The Passions that Kicked-off This Project
In January 2011, I was drawn to the tumultuous events of Arab Spring in the Middle East. The news reports were riveting. Masses of people in the streets clamored for their rights, shouting in a language I did not understand. For thousands of years, freedom had evolved for others in the world, but not for them; their voices had not yet been heard.
Men and women in robes and scarves filled the plazas, putting their lives in danger to express themselves. With intensity in their eyes, they courageously held signs in English for the press, the free world and especially me to see. The words on their placards — dignity, justice, democracy and freedom — suddenly stunned me with significance. These are rights that we as Americans take for granted, that I take for granted.
The story spoke to my heart and mind. “Yes, we have democracy,” I pondered. “Yes, we have freedom of speech. But what exactly are we doing with it to help and benefit others in the world?”
Then, another insight struck me. Their story is our story in many ways, because every human being faces the challenge of finding freedom and dignity in our lives. As my awareness deepened, my compassion for the human condition deepened as well. Everyone’s story shows me mine.
Motivated by those events of Arab Spring, I began to encourage those around me to exercise this precious freedom of speech in practical ways and share more of what matters to us. Instead of just being consumers of information, we have an opportunity to generate it from the wisdom of our own personal experience.
Fortunately, my colleagues from the Utah Chapter of the Association of Personal Historians supported this effort. We had worked hard in our community for several years to pioneer ways to build greater awareness of the importance of personal history. In the summer of 2011, we presented adult writing workshops at various branches of the Salt Lake County Library System. Although the classes were small, it was a start.
We collected story materials, edited them and published an insightful anthology written by 58 community members. It is entitled, One World, Many Stories – Seeking Freedom and Dignity, Stories of Utah Residents. The dedication reads:
To those upon whose shoulders we stand
whose courageous spirit in seeking freedom and dignity
inspired this call for stories of our own.
On the first day of October, our team hosted a community celebration in honor of the authors for whom we had gained so much respect and admiration. As we distributed the beautiful books, their joyful faces reflected the accomplishment they felt in seeing their words published in a book for all to read.
A couple of weeks later, on a warm October night, I sat outside on the patio of a Las Vegas hotel with several colleagues. We were enjoying the closing social of the 2011 Conference of the Association of Personal Historians (APH). Our community initiative in Utah had been acknowledged at the conference, and we were happy that evening.
To my surprise, president-elect Sarah White sat down at the table with us. She had recently read the anthology and was impressed by the diversity of the stories. After a few words to us, it was clear that something was on her mind. Always a dynamic leader, Sarah looked me straight in the eye and tossed me an idea that changed my life.
“Paulette, I know you are interested in diversity,” she said. I nodded in response, curious what she would make of my passion for the remarkable stories of ordinary people.
“What do you think of starting a nonprofit organization to help folks who can’t afford a personal historian to record their stories?” she asked me.
It was a great concept, a timely concept — and in our minds, the lights clicked on! Within minutes, I committed to run with the idea, sensing that it had the potential for touching lives across the globe.
When the entertainment started and the music got louder, I quietly tapped Marcy Davis, the APH marketing expert, on the shoulder and invited her to brainstorm ideas with me. We slipped inside to get away from the crowd, but we never sat down, the energy between us was so high.
With Marcy’s marvelous creativity, we dreamed as big a dream as we could envision. We did not know how it could be done, just that it could be done. Hours later, standing between banks of elevators on the fifth floor of the hotel, others slept, but we still excitedly talked of possibilities. It was an unforgettable night.
The Life Story Library Foundation was established as a nonprofit on March 8, 2012 in the State of Utah with that same big dream. The anthology and those experiences in 2011 still motivate me to believe that exercising our freedom of speech matters deeply in this world. From personal experience, I know this to be true: Silence doesn’t change lives. Our stories do!
The following video captures the historic beginnings of the life story movement. One of the Life Story Library’s charter board members, Mary O’Brien Tyrrell, was instrumental in its development. During her career, Mary was a nurse, veteran, and pioneer in the new field of personal history. In the early 1990s, Mary worked with gerontological leaders and key informants, including James E. Birren, Robert N. Butler and John A. Kunz, to formally initiate the idea of ordinary elders preserving their life stories. After being awarded a grant in 2000, these leaders, along with other professionals, focused on documenting the meaningful process of reminiscence and life review. They recorded their insights and the testimonials of Mary’s clients and other personal historians to create, “The Joys and Surprises of Telling Your Life Story.” The video was produced by John Kunz, funded by MetLife Foundation, and sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Superior Board of Regents and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review. Additional funds for the project were provided by the Association of Personal Historians. The Life Story Library Foundation is pleased to present “Joys and Surprises,” and we express sincere appreciation for the dedication and innovative efforts of all of the pioneers in the life story movement. For further reference: