In Search of Stories

Aerie mobile recording studio ready to hit the road

When you hear the word “archivist,” you probably don’t think “maverick trend setter.” But in an unprepossessing office in the Bruce T. Halle Library, Alexis Braun Marks, Eastern’s university archivist, and Matt Jones, lecturer in university archives, have proven themselves just that. Armed with an idea, a passion for oral history and very little else—including permission, sign-offs or grant funding—they’ve created the Aerie: a mobile recording booth for collecting first-person stories that, based on their research, is the first of its kind at an American university. “I can’t confidently say nobody else has one, but I can’t name any other places that do,” Jones says. “It’s not a trend.” Jones met Braun Marks when he returned to EMU to finish his bachelor’s degree in history after 15 years on the road as a musician. He’d gotten a lot of experience with sound recording and engineering along the way, and later amassed 600 recordings for his own sound archive of Michigan music, the River Street Anthology. He connected with Braun Marks and offered to help record oral histories for the archives. It was an offer she gladly accepted. “We’re such a small shop,” she says, “we say yes to any student who wants to do something nice for us.”

Inside the Aerie, Braun Marks sits at the vintage library table set where the recordings take place. Braun Marks, Jones and a small cohort of supporters did the hands-on transformation of the unfinished trailer into an inviting space.

Nothing to lose

A couple of years later, having proven his recording chops, Jones was pursuing a master’s degree in historic preservation and needed a project to focus on for a grant-writing class. He told Braun Marks about an idea he had for a mobile recording studio... “When he proposed the idea, I said go for it,” Braun Marks remembers. “If it happens, great, and if not, what have we lost?” It was the maverick answer, and one Braun Marks credits to her office’s place in the university archives ecosystem. “Because we’re a small shop with fewer external pressures, we can do things like this. It allows us to say yes,” she says. “It never felt like a project that, if it happened, I’d be thinking, oh no…should I have told the president’s office..? I just felt like this could be really cool, and could bring a lot to the University, and to the archives.” Jones wrote the grant proposal to the Michigan Humanities Council. The proposal was denied. Enter: the third maverick.

Dr. Irene Allen, emerita professor from the College of Education, read Jones’ grant proposal and decided she would fund the project herself. Above, Allen with Jones at the McKenny exhibit gallery.

Dr. Irene Allen is an emerita professor of teacher education, who from 1982 to 1984 served as the Chief of Party for a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission to Swaziland, where EMU personnel were helping write curriculum for the country’s public schools. Jones met Allen when she contributed materials to EMU Around the Globe, an exhibition he was working on as part of his master’s program. “While he was interviewing her, they formed a connection,” Braun Marks says. “There are some people you just click with, and that’s how it was with Matt and Irene.” Jones says now that he treasures their friendship, and his admiration for Allen is clear. “Irene fell in love with Africa, and still makes trips back—at 86,” he says. “She’s always been a globetrotter. One of the reasons she took her job at EMU was because it was close to metro airport. She’s kind of become a hero of mine.” The two kept in touch, and at one of their occasional lunches Allen asked Jones about the grant proposal that hadn’t gone through. “Since it was all in the proposal, I gave her a copy,” Jones says. A few weeks later she invited Jones to lunch again, and said she wanted to help. It was the silver lining of the failed grant proposal, Braun Marks says.

“The Aerie goes hand-in-hand with who Irene is—just getting out and hitting the road. She’s like an 86-year-old version of a Springsteen song. She was born to run.”

Everyone has a story

“We were extremely lucky that we had just gone through the grant process, so Matt could hand over a fully formed idea,” she says. “It wasn’t just ‘we had this idea,’ it was ‘this is what we need to purchase, this is what it’s going to cost.’” Jones is quick to say that Irene is the reason the project happened, but not just financially. “The Aerie goes hand-in-hand with who Irene is—just getting out and hitting the road. She’s like an 86-year-old version of a Springsteen song,” he says with a laugh. “She was born to run.” Allen’s gift meant the project was a go. What was once just an idea with a lot of hope behind it began to take shape in the 3-D world. A pre-covid world. “We were looking at little campers, but thankfully we hadn’t purchased anything yet, because the pandemic gave us the opportunity to reimagine the purpose and accessibility of the booth,” Braun Marks says. “What do we do about people with mobility problems who can’t step up into a trailer? Can we get enough space to accommodate a wheelchair or walker?”

Jones came up with the idea for the mobile recording studio as part of a grant-writing class in his historic preservation program.

The evolution of the idea resulted in today’s finished product: a 6- by 12-foot cargo trailer whose back door opens from the top to create a ramp, and is wide enough to accommodate most mobility aids. In every other way, however, it has been completely transformed from a plain, dark box into an inviting space that’s fit for recording. Jones, Braun Marks and a small cohort of supporters did the work themselves, installing sound insulation, windows and a ventilation system, painting, decorating and furnishing. The Aerie’s beautiful table and chairs once belonged to the library, and were donated to the cause by Brian Steimel, former head of circulation, and bolted to the trailer’s wall by Braun Marks. Originally dubbed The Eagle’s Nest, the mobile recording studio was renamed Aerie, a word originating from medieval Latin, meaning “a large nest of a bird of prey, especially an eagle, typically built high in a tree or on a cliff,” according to the Oxford Languages Dictionary. “It has that literal meaning, but there’s also a lyrical component to the word that I think speaks to what we’re trying to do inside,” Braun Marks says. The Aerie made its debut at Homecoming 2021, and it went even better than the mavericks had hoped. “We had pretty low expectations for Homecoming,” Braun Marks says. “Our goal was just to be there, be seen, and maybe hand out some bookmarks about the Aerie, so the fact that we were able to record any interviews was such a win.” One of those wins was a pair of friends who’d shared a music stand in high school band, attended Eastern at different times, but had remained friends despite living across the country from each other, he in the state of Washington and she in Michigan. They came by the Aerie and Braun Marks invited them in to tell their story. “They said, ‘Oh, we don’t have a story,’” Braun Marks remembers. “I said, yes, you do. Everyone has a story.” Braun Marks prevailed. “I told them Matt was just finishing up, and they were next,” she says. “Our whole reason for being there was to give space to people like those two, who feel like they don’t have a story to tell.”

Thanks to the Aerie, the archives oral history program no longer has to wait for people to come to them, something both its creators are excited about. “We envision being a community resource,” Braun Marks says. “So many organizations in the Ypsilanti area were founded by EMU alums, so Eastern’s tendrils are in the community pretty deeply, in a really wonderful way. We want to go out and document that.” Jones, who traveled all over the state to record musicians for his River Street Anthology project, is eager to hit the road with the Aerie, too. “No matter your age, or background, you are welcome,” he says. “You have an important job to do, and that is leaving your legacy behind. It’s a gift for us, and I want it to be a gift for everybody else, too.” To see the creation of the Aerie in photos and video, visit archives_emu on Instagram. ­­By Amy Campbell (Photos by Misty Lyn Bergeron)