Grant makes historic audio material available soon

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John Carberry
A picture of open-reel audio.
A picture of open-reel audio.

Soon, 250 hours of fragile audio material from Cornell’s ILR School from 1953 to 1978 will be available to the public, thanks to a grant from the Coordinated Preservation Program in the New York State Library’s Division of Library Development.

Cornell University Library recently finished digitizing open-reel audio from the ILR School’s Kheel Center for Labor Management Documentation and Archives. Commonly used during the mid-20th century, the acetate-based magnetic tape of open-reel audio has become very fragile, and archivists have been hesitant to play these recordings for fear of destroying them.

After surveying the Kheel Center’s collection of open-reel audio, Cornell Library digital archivist Barb Morley prioritized the material and primarily focused on digitizing recordings from ILR School lectures, conferences and seminars. The items chosen represent a veritable who’s who of labor and management history. The insights, experiences and proposals of such leaders as Jean McKelvey, Maurice Neufeld and Milton Konvitz have been crucial to understanding the history and shaping the future of labor relations, Morley said.

Most of the recordings were just simply labeled with a name and a date; few included transcripts.

“Even when there are transcripts, the vocal expression adds to our understanding of the intellectual content conveyed by words,” Morley explained. “What more is the speaker trying to communicate along with the words? Are they laughing or serious? Were they dispassionate or enthusiastic? Cautious or convincing? Is there audience interaction? All of this provides more information about the person as well as the topic.”

Cheryl Beredo, director of the Kheel Center, added: “This is effectively a new collection. For the first time since the original media became too fragile to play, scholars and the general public will be able to access these recordings.”

Once the material has been described and classified, it will be discoverable by scholars and the public. “Magnetic media like this open-reel audio is in danger of being lost,” Beredo said, adding that materials that are unique to the ILR School, the local area and New York state were chosen for digitization.

In conjunction with this grant, the Kheel Center also digitized 63 hours of additional material, including ILR School lectures of Frances Perkins, who became the first female cabinet member when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor. She later lectured at the ILR School until her death in 1965.

The digitization of the Kheel Center material represented the third and last year of the New York State Coordinated Project for Preservation Reformatting of Audio Reel to Reel Tapes to Digital Format. 

Jessica E. Withers is a writer/editor at Cornell University Library.

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