The Living Library

Grassroots historians team up with local agencies to bring past and future history to light

The Living Library

I have always longed to visit Pompeii. The humans whose lives were caught under a blanket of lava and ash were not posing. They were not wealthy royals, and they had not just cleaned the house. Culture was vibrant and vital, and the great fabric of social strata was as in motion in AD79 as it is in 2003 -- brothels doing a brisk business, bread in the ovens, dogs and children and merchants running the square. When Mount Vesuvius let out its mighty roar and turned the town into a tapestry of ashes, almost everyone -- from richest to poorest -- was there. This is what makes Pompeii so rare: a kind of queer equality allows us to look at this antique city without the editing and erasures that power performs on history. The volcano had the power, and we are left with the story -- in its most elemental form.

There's no limit to our romance with the past: we shake its shards through a screen, piece them together, guess at who, how, why. But what would have happened if everyone in Pompeii could speak for themselves? Could they have told us what they were thinking, where they came from, what they hoped to do tomorrow?

Dr. Martha Norkunas, director of Texas Folklife Resources, is a well-respected oral historian. "When I visit a place," she mused, when asked what she thinks about the history of everyday people, "I walk through the local cemetery, and then I walk through the history museum. If I don't see the same names, there's something wrong."

Norkunas and UT English professor Dr. Evan Carton have set projects in motion this spring which aim to bridge that divide -- Norkunas with the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past and Carton with Writing Austin's Lives. The programs share a common goal of enriching the public record with the greatest possible diversity of voices, through collaboration with regular citizens.

The Project in Interpreting the Texas Past pairs groups of graduate students with state historic sites (such as the Jourdan-Bachmann Pioneer Farm in North Austin and the Sauer-Beckmann Farmstead in Stonewall, Texas). The students collect oral histories of local people whose families have lived in the area for generations. Then, they examine the site's "official" stories about the past, and devise ways to diversify and expand the interpretation that is offered -- using the words of locals. It's a partnership program between the UT Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program (creating "citizen-scholars") and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Writing Austin's Lives is a "community discovery project" created by Evan Carton at the UT Humanities Institute in partnership with Austin Public Libraries, the Mayor's Office, and AISD. The initiative is soliciting autobiographical stories from across the city, sponsoring free public life-writing workshops, offering prizes for each ZIP code and grade level, and producing an anthology. The story originals will be housed in the Austin History Center.

In both of these undertakings lies a radical interpretation of "history" that flips the concept of who is significant on its head. The stories of the midwife, the ranch hand, and the shopkeeper are as important as the statesman, soldier, and astronaut -- and we want to be able to name their names.

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