The art of listening

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2010

When Wendy Girven moved to Juneau from Pennsylvania a couple years ago to take a job as a librarian at University of Alaska Southeast, she quickly came to a conclusion about Alaskans: We're an unusual bunch.

"(It's) not that people in Pennsylvania aren't interesting, they are, but this is a really unique place," she said. "And I think Southeast Alaska in particular."

For Girven this was more than a social observation; it was a professional motivator. She's now directing the Listening Project at UAS, encouraging campus members to share and record their most memorable personal stories. She sees the story-sharing project as another way to create a stronger sense of community and connection on campus.

"The stories that I hear are so rich," she said. "(Alaskans) have just had a lot of amazing experiences."

The path for the Listening Project was paved by a larger program, "One Campus, One Book," in which everyone at the school is encouraged to read the same text, an idea being pursued across the country. The first book chosen for UAS, "Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from NPR's Storycorps Project," is a collection of essays based on conversations from the StoryCorps program, a national effort that encourages people to tell their own stories. Girven said it was a good choice for the pilot program because of its accessibility and format. In addition, the book itself tends to generate more conversation.

"I don't think you can read it and not feel motivated to talk to the people around you," she said. "People are endlessly fascinating."

Using the book as a jumping off point, Girven started collecting a list of volunteers from campus who would be willing to share a story and have it recorded. At least 40 people on campus have participated so far, with a new story being added every week, she said. (

Most recordings last 30-35 minutes, a span of time that seems longer than it is.

"People were nervous they wouldn't have something to say for 30 minutes, and that was never true," she said, laughing.

Some have a set story in mind, others are more broad in their focus. In all cases, storytellers go into the recording room with a listener, either someone they bring with them or a volunteer. The role of listener is a crucial one, Girven said, in helping the stories come to life.

"A story needs to be heard," she said.

Project Jukebox

A similar sentiment was voiced by another Alaskan story gatherer, William Schneider, curator of oral history at University of Fairbanks' Rasmuson Library, during his recent visit to Juneau. Schneider, who earlier this week was honored with a Governor's Award for his contributions to the arts in the state, explained to a capacity crowd at the UAS Egan Lecture Hall his interest in what motivates people to tell stories in the first place.

"Stories don't just happen," he said. "They happen because someone wants to share."

Recording that transfer from private mind to listener's eye and ear is the focus of Project Jukebox, a huge statewide effort to document, both visually and aurally, the stories of Alaskans. The Project Jukebox database contains hundreds of interviews, many of which are available for public access.

Schneider, an anthropologist by training, made a sharp distinction between stories that are told to us in person, and stories that are static on the page. There is no substitute for watching and listening to a story be told, he said. By the time someone reads it, he said, it is usually "three steps removed" from the original, and has lost its essential context.

Schneider has been recording stories for 29 years, traveling all over the state. He has interviewed numerous people from Juneau, though not all the records are posted online. During his presentation he showed clips from interviews with three of those interviews, featuring Cecelia Kunz, Rosalee Walker and George Rogers, who died earlier this week.

One of the main focuses of Schneider's work has been to show how the personal stories of everyday Alaskans inform and broaden our understanding of Alaskan history. As those three clips made clear, learning about history through the eyes of those who lived it is a far more interesting, nuanced and potentially lasting experience than reading about it in a book.

To view Schneider's interviews, visit

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