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The Eastern Echo Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Print Archive
The Eastern Echo

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EMU archivists create a mobile oral history recording booth to collect community stories

EMU archivists seek to collect stories from the Ypsilanti community.

Eastern Michigan University archivists have created a mobile oral history recording booth, dubbed the EMU Aerie, to record community stories.

The idea for the EMU Aerie came about in 2018 when Matt Jones, a graduate student then, wrote a grant proposal for an assignment in the historical preservation program. Matt had been digitizing old oral history interviews as a part of his student job with the archives.

“I love audio recording, fieldwork, talking to people, and history,” Jones, now a lecturer with EMU archives, said. “This seemed like an amazing way to blend that all together. People couldn't always come to us to be interviewed so this seemed like a great way to take the archives into the community rather than people coming to us.”

Jones’ proposal was rejected by Michigan Humanities Console and the project was put on the back burner. Someone that Jones had interviewed and become friends with was Irene Allen, a former professor from the College of Education. Allen asked to read the proposal and decided she would fund the project herself. 

Jones and Allen began looking at campers in March 2020 and later decided on purchasing a cargo trailer that they built up from scratch. Everything inside the Aerie was worked on over the summer and completed by the Aerie team with lots of outside help.

“We watched a lot of Youtube videos about how to install windows, ventilation, and insulation,” University archivist and assistant professor Alex Braun Marks said. 

Then the Aerie was fitted with graphics on the outside, with help by Ryan Molloy, a professor in the art department. A company in Ferndale wrapped the bus in less than a week before homecoming, their first debut. 

“The pandemic actually allowed us to sit with the goals of the Aerie and think about the accessibility of it, which worked to our benefit in the end,“ Marks said.

The back of the trailer opens up into a ramp, which makes the trailer open air and accessible to all. 

“We ended up with the perfect thing for us and made it as safe as possible for everyone,” Jones said. 

The goal of the Aerie is to get as many people's voices on record as possible. Their approach to the oral history program is two-fold.

"One half is sitting down with individuals (faculty, staff, alumni) and getting stories of life and the other half is topical-focused stories,” Mark said.

Their benefactor Irene Allen outfitted and funded the Aerie, but they have received unbelievable support from the Office of the Provost and University Librarian Rhoda Fowler.

“They let us run this program to build something and step aside to let us do that,” Marks said. “Without their support, we wouldn't be here.”

They took the Aerie out for the first time at EMU’s 100th homecoming for a soft launch and want to have a bigger launch for the project sometime in spring when the campus feels full again. Those interested in the bus can look out for the Aerie when things are warmer to tell their stories.