When the late Studs Terkel won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 book “The Good War,” an oral history of World War II, his focus on ordinary grunts rather than generals and troop movements was groundbreaking.
Now local libraries and other institutions across the metro area have joined forces to capture the same sort of Everyman and Everywoman memories of life in Greater Kansas City through a program called Generation Exchange.
Participating library systems will loan out a digital recorder to capture the voices of older men and women along with a written guide to help younger interviewers gently probe and prod their memories. The results will be archived on a new website — generationexchange.mymcpl.org — where future historians can listen to and learn from the testimonies.
Cathy Boyer Shesol, manager of the KC Communities for All Ages project of the Mid-America Regional Council, one of the sponsors of Generation Exchange, said it is the first project on which the library systems covering most of the metro area have cooperated. The Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., systems, the Johnson County and Mid-Continent Public Libraries are on board. Kits are not yet available at every branch library, but they can be reserved by calling the headquarters of any participating system or visiting the project website.
The sponsors of Generation Exchange, which include the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District and the Heritage Center of the Jewish Community Center, kicked off the project May 31 at the Johnson County Central Resource Library featuring live interviews with some well-known Kansas Citians. College student Allison Golbach interviewed her neighbor, former TV newsman Stan Cramer, La Tedra Collins interviewed fellow dentist Serese Cannon, and Ryan Webster, a.k.a. Moltyn Decadence, interviewed fellow drag queen Bruce Winter, also known as Melinda Ryder.
Mary Olive Thompson, outreach services manager for the Kansas City Public Library, said Kansas City is becoming “a national hub for storytelling.”
“This gives everyone a chance to tell their stories and preserve them for future generations,” she said.
“You can use these interviews to share with family members or the community at large,” said Meredith Roberson, branch manager of KCPL’s Waldo branch. “We have suggested tips for questions to ask about the history of the area, about arts and culture and about neighborhood life. My favorite example is ‘What did you do to connect with your friends, Grandma, before Facebook?’”
Interviewers also will be asked to note the topics covered in their talks so that information can be included in the website.
“That way you can search by decade, by name, by neighborhood, or historical events,” Roberson said. “It will be a great way for future students to add local history to homework assignments.”
The kickoff gave a glimpse of the sort of perspective Generation Exchange hopes to capture.
Cramer recalled being hit on the head with a rock while covering the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who, coincidentally, Cramer cited as being one of his most memorable interview subjects. Cannon talked about becoming the first female African-American pediatric dentist in the Kansas City area. Winter recalled how drag queens faced discrimination — even within the gay community — in years past. Today, Winter said, “drag queens can be a bridge” between the gay and straight worlds.
“Who doesn’t want to have fun with a drag queen?” he said. “We’re more accessible to everybody.”
Boyer Shesol said the project fit naturally with its sponsors.
“We thought, ‘Who has the potential to reach every older adult?’ And the answer was the libraries, the parks and recreation departments and senior centers,” she said. “The goal is that every older adult would be able to tell their stories … and we envisioned really cool, exciting ways to enable that.”