside ALA have been trying to help make that happen. Dave Isay was a speaker on the "Live! @ your library" Reading Stage during the ALA Annual Conference in 2007, and we continue to cook up more plans for working with StoryCorps to spread the word and maybe even get more librarian stories told. StoryCorps has become a life's work for Isay, as it really should be for all of us. Libraries are about stories, not just the glamorous stories or the horrifying stories but all the individual stories that make up what we modestly refer to as the human record. StoryCorps has declared November 28, the day after Thanksgiving, the first annual National Day of Listening. "This holiday season, ask the people around you about their lives," StoryCorps is urging. "It could be your grandmother, a teacher, or someone from the neighborhood. By listening to their stories, you will be telling them that they matter and they won’t ever be forgotten." As a librarian and a journalist, there is a part of me that wants to spend every moment preserving the moments that just passed. My impulse to record started when I was a teenager and I received a small, toylike reel-to-reel tape recorder for Christmas. I thought it was the greatest gift ever and promptly convinced my poor grandmother to sit for an interview. Mind you, this was a woman to whom a telephone was still a mysterious and fearsome object. I recently thought about those early tapes and dug them out of an old trunk where they've been sitting for nearly a half a century and decided to listen to them. I dug out the old tape recorder, which was of course completely broken, and trotted off to a repair shop. They took one look at it and told me it could never be made to work again. They then played the tapes on their best high-sensitivity tape recorder. Sadly, they reported, no voice could be recovered. But I didn't give up. Through the Library of Congress, I located a service that was able to bring back the voices on those tapes and return them to me on a CD. The day they arrived, I fixed myself a cup of tea, and with a little trepidation, put the CD in the player, knowing that I was going to hear my grandmother's voice again for the first time since her death in 1972. Nothing quite prepared me for the shock—the shock of how young she sounded when she had seemed so old to me then, how her thick Polish accent was just as I remembered it, how sweet her voice was, as if it were coming from heaven itself instead of from this technological marvel. It made me sad, not because I was hearing her voice again but because I could not hear more, because I had recorded and saved only a few short minutes of listening. Now please listen to this: The day after Thanksgiving is the perfect day for us all to grab a few of those technological marvels we have all over the house and sit down with someone we love and ask those questions the answers to which may live in our hearts for as long as we are alive. During the hubbub of Thanksgiving dinner it's fine to send that video camera madly panning across the room while people make silly faces, but the next day, when you are alone with someone you love, give this National Day of Listening a try. As StoryCorps advises, "It may be the most meaningful time you spend this year."