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Story Collecting

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"Everyone has a story," says Ellen Munds, Executive Director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana. "We want people to understand that their stories matter."

Now, thanks to Munds' brainchild, The Life Stories Project--a cooperative effort of Storytelling Arts of Indiana, the Indiana Historical Society, and local public television station WFYI--Indiana residents have the opportunity to share their own stories for posterity. The project is based on StoryCorps, a national non-profit program that has recorded and archived more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants since 2003.

In May, trained volunteers working in pairs began audio-recording the true stories of everyday Hoosiers at the Madam Walker Theater in Indianapolis.

Volunteers will be recording stories at various venues throughout the city, including the Central Library, the Historical Society, and the Eiteljorg Museum. The goal is to record 100 stories by the end of November. Then, beginning in January of 2014, the project will devote two days each year to recording more stories.

After it is taped, each story is edited and archived at the Indiana Historical Society, along with a photo of the storyteller. Parts of the recordings can be heard online.

Telling her own story

Jacque Cornish is no stranger to storytelling. For the last year she has volunteered as a storyteller at Riley Hospital for Children, entertaining young patients with tall tales. When she heard about The Life Stories Project, she decided it was finally time to tell her family's "really big story," which she heard as a child but had never told.

In April of 1950, when Cornish was just five days old, her grandparents left their farm in Pennsylvania and traveled to Ohio to meet their new granddaughter. While they were gone, their house burned to the ground, leaving them with nothing. A hired hand died in the blaze.

Jacquelyn Adele Cornish
  • Jacquelyn Adele Cornish

"[That fire] reshaped their whole community, and my family," Cornish says.

The house was the receptacle of her family's history. Cornish's grandfather once told her that he recalled his own grandfather building a barn next to the house when he was just a boy. The house was even older than the barn.

In the wake of the fire, her grandfather and uncle helped to establish the first volunteer fire department in their community. Her uncle, who had left the hired hand in charge that night, never got over his feelings of guilt.

"When I was done telling [the story], I was kind of shook," Cornish recalls. "It was an important story to have on record."

Cornish praised the volunteer who recorded her tale.

"She did not interfere too much," she says. "But she was able to pull things out of the story I hadn't thought about," including her own bit of responsibility for the tragedy.

"After all, I was just a baby, but it was me they had come to see."

Got a story?

The Life Stories Project is open to all Hoosiers, regardless of age. So far, the youngest storytellers have been in their 50s, according to Munds. "But I think we'll get people younger," she says.

Many of the storytellers so far have been seniors, which delights Munds. Noting that the elderly in our society are often marginalized, she says many storytellers "are just so pleased to have the opportunity to share their stories and their wisdom."

Volunteers are trained to guide storytellers through the process and to ask questions or provide prompts.

If you'd like to be part of The Life Stories Project, you'll find helpful information online, including story prompts, a schedule of when and where stories will be collected, and a sign-up page. You'll also find Jacque Cornish's recording there.

Storytellers must complete an identification form and sign a release that allows the project to take their pictures and release and archive their recordings.

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