Let’s Get Technical! Recording Oral Histories at SCRC

The George Mason University Oral History Program has come a long way since its inception in 1999, undergoing important developments in terms of recording and editing interviews.

From 1999 until 2004, oral history interviews were audio only recordings captured on audiocassette. Because there was no dubbing equipment, subjects were not sent copies of their interviews-which today is an essential part of the oral history program. Beginning in 2004, audio interviews were digitally recorded and the transition from analog to digital recordings made giving participants copies of their interviews possible. In 2006, the program moved to digital audio/video recordings and since then many oral historians have recorded over 125 interviews with students, staff, alumni, politicians, and others from the local community.

Today’s Setup:

Presently, we conduct oral histories in the Special Collections Research Center Seminar Room in Fenwick Library on Mason’s Fairfax campus. We record video and audio on a Sony Handicam HD video camera, capturing footage on mini-DV cassettes in high definition. Two Audio-technica omnidirectional microphones are used- one for the subject and one for the oral historian- and connected to the camera to record the audio for the interview. As a backup, in case of video loss or sound syncing issues, we record an audio only copy on a Tascam digital audio recorder. Lighting equipment is also used for interviews. We are currently using two Genaray Spectro-LED lights, which are adjusted based on the time of day and weather conditions to accurately light the subject.

Digital recordings are then edited using Adobe Premiere Pro. The mini-DV cassette footage is captured by the Adobe Premiere program and then altered for clarity and a title containing the name of the subject and the date of the interview is placed in the video. After editing, the footage is converted to MP4 video, Quicktime video, and a preservation copy is kept on an external hard drive in case of loss. Exporting the edited footage to Adobe Encore, which is used to make DVD’s, makes one physical copy of an interview. Extra copies of DVD’s are made using a TEAC DVC copier – two are kept in the George Mason University Oral History Program Collection and one is sent to the subject along with a copy of their signed Deed of Gift and a short letter thanking them for their participation.

An example of a typical oral history setup.

The transition from analog to digital recordings has made editing, sharing, and accessing interviews easier for oral historians and researchers, and the ability to store digital and physical copies of interviews aids in the preservation and future access of these materials. Storing oral histories in multiple formats ensures that access is available even when current playback technologies become obsolete.

If you have any questions regarding the George Mason University Oral History Program, contact Emily Curley at ohp@gmu.edu or visit SCRC’s website. Aside from oral histories we conduct, we also have a few other oral history collections.

To view snippets of completed interviews, visit http://oralhistory.gmu.edu/ or our Youtube channel.


The C-SPAN Chronicles: Part IV – Viewer Mail

Hello all! Amanda here with another edition of the C-SPAN Chronicles. As this project has progressed, I have had ample time to re-examine this collection, as well as the unique records it holds. Despite some of the more serious portions of the collection, there are those that are more entertaining (see the C-SPAN Chronicles: Part II for more on this topic.) One such portion is the Viewer Mail Series. Viewer Mail encompasses the many and varied pieces of correspondence sent to C-SPAN’s founder Brian Lamb  – and C-SPAN in general – during much of his tenure at the organization. Though the letters vary in subject and substance, one aspect rings true for each letter: passion. The individuals who wrote these letters, emails, and everything in between were passionate about C-SPAN, the service it provided, and the political process at large. Sometimes this passion translated into a positive interaction, others…not so much. Below is a sampling of some of the more interesting pieces of correspondence from this series. Enjoy! **

A complimentary note from a self-described “C-SPAN Junkie.”

A folder filled with viewer mail. The wide variety of correspondence, ranging from hand written letters, postcards, and greeting cards, to typed letters (both analog and electronic) is evident even in this single file.

Some of the viewer mail errs on the side of eccentric. This folder holds a packet thoroughly examining the effects of Dioxins.

Brian Lamb’s “Booknotes” program produced many viewer letters praising its content and unique style. Unfortunately though, you cannot please them all.

This particular viewer’s complaint does not seem to color their overall view of C-SPAN.

Perhaps my favorite letter of the series.

**The C-SPAN records are currently being processed and therefore do not have specific box and folder numbers. Upon completion, we will update all images with proper citation. The viewer mail materials are part of Series 6: Viewer Mail of the C-SPAN records. 

Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts on the processing of the C-SPAN Papers on our FacebookInstagram, and Twitter accounts. To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.

Wading into Broadside’s Snapshots of the Smoky ’70s

This post was written by Greg Campbell, a former newspaper journalist and GAO analysts. He is nearing completion of a master’s degree in history with a focus on military history and the western United States at George Mason University. He is rounding out his skills as a historian through work at the Special Collections Research Center. Greg joined SCRC in March and has been working on digitizing images from our Broadside Photograph collection.

One of the striking things captured in the Broadside photo collection is that there used to be whole lot of smoking going on around here. In the 1970s, before second-hand smoke was harmful, photos of meetings sometimes show an ashtray in the center of the table and lots of people lighting up indoors. Striking, too, is a cigarette brand’s sponsorship of a women’s tennis tournament on campus. As the ad slogan said, we really have come a long way, baby.  The photo collection also includes a couple shots of tennis champion Billie Jean King practicing at GMU; she is a subject of the new movie, “Battle of the Sexes.”

The era of ashtrays on the table and indoor smoking. George Mason University Broadside photograph collection, R0135, Box 29, Page 19, Image 06, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

In addition to capturing evidence of the unlamented demise of gargantuan lapels and ties three times the current width, the photos show a variety of ancient technologies. For example, a Broadside photographer shot students, one smoking, playing the new computer game Pong, which was encased in a massive cabinet befitting such a wondrous miracle of modern technology.  Other shots show a story being written on an IBM Selectric typewriter for the campus newspaper, and class registration being carried out via the exchange of paperwork. No fun there.

A miracle of modern technology–the computer game Pong hits campus. George Mason University Broadside photograph collection, R0135, Box 29, Page 03, Image 06, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

The technology that produced the photo images is also a throwback to a different time—the laborious pre-digital photography era. The photo process used to go something like this for student photographers:  Buy 50 feet of black-and-white Tri-X film. Place it (in total darkness) in a bulk loader. Load each roll of film. Trim with scissors. Shoot the film, hoping you’d hit the right exposure and shutter speed. Develop the film by (in total darkness) cracking open each roll of film and winding it onto a stainless steel reel. Place that in a stainless steel canister with a lid. Add chemicals. Agitate at timed intervals. Dry the negatives. Cut up the negatives into groups of five and insert them in plastic sleeves. Print a contact sheet of positive images. Study with a magnifying loupe.  Pick an image. Place the negative in an enlarger. Pluck out photo paper (in total darkness) and place it in an enlarger.  Project the image on paper, sometimes dodging and burning to lighten or darken the image. Put photo paper in developing solution for a timed bath and then in fixing solution. Dry the print, and voila! The raw material has been produced for another multi-step process leading to publication.

A man playing the guitar and harmonica. George Mason University Broadside photograph collection, R0135, Box 29, Page 30, Image 33, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

The Special Collections Research Center is digitizing what are mostly masses of black and white negatives held in plastic sleeves in three-ring clamshell albums.  These include what were essentially the outtakes of the photographers’ efforts—the shots that never made it into the newspaper. For some of the students, it is clear the learning experience is underway.  There are some technical hiccups in the body of work—things a student photographer might not know until that moment of truth came in the darkroom. Others clearly had a photographer’s eye combined with technical skills and produced some excellent photos. All of them provide a snapshot of the past.

Our exhibition will be up until mid-August. Stop by anytime to view our materials on display. Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.

Travel Series: The Americas

This post was written by Tiffany Kajer Wright. “I am a grad student in the English department’s Professional Writing and Rhetoric program. If I’m not cooking, I’m probably watching a historical documentary on Netflix. I also love traveling with my husband – I’ve been to 19 countries and counting. I’m brand new to the SCRC, but I look forward to contributing more blogs in the future!”

This post is the first in a series of blogs coordinated with our Around the World in (Almost) 80 Days exhibit. We’re highlighting some of our collections and books that focus on travel and can be accessed here at the Special Collections Research Center. In this article, we’re taking a look at North and South America.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see far-flung parts of the world? Two of our collections can take you virtually anywhere. The first is the extensive Edith McChesney Ker collection of slides, scrapbooks, and other documents covering her global adventures. The second is the largely insect-focused Kjell Sandved collection, of Butterfly Alphabet fame. Both photographers are notable for capturing animal and plant life, as well as striking landscapes.

Reviewing these collections can bring the distant and exotic corners of the planet a little closer to home. This is especially true for areas of the world that are difficult to access, such as Easter Island or Angel Falls. Other places, like the Galapagos Islands or Nova Scotia, have well-traveled routes but are no less fascinating. We’ll begin this week’s journey with Easter Island.

“Easter Island-Ahu Nau Nau”, Edith McChesney Ker papers, #C0077, Box 12, Page 28, Image 4, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

The six stand in silent judgement, backs to the ocean. Their eyes are gone, but most still have their topknots. One is missing his head, and only the base remains for another. They are the Anakena Moai of Rapa Nui – Easter Island, to those outside of the South Pacific. Since 1888, it’s been a territory of Chile, and the mystery surrounding the immense statues has attracted travelers since the island was discovered. More than 800 Moai can be found on the island today, and most are easily accessible to the 80,000 tourists that stop by every year.


“Waterfalls: Amgel Falls World’s Highest Venezuela,” in the Kjell Sandved nature photograph collection #C0020, Box 4, Page 24, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Water tumbles over the edge of a cliff nearly three-quarters of a mile high, often shrouded by clouds. Toward the bottom, the water dissipates into a fine mist before converging into the Rio Kerepacupai Meru. This is Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, and it sits deep in the Venezuelan jungle. Named after American pilot Jimmie Angel, the first to fly over it in 1933, the falls draw visitors from all over the world each year.

“Fernandina Marine Iguanas and Bluefoots”, Edith McChesney Ker papers, #C0077, Box 13, Page 06, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

Home to some of the most specialized wildlife in the world, the Galapagos Islands have been the location for numerous scientific surveys for centuries. When a young geologist called Charles Darwin visited in 1835, he was so inspired by the variations of birds and other animals that he wrote On the Origin of Species. Scientists and researchers continue to visit this volcanic archipelago to better understand our planet’s history and evolution. Ecuador governs the islands today and has declared them a national park, drawing over 220,000 tourists per year.


“Peggy’s Cover Near Halifax Nova Scotia” in the Kjell Sandved nature photograph collection #C0020, Box 4, Page 22, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Nova Scotia is a breathtaking province, with Bay of Fundy and its extreme tides on one side and the battering North Atlantic on the other. Fishermen have done very well in this part of Canada for centuries, though not without cost. More than 5,000 shipwrecks are documented in the region. Despite this historical precedent, well over 2 million tourists visit Nova Scotia each year, with the percentage of Americans steadily increasing.


Easter Island History

Island Heritage

Easter Island Tourism

Angel Falls History

Galapagos History

Galapagos Tourism

Nova Scotia History

Nova Scotia Tourism

Our exhibition will be up until mid-August. Stop by anytime to view our materials on display. Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.

University Archives Series: Planning, Moving, and Preparing for the Unexpected

This is the second post within the University Archives Series. These posts will be somewhat irregular and depend mostly on my progress with this project.


First few pages of the inventory with all of the notes I made throughout the moving process.

How the project began:

Last summer after working as the Interim Research Services Coordinator and planning our first open house, I had realized that something really needed to be done to allow patrons easier access to our University Archives materials. We have about 148 collections and only 26 finding aids with varying levels of description. While not all of the 148 collections are high priority for processing many, such as the University and Student Publications, get pulled often by researchers and would likely get far more usage if there were at least collection level finding aids. I began an inventory of what collections we had, how many boxes were in each collection (processed and unprocessed), and created a list of processing priorities based on my knowledge on what patrons have used or could use and what collections had preservation needs (damaged boxes, loose pictures and other mixed materials, etc.). Not only were there not any finding aids for most of these collections, they were also hard to find. We had moved all of out collections in January 2016 from C-Wing of Fenwick Library to the new addition, which had more space, better climate conditions, an instruction room, and better processing areas for staff.


Stacks in our old space. We had an inventory sheet which let us know which the row and column for each collection, but they were not in collection order.

Our stacks were somewhat cramped before and our growing collections left us unable to create a well organized area that was easy for staff to retrieve materials. We had spent months before the move labeling all of the materials so they would be easier to manage after the move. We were very fortunate in that nothing really went wrong, as there were plenty of opportunities. However, when later pulling materials, we had discovered that many boxes were out of order, misshelved, and slightly damaged. It was likely the combination of our cramped space before the move, previous processing faults, and moving/labeling miscommunication or mistakes.

When moving the Broadside newspaper boxes from our oversize section to incorporate them into the University Archives, I had to take off some of the shelf dividers off so the boxes would fit.

Planning and Moving:

The first step in a long term project like this was to get an initial inventory and see exactly what we had. This seems like it would be more time consuming but it saves us time in the long run if we can prevent simple mistakes from happening. Almost all of the collections were out of collection order and some were out of box order. I printed out a list of all the collections I found on Archivists Toolkit (AT) and wrote down how many boxes or linear feet each collection had in the accession record and compared that to the collection record since materials from certain collections came in at different times and therefore have multiple accession records. I then looked at the collections in our stacks and wrote on the side of each row exactly which collections the row held. This made it easier when I was moving the boxes so that I could get them somewhat organized on other shelves before moving them back in the correct order. Moving each box took months. From about October until February, I had spent hours off and on in the stacks moving boxes from the original shelving just to move them all back in correct order. During this time I took notes for any collections that I thought should be placed on a processing priority list, anything that did not seem to belong with any other collections, and materials that had no information on them at all.


Moving all of the collections back in correct collection and box number order. These particular boxes are unprocessed materials, either additions to past collections or new collections altogether.

Preparing for the Unexpected:

When I started this project, I knew it would take a long time. As much as I tried to nail down a timeline and as much planning as I did before moving the boxes, I still expected some things to go wrong. I knew other things would come up that would require my attention.

What I did not account for was human error and that best practices change over time and people in charge of these collections come and go. While we have only been a university for a short amount of time (about 45 years), a lot has changed since we first began collecting materials. Although there is not official documentation of changes to our practices, I have been told that we used to place materials together by office from the early 1980’s until about 2008 when we developed a standard practice of creating collection, box and folder numbers. As a result, many older collections are not numbered or indicate an office or collection number. Additionally, the information from Archivists Toolkit only really involved collections after 2008 when we began using that program. I found quite a few boxes in our stacks that can not be found in AT and do not seem to belong with any other collection. Other boxes have generic numbers on them indicating that boxes coming in were just given a number in order. Some of these were not completely integrated into collections after 2008, though many were. It would have been a tremendous task for someone to have gone back through all of the collections and reprocessed them using what is now a standard practice for us. Past archivists and staff cannot be blamed for this, but it now makes this project way more complicated than I had expected. Knowing that I will be able to make these collections less messy and more accessible to Research Services staff for our patrons is the biggest reward. Having spent this much time already with these materials, I have seen all the potential they could have for researchers in the future and I am glad to be able to contribute to this project. The initial timeline was set to end this August. As always, other projects came up. I have been the Processing Coordinator since January but a few months ago, I was also given the task of coordinating social media, which has taken up more of my time. I am also working to complete the Broadside scans, which is another project that had many unexpected challenges, required far more hours of staff time than planned, and contained far more images than originally estimated. These other projects have pushed the University Archives project back and now I am hoping to complete Broadside soon and move on to the next steps of the University Archives project so I can get closer to finishing by the end of fall semester.


Post-its indicating which collections were in each row during the move so staff could more easily find materials.

Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.