Interactive urban oral history project seeks interviewers

David Isay, a documentary maker, is putting an interview booth in at Grand Central Terminal for the public to record their life stories:
On this recording, Mr. Isay is making an oral history of his own family, but he is also using the interview as a trial run for a much broader project: to democratize the craft of oral history and simultaneously capture a chronicle of ordinary life in our times comparable to the body of work produced by the Works Progress Administration two generations ago.This will turn on his ability to persuade ordinary people, starting with New Yorkers, to speak of raw workaday joy and anguish, outside their homes or neighborhood bars, in the presence of a microphone, a recording device, a friend and a stranger. It also turns on his ability to teach untrained interviewers the techniques that can elicit candid stories and unvarnished emotions.

"This is our beachhead against 'The Bachelor' " Mr. Isay said, referring to the reality television show. "It's about reminding America what kind of stories are interesting and meaningful and important."

Starting in October, in Vanderbilt Hall inside Grand Central Terminal, Mr. Isay plans to build something of a quiet public confessional in the center of the motion and tumult -- and ordinariness -- of daily commuting. People rushing from train to street will move past a six-by-eight-foot box of gray sheet metal wrapped in a translucent skin with a honeycomb pattern. Stopping to inspect the booth, they may push a button activating a speaker and playing aloud an edited sample oral history interview.

"If you see it from a distance, you'll see this glowing box with these car speakers," said Eric A. Liftin, an architect with Mesh Architectures in New York who was involved in designing the box. "Once you go inside, it's going to be a wood environment, totally different, what you would call warm."

Link to NYT story (registration required), Discuss, (Thanks, Susannah)