Oral histories are a cornerstone of the the collections at the Archives of American Art. Our Oral History Program, which began in 1958, now includes over 2,000 interviews, 79 of which were conducted last year alone! Late in 2009, the Archives received a Save America’s Treasures matching grant to help us continue the preservation and digitization of our entire oral history collection. We are very excited about this major undertaking, in which over 1,000 interviews will be digitized.
The oral history collection is at risk from deterioration, damage, and format obsolescence. The media on which most interviews were conducted are reaching the end of their lifespans. We are seeing degradation of the reel-to-reel audio tapes, some of which have vinegar syndrome or mold. Even some of the MiniDiscs we recorded a few years ago are unable to be played.
Digitization is key to preserving sound media, and the Archives has used the recommendations from Sound Directions at the University of Indiana and Harvard University for sound file quality specifications, and the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative for metadata specifications.
This is a great jumping off point for me to show the process for how I prepare a typical oral history tape for digitization. We are using an outside vendor, Safe Sound Archive in Philadelphia, PA, for the digitization of our materials.
My first step is to complete a removal notice for the original material. This notice tells someone that the item they are looking for has been removed from the storage box, the reason why, and lets them know where they can now find it. Two copies of the removal notice are made: a yellow copy replaces the interview tape(s) in the storage box; a white copy stays with the original item when it is sent to the vendor, is returned to us, and is sent to offsite storage.
Step two is to place the reel(s) and removal notices into an archival folder for the remainder of its journey. The folder is labeled with the name of the interviewee(s), the date(s) of the interview, and the number of original pieces found in in the folder.
It is fairly common for the reel boxes to have important information written on them, as seen with the Kupferman interview pictured here. When the reel is returned to us, the box will be scanned, preserving this information for whoever may need it.
The third step is to pack the materials carefully in boxes to ship for digitization.
In addition to the tapes, the vendor receives a spreadsheet that lists the interviews included in the shipment, along with lots of metadata (data about data) for the sound engineers. But this process, and more information about the captured metadata and returned sound files, I will have to save for another post!
Jennifer Snyder works with oral history interviews at the Archives American Art. When she is not sending interviews out for digitization, she is writing about extraordinary examples of facial hair for this blog. All photos in this post by Jennifer Snyder, 2010.