StoryCorps project preserves personal stories from historic flood

The devastating flood that hit Iowa last summer made headlines around the state, nation and world. Yet many stories would be lost if not preserved – or worse, simply remain untold. Through the national StoryCorps Project, 24 of these stories can be heard through the Iowa Digital Library.

University of Iowa Libraries, along with university and community partners, invited the national StoryCorps Project to collect and preserve stories of everyday heroism and kindness in a program titled, “Under the Current: Collecting Stories from the Flood.” All of the interviews are available in their entirety online in the Iowa Digital Library at digital.lib.uiowa.edu/flood. Each interview runs 30-45 minutes long.

University Librarian Nancy L. Baker, along with the libraries’ public relations coordinator, Kristi Bontrager, thought first-person storytelling would be an ideal way to preserve flood memories.

“The mission of libraries, particularly academic research libraries, is to preserve the heritage, history, and thoughts of a community, to mark these events and provide some way to preserve them,” Baker said. Baker knew that as time passed and memory faded, the stories of what actually happened would also fade. She knew, too, that the stories people had to tell of their flood experiences could provide valuable information for historical research.

“The idea came from the Iowa Women’s Archives, which has a terrific collection of oral histories,” Bontrager said. “This information can be used by any number of people in any number of ways.”

Baker and Bontrager invited StoryCorps to campus. StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening,” preserves tales of everyday life, as well as those that focus on a specific theme. Its work is heard frequently on National Public Radio. In their three days in Iowa City, StoryCorps staff not only recorded flood stories, but also served as mentors and models for students who continued recording the stories after StoryCorps left town. The students were in a class taught by Nanette Barkey, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and assistant professor in the Department of Community and Behavioral Health.

Bontrager enlisted a number of people around campus and the community to encourage locals to come and tell their stories.

“We solicited stories from UI president Sally Mason and Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey, because they played such big roles,” she said. “But because much of their story had been covered in the media, we also wanted to include other stories that weren’t documented and might have been lost.”

Two UI staff members who together shared their flood memories are Ken Schumacher and Chuck Swanson, both employees of the hard-hit Hancher Auditorium.

“I agreed to do it because there were so many stories to tell,” said Swanson, executive director of Hancher. “Our memories seemed so vivid at the time and yet you don’t always remember the things you wish you’d remembered. This was a historic event, particularly for the university.”

Schumacher, Hancher’s production manager, described the recording experience as “calm.”

“We were in a room with a facilitator and a tape recorder and she didn’t interrupt us unless we got off topic,” he said. “They did a good job of making it comfortable for people to sit and improvise. It was a sort of stream-of-consciousness study. Each of us talked about our unique experience of the flood and how it affected us. I thought about it beforehand but didn’t prepare anything. My only worry was that I was afraid I’d forget something important.”

Both men recall the intense emotions that accompanied the flood. Schumacher remembers the helpless feeling of standing on the hillside by Parklawn watching the flood’s progress and the frustration of knowing he was losing the equipment that enabled him to do his work. Swanson remembers the contrast of the horror of the flood and the warmth of the calls of condolence and offers of help from artists and friends. Despite the difficulty of dredging up these emotions, both men are glad they participated in StoryCorps.

“It’s good to take a look at things when you’ve calmed down and your eyes are dry,” said Schumacher. “If you don’t preserve things that have significance, they will dribble away. The flood will always be a part of us and we need to remember it, especially if we’re building a new building.”

Added Swanson, “It was healthy to talk about the experiences that shaped those days and weeks—it forced me to put my thoughts together. And down the road, when we’re no longer around, you never know how people might use these stories.”

Other interviews in the Iowa Digital Library include a father and teenage son whose home on Taft Speedway in Iowa City was flooded in 1993 and again in 2008; a vice president of a local bank who talked about the bank maintained security and retrieved customers belongings during the flood; and newlyweds who talk about the rollercoaster of rescheduling a wedding in Iowa City that was originally set to take place the weekend of the flood.

For more information about StoryCorps, visit www.storycorps.org