SCRC is completing an exciting grant project, which will provide users the opportunity learn more about federally-sponsored arts projects during the Great Depression from their computer, tablet, or phone in the voices of those who took part in them. The grant, generously provided by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), permitted us to digitize hundreds of hours of conversations with former employees of the Federal Theatre, Art, Music, and Writers’ Projects.
In 1974 George Mason University faculty members Lorraine Brown and John O’Connor discovered the archives of the Federal Theater Project (FTP) in an aircraft hangar near Baltimore, Maryland after a lengthy search. Included were scripts for over 800 plays and radio programs, official FTP photographs, 1930s-era silk-screened posters, hand drawn set and costume designs, and other materials, which shed light on the history of the FTP. Thanks to this discovery, George Mason University would become the preeminent institution of higher learning for promoting and facilitating scholarship on the FTP for the next thirty-five years. The FTP began in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration’s Federal One, employing several thousand actors, directors, playwrights, producers and others in the entertainment industry, as well as artists, writers, musicians, and painters during the Great Depression. During its four-year run the FTP produced plays, musicals, radio programs and marionette shows and featured the early works of actors and producers such as Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, and Elia Kazan. The federal government discontinued the program in 1939, and thousands of scripts, photographs, posters, and other FTP records were dispersed between the National Archives, the Library of Congress, public libraries, and educational institutions. For over twenty-five years the main body of these records lay forgotten in a government-owned storage facility.
After Brown and O’Connor’s discovery, and realizing the historical significance of these records, George Mason University entered into negotiations with the Library of Congress to house and care for the collection. Many of the materials were physically deteriorating after so many years in less-than-ideal conditions. An agreement was reached, and the collection went on loan to George Mason University Libraries, with the aim that the collection would be used by scholars of the FTP and WPA. A center for the study of the FTP called The Institute for the Federal Theatre Project (IFTP) was established at Mason, and a staff of archives and library professionals were hired to manage the records in Fenwick Library. The collection remained in the University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) for nearly twenty years until the Library of Congress replevined the materials in 1994.
The IFTP conducted a number of activities to supplement the original collection and create additional scholarly resources for the study of the Federal Theatre Project, as well as the other federal arts programs within Federal One. Institute staff collected additional personal papers from FTP personnel, created multiple printed guides to the collection, photographed deteriorating posters, costume and set designs, and published a book, Free, Adult, and Uncensored, about the FTP. Perhaps the most dramatic and impactful of these activities was the creation of an oral history collection, featuring former members of the FTP and other arts projects.
The oral history interviews were produced between 1975 and 1984 by staff members of the IFTP. Many of the interviews were conducted by Brown and O’Connor, the original discoverers of the FTP collection, themselves. The Institute conducted about 350 interviews, mainly of former FTP actors, producers, playwrights, and scenery, sound, and lighting designers. A number of interviews were also conducted with former members of the Federal Art, Music, and Writers’ Projects. These recordings were mostly done in the homes of the interview subjects (as most of them were in their 60s or 70s at the time), but some were done in hotel lobbies, restaurants, and at the IFTP at George Mason University. They were recorded on reel to reel and cassette (which at that time was the state of the art in consumer audio recording). Typewritten transcripts, were produced for about 65 percent of the interviews. Access to researchers during the period 1975 to about 2009 was provided via audiocassette and audiocassette player. The transcript was supplied along with the tape to make the recording easier to navigate. While a serviceable way to provide access to the content it was not really the most sustainable. It was very risky to hand a 30+year-old magnetic tape to a user and let them fast-forward and rewind the tape multiple times during a research session. After 2009 a digital copy of a requested tape or tapes was made in SCRC prior to a researcher’s visit. These recordings would be accessed on a desktop computer in SCRC’s reading room.
After receiving the Council on Library Information Resources (CLIR) Recordings at Risk grant in October 2019, SCRC set about to create a new and interactive way for users to listen to these interviews, learn about Depression-era federal arts programs and the people who were part of them, and preserve the original recordings in the process. After seeing Chicago radio station WFMT’s impressive Studs Terkel Radio Archive, SCRC decided to employ the Hyperaudio web tool to create a site in which audio recordings, synched with their transcripts, could be accessed on a user’s desktop.
While the workflow to accomplish this goal contained numerous steps and details, I am going to just cover the main framework of file preparation in this post. I will go into more detail regarding each of the facets of the project a later post.
In order to be able to move a mode of primary source research that for 35 years was analog (cassette tapes and paper transcripts) to digital (both audio and transcripts accessible from the computer desktop), digitization on a fairly large scale had to take place. The file conversion of the cassette tapes was handled by The Media Preserve of Cranberry, PA. The Media Preserve digitized 435 tapes, each containing 2 sides (A and B) of recorded material. For each tape the vendor produced:
- (2) 24-bit 96KHz Broadcast Wav files
- (2) 16-bit PCM Wav files
- (2) 192 Kb/s Mp3 steaming files
- MD5 checksums for each file created
- photographs of the tape and case
These files would provide the basis for the audio component of the project.
The majority of the interviews were made up of 1 or more complete cassette tapes. Each complete cassette contains 2 sides (A and B) of recorded material. In order to create one logically flowing audio file for each interview, it was necessary to stitch all the tape sides together in chronological order For example, if an interview was recorded on two tapes, Tape 1, sides A and B were stitched together, Side B appended to the end of Side A. Next, Tape 2, Side A would be appended to the end of Tape 1, Side B, and so on.
Once all segments of an interview were stitched together in chronological order, a final composite file was saved for that interview.
Next, we would have to scan the transcripts and use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to create text files for each printed transcript. We used two Scan/OCR products, Omni Page and ABBYY FineReader for this task. Initially, when we were in the office, we used Omni Page, though a bit older than the copy of ABBYY that we later purchased, OP was already installed on our machines, and it functioned just fine for the task at hand. When COVID-19 created a situation where we had to take work home, we purchased ABBYY, which produces the exact same outputs, a text file produced using OCR, along with a PDF.
Once a complete audio file and the text for each interview was produced, the files were packaged and sent to the Libraries’ Digital Developer in the Digital Technologies and Services; Digital Strategies and Systems office. There, they were processed into Hyperaudio objects and integrated into the site created for this project. Each interview is made accessible from the main site ( https://vwpa.gmu.edu/audiocollection/). There a user can either search the collection of interviews by keyword or browse the list either alphabetically by interviewee, by occupation, unit, date, or duration. Once the user selects a desired interview, he or she starts and navigates the interview using the player control panel shown at the center in the screenshot below. The interview text is highlighted in synch with the audio so that the user can follow along aurally and visually.
University Libraries is grateful to have had this opportunity to improve access to this interesting and important collection. We feel that this is just the beginning of our efforts to make audiovisual collections more convenient and useable for researchers!
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