From the 1970s through 1995, students working for Cornell University Library recorded every public event on campus – an encyclopedic series of talks by the leading thinkers, artists and activists of the era, from Jacques Derrida to Toni Morrison to Timothy Leary.
Today, 5,650 of these lectures exist on magnetic tape – an increasingly fragile and endangered medium that is difficult to access because of obsolete equipment. But thanks to a $25,000 library grant for preserving the most fragile materials, 225 talks from the Cornell Lecture Tapes Collection have been digitized and are publicly available online.
“They’re very eclectic, but they have a lot of value,” said Boris Michev, now a maps and geospatial information librarian, who began working to digitize these tapes – there are 8,500 of them – in the early 2000s. “It’s valuable not only because it’s our collection and famous people came here, but because taken together it has an enormous amount of cultural and national importance.”
In addition to the challenges of working with outdated and fragile technology, copyright restrictions have complicated efforts to preserve the audio of these lectures, and make them publicly available. Cornell owns the copyright or has permission to post all 225 of the first group of digitized tapes, which include talks by Morrison, Derrida and Leary as well as Edward Said, Cesar Chavez and Norman Mailer. Those tapes the library does not have permission to post publicly online will be restricted to the Cornell community.
“These tapes represent an incredibly wide range of topics over a broad swath of that period of American history,” said Tre Berney, library director of digitization and conservation services, noting they also include controversial figures such as Louis Farrakhan, who spoke at Cornell in 1979 on the 10th anniversary of the occupation of Willard Straight Hall. “The combination of the fragility of the material and the intellectual value helped make the case to allocate funds for their digitization.”
Funding has been approved to digitize another 240 tapes in the coming year, including more than 100 talks sponsored by the Department of English, among which are writers John Cheever, Tobias Wolff and Audre Lorde.
Melanie Lefkowitz is staff writer, editor and social media coordinator for Cornell University Library.