Hearing the Past

The term “archives” may call up images of vellum pages covered with beautiful cursive (or indecipherable scribbles) but, as previous blog posts on material culture highlight– see What’s in a Game? Some Examples of Board Games at Burns Library and From Chasubles to Spider Puppets: The Lessons, Joys, and Challenges of Curating at Burns Library they are frequently so much more. Among the many formats in our collections, Burns Library holds a wealth of recordings within the Irish Music Archives, as well as recorded history within numerous literary and historical collections. 

Image of Audio recordings from the Howard Belding Gill papers

Audio recordings from the Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Frequently, as an archivist describing collections, I’ve been stumped by the black-box nature of audiovisual recordings. When a folder of papers has a terse or nonexistent title, I can look inside to find out more. To date this was untrue for cassettes and discs; nothing on the box meant no description, since listening to or viewing an item could potentially ruin it. The result was unhelpful and unsatisfying description: “untitled audio recording, undated.”  

A recent Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Recordings at Risk grant supported the digitization by an outside vendor of two collections of traditional Irish music from New York and Boston on audio reels, and propelled us to set up a dedicated laptop for researchers to access digitized audiovisual content in our reading room. Among other things, this new access model drove an initiative to make audiovisual contents more readily available by digitizing them at the same time that collections are being described. This effort is currently limited to formats that can be digitized in our digital lab, but that list already includes audio cassettes, phonograph discs, and video cassettes of multiple types (from tiny miniDV up to the nearly-ubiquitous home video format, VHS). The result is that I can now listen to a portion of the mystery cassette or disc via the access copy made by our Digital Archives Specialist Jack Kearney as often as I need without fear of consequences to the original item. Instead of transcribing the outside, “Mr. Gill, room 212, Bascon Hall”, I can reflect the content, “‘The Juvenile Panorama’ guest lecture”.

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Digitization equipment from the lab

A sampling of what the Burns Library has already been able to describe and make available for research includes:

Very shortly two new collections that bridge poetry, music, and Irish culture will also have audiovisual components available. The papers of Washington, D. C.-area author and traditional Irish composer and performer Terrence Winch include recordings of poetry readings with fellow poets Michael Lally, Doug Lang, Ted Berrigan, Tim Dlugos, and Diane Ward, and concerts, often with Winch reading poetry and short stories as well as performing as part of his band Celtic Thunder. Another multi-faceted contemporary author, Irish poet and literary critic Gerald Dawe, has recordings that complement his writings. He was a frequent contributor to BBC Radio Ireland and RTE Radio broadcasts, and his papers include draft texts of his talks, poetry readings, and interviews, complemented by audio recordings of the broadcasts. 

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Terence Winch’s band Celtic Thunder in 1978 as documented in a newspaper article, photograph, and concert recording, Terence Winch papers, MS.2017.005, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Why should you care about this small segment of the archival collections that was previously inaccessible? Because it’s a particularly vivid evocation of the past. Hearing a voice or seeing a figure in motion brings the past into the present in a way that text or artifacts alone cannot. 

-Lynn Moulton, Processing Archivist, John J. Burns Library

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