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3-2-1-Blast Off! Launching the Archive

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Yesterday we posted a blog about the launch of the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. We are also excited about press publicity for the archive in Hyperallergic, The New York Times, and Open Culture.

For this post we want to give you a behind-the-scenes sense of how the archive came to be. Below are accounts by Hispanic Division Program Specialist Catalina Gómez, who has overseen the project for almost two years, and by me.

Rob Casper: When I first started working at the Library of Congress in 2011, the Library launched its National Jukebox. I went to both a staff presentation of the website and the official launch, and I imagined we could present our audio recordings online in a similar way. We had to do a bit of research into our archives–at first it was difficult to determine exactly what we had. Once we did, though, we were impressed: the Library recorded literary events since the early ’40s, and the recordings we found–from our public events and made in our recording studio–were stellar. We also found that only a fraction were in the right database, and digitized.

For the next four years, Library staff and interns began the process of cataloging audio recordings. We worked closely with the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcast and Recorded Sound Division, where the original recordings were stored, and where they would be digitized. The Office of Strategic Initiatives designed the online interface and web pages you can now peruse. It was truly a group effort, and we’re only at the beginning. We have literally thousands of recordings to go–from our archives, and from elsewhere in the Library. For instance, not long ago the Library acquired the archives of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, which has 4,000 hours of recorded sound. Our Rare Books and Special Collections division is now working on processing the archive, and one day we hope to present those recordings online for all to listen to.

Catalina Gómez, of our Hispanic Division, has been overseeing the archives since the summer of 2013. Her work on the archives and the website has not only helped the Poetry and Literature Center, it serves her office as well. The Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape has treasures to match our collections, and I look forward to seeing it launch online for Hispanic Heritage month this coming September. And I know there is more out there, not only within the Library (for instance, the African and Middle Eastern Division recorded a host of important African poets and writers in the ’70s) but in countless literary centers and colleges/universities around the country. My hope is that the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature will serve as a sort of clearing house for the range of voices that make up our literary legacy.

Catalina Gomez: When I was new to the Hispanic Division of the Library, my boss, Georgette Dorn, brought me to a recording of a Basque novelist at the Jefferson Buildings recording laboratory. She interviewed the author and had him read both in Spanish and in his native Basque. I watched from the studio’s TV monitor, and I was mind-blown to hear this fascinating writer read from his work, and also to hear the Basque language for the first time (it happens that a large part of my heritage comes from this part of Spain). That same day, Georgette told me about the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, about its history, and she showed me an intimate alcove in the Hispanic Reading Room that housed reference copies of almost 700 recordings of Luso-Hispanic prose writers and poets. As a lover of literature, I immediately felt drawn to this collection and began imagining all that could be done so that this treasure could be accessed by more people both inside and outside the Library.

Some months later, Rob Casper brought a renowned Chicano scholar, Rafael Pérez Torres, to the Hispanic Reading room, and I eagerly showed them the archive. Rafael listened to some of the materials, and at that moment I learned that the Poetry and Literature Center was already envisioning a substantial digitization and online mounting of their own archive, the Archive of Recorded Poetry. We discussed how important it was to work toward making this a reality with all of the literary recordings of the Library.

I had the privilege to get more involved with this project two years ago. I began going with my boss to more and more recordings, transcribing the sessions, archiving them, and sometimes standing up for her in some of the interviews. I began collaborating with the Poetry and Literature Center to digitize these collections and build a workflow and an infrastructure to have these collections become accessible online. The process involved working with MBRS, the custodial division of all audio and film collections, and with OSI, the office in charge of building all of the online architecture of the Library. I began where Library staffers Caitlin Rizzo and Kelly Yuzawa left off, and with the help of highly committed and talented interns who managed to see the vision become a reality.