Hear @ Buffalo: The Poetry Collection’s Audio Migration Project

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James Maynard, University at Buffalo, SUNY …

James Maynard, University at Buffalo, SUNY

In 2009, the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, received a $202,241 Preservation and Access grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a two-year project to reformat, catalog and make accessible 1,000+ cassette and reel-to-reel audio recordings of poetry materials dating back to the early 1960s. Capturing poetry readings, lectures, interviews, conferences and other literary events, these tapes document the development of innovative and avant-garde poetries and their communities throughout the second half of the twentieth century as well as Buffalo’s role within that history. Readings by both canonical and non-canonical poets are featured in the collection, including such prominent American and international figures as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Diane Di Prima, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Graves, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, George Oppen, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Diane Wakoski and Louis Zukofsky.

This session will provide an overview of the audio migration project in general—its technical, cataloging, and copyright challenges—while highlighting its most innovative and creative aspects (which, I believe, are what secured us the NEH grant in the first place).

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  • 1. Hear @ Buffalo: The Poetry Collection’s Audio Migration Project James Maynard, PhD Assistant Curator The Poetry Collection [email_address]
  • 2.
    • About the Poetry Collection
    • Founded in the late 1930s by Charles Abbott, the Poetry Collection is the library of record for 20 th - and 21 st -century Anglophone poetry, holding:
      • more than 140,000 poetry titles, including approximately 7,000 broadsides as well as an extensive selection of anthologies, criticism, reference books, audio recordings, and ephemera
      • more than 9,000 past and current “little magazine” titles
      • over 150 manuscript collections, including the world’s largest archive of James Joyce papers along with major collections from William Carlos Williams, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Graves, Robert Duncan, Helen Adam, Jonathan Williams, and many more
      • the private libraries of such writers as James Joyce, Helen Adam, Robert Duncan, and Basil Bunting
      • artworks by Salvador Dali, Constantin Brancusi, Jess (Collins), Wyndham Lewis, E. E. Cummings, and others
      • substantial collections of mail art, visual and concrete poetry, photographs, and zines
  • 3.
    • Today, the Poetry Collection continues its mission of acquiring comprehensively the publications and in many cases the papers of writers located at both the center and the margins of poetic culture. An active research center for the study of all facets of modern and contemporary Anglophone poetry, each year the collection:
      • supports with its materials a wide range of publications
      • assists with the educational activities of UB and other local Western NY schools
      • welcomes dozens of prominent U.S. and international scholars and graduate students
      • participates in various events in the local literary communities
      • loans items to exhibitions around the world
      • hosts numerous lectures, conferences, readings, and other events
  • 4. PROBLEM: what to do about the “triple jeopardy” of audio recordings? “ The libraries and archives of the United States house a large and valuable heritage of audio recordings that span more than a century … [and] are an irreplaceable record of the history and creativity of the twentieth century. These collections are of enormous value for research and teaching. These rare and often fragile recordings, however, are in triple jeopardy: They are frequently not described or inventoried; they are orphaned by obsolete playback equipment; and they lack clearly documented rights that allow use. Making these recordings available to students and scholars can be difficult and costly. As a result, these collections are often underused.” Abby Smith, from Survey of the State of Audio Collections in Academic Libraries (Council on Library and Information Resources, 2004)
  • 5.
    • The Poetry Collection’s audio items include reel-to-reel and cassette recordings dating back to 1962.
    • These recordings fall into three categories:
      • an archive of tapes from poetry readings, lectures, and other unique events that took place in the Poetry Collection and elsewhere on the University at Buffalo campus
      • personal recordings that poets made of their own readings over a period of time
      • libraries of tapes collected by various individuals and groups
    • Capturing poetry readings, lectures, interviews, conferences, and other literary events, these tapes document both the development of innovative and avant-garde poetries and their communities throughout the second half of the twentieth century as well as Buffalo’s role within that history. Readings by both canonical and non-canonical poets are featured in the collection, including such prominent American and international figures as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Diane Di Prima, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Graves, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, George Oppen, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Diane Wakoski, and Louis Zukofsky.
  • 6.
    • These materials had suffered from the “triple jeopardy” identified by Smith:
      • the majority were entirely uncataloged, and in many cases there was only a brief title or note indicating the contents
      • especially in the case of the reel-to-reel recordings, we no longer had the equipment necessary to play them for patrons; and even if we could, many of the reel-to-reels might not have survived being played, since—even under temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions—the format is not entirely stable over time
      • we lacked the rights to distribute these materials beyond the parameters of on-site patron use
  • 7. Our solution: NEH Preservation and Access grant In 2008 we applied for and were awarded $202,241 from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a two-year, $552,327 project to reformat, catalog, and make accessible 1,300+ cassette and reel-to-reel audio recordings of poetry materials. (This proposal was based on a recommendation contained in a 2007 preservation and planning survey of the University at Buffalo Libraries Special Collections conducted by a preservation consultant with the Northeast Document Conservation Center.)
  • 8. Contributing factors to the grant award: I. Our approach to audio recordings as having a research value analogous to literary manuscripts II. Our approach to cataloging these materials
  • 9.
    • I. The research value of poetry recordings
    • Occurring as they do in a particular place and time and before a specific audience, poetry readings by their nature are spontaneous events that can differ drastically from one occasion to the next. The recordings of these events offer literary scholars and students in the humanities a host of highly significant resources for historical, biographical, and genetic research and education. Audio recordings:
      • promote the study of poetry’s performance
      • provide a wide range of extra-textual information that is nonetheless crucial to understanding a poem’s larger contexts of meaning
      • function as audible manuscripts testifying to the composition and revision habits of poets
      • document the social contexts and literary communities in which poetry takes place
      • offer an effective resource personalizing the experience of poetry for students of all levels.
  • 10.
    • II. Our cataloging approach
    • The Poetry Collection has a heritage of providing enhanced cataloging descriptions of poetry-related materials in all formats. For this project, we cataloged not just the event details including the titles of poems read—which is commonly found in other digital collections—but also briefly described as much of the event’s additional “information” as possible, including:
      • introductions
      • the poet’s conversation with the audience before, after, and sometimes during each poem
      • any remarkable interactions between the poet and audience
      • any additional aspects of the event that are in any way noteworthy
    • Often times this extra-textual information is more important to scholars than the poems themselves, and so it is with their use in mind that we have attempted to document such detail in the cataloging record for each audio recording.
  • 11.
    • The plan for the NEH grant:
    • The results of this two-year project are the preservation of endangered audio recordings and improved access to them at three different levels. Specifically, the plan we proposed to the NEH involved:
    • Working with a third-party audio specialist to reformat the recordings on our reel-to-reel and cassette tapes—which had mostly been inaccessible and uncataloged—into digital sound files.
    • Auditioning the sound files to create item-level cataloging, and researching the intellectual property rights for each item. Eventually, collection-level EAD finding aids will be created for logical subsets of the collection.
    • Porting the cataloging data to UB digit (ubdigit.buffalo.edu), the University at Buffalo Libraries’ implementation of CONTENTdm, where the collection can be searched as a whole. Streaming versions of the recordings will be mounted in UB digit , providing on-site access that complies with the stipulations of Section 108 of the Copyright Act. As permission is obtained from the relevant copyright holders, wider access will be provided.
  • 12.
    • Phase I: Digitization
    • For this project, we worked with Safe Sound Archive, a leading provider in archival audio and video services based in Philadelphia, PA. There is no single, universally-recognized standard for audio preservation in the U.S., and so we relied on Safe Sound’s recommendations for best practices. For each recording, we received:
      • a preservation master file (.WAV file) on dvd
      • a service copy (.CDA file) which can be played by researchers in the Poetry Collection and from which future copies can be made (these are tracked in 5-minute intervals)
      • a web copy (.MP3 file) which will eventually be loaded to stream directly from the digital audio collection in UB digit , the UB Libraries’ implementation of CONTENTdm (digital collection management software)
    • Some of the tapes were broken, had splices where the adhesive had failed, exhibited sticky shed syndrome, or had other problems which Safe Sound first had to deal with accordingly so that they could be played for reformatting.
  • 13. Phase II. Auditioning, cataloging, and researching permissions for each recording Trained by and working under the supervision of the Poetry Collection’s principal cataloger, student assistants auditioned each recording in its entirety, making notes regarding poem titles and other details gained from their listening. Sound recordings were divided by featured poet(s), with each group assigned to a particular student so that each could develop a particular expertise. Student catalogers were given texts of each poet’s works to aid in the discernment of titles. Templates were then used to aid in the students’ preparation of bibliographic MARC records, each of which was reviewed by the principal cataloger before being uploaded to the local UB Library online catalog and to OCLC’s WorldCat. Subsequently, a graduate student was hired as a permissions assistant to assess the primary participants on each recording, research the holder of their copyright, and begin the process of soliciting the necessary permission to make each recording available for wider off-site access through UB digit .
  • 14. Working with students For the staff of the Poetry Collection, this project has been a wonderful chance to work with students in a mentoring role, having numerous opportunities for them to investigate and apply their growing knowledge of the work of individual poets from all over the map of twentieth-century poetics, the history of poetry in Buffalo, cataloging skills, the rights and exclusions of copyright, etc.
  • 15. Phase III: Building a digital collection and streaming the recordings online The metadata from each of the MARC records will be transferred to UB digit , the home of the UB Libraries digital collections, where it will link with a streaming-only version of the audio file. Where possible, each recording will be supplemented by a scan of any extant posters in the Poetry Collection advertising these readings dating back to the early 1960s. All of the recordings will be loaded on to UB digit for on-site access (so defined by a local IP address or a user name and log-on) as allowed by section 108 of the Copyright Act. In those cases where permission is obtained from the relevant copyright holder, the recordings will be made available for wider access to everyone online. As of just recently, we have decided to call this digital collection “Hear @ Buffalo.”
  • 16. Copyright Section 108 of the Copyright Act provides limited exceptions for libraries and archives to make copies in specified instances for preservation, replacement, and patron access on site. This exception allows for patrons to listen to service copies of the recordings in the Poetry Collection and to access from on campus a streaming version of them on UB digit . What is not allowed without explicit permission from the copyright holder is any wider access to the streaming files online from off campus. Therefore, a great deal of time has been spent researching the current copyright holder for each primary participant, and each will be asked to give such permission. While all of the records will be searchable for anyone visiting the UB digit site, the only ones that will stream for off-campus visitors will be a) those for which we have received the necessary permission in writing, and b) those orphan works for which no copyright holder can be located (until such time as one comes forward and either does or does not grant permission).
  • 17.
    • Current status
    • As of the end of April 2011, the two-year grant project will come to a close in terms of its funding. At this point:
      • all of the files have been digitized
      • the last of the recordings are being cataloged
      • a permissions database has been established, and research continues into the copyright holders
      • a small prototype of the “Hear @ Buffalo” digital collection has been created on UB digit , and we are working out the details of how best to present the metadata and incorporate the streaming audio files for on- campus access, as well as how to restrict access for now for off-campus visitors to the site
  • 18.
    • Future work for the project
    • In the next few weeks and months, we plan on finishing the project by:
      • continuing to research the remainder of the copyright holders
      • writing to request permission from the copyright holders to provide wider access online to the streaming audio files
      • completing the construction of the “Hear @ Buffalo” digital collection on UB digit
      • creating EAD finding aids for logical subsets of the collections
      • applying for additional grants to digitize and catalog the remaining audio recordings in the Poetry Collection
      • using this digital collection as a tool for recruiting additional audio materials
  • 19. For more information: The Poetry Collection’s website: http://library.buffalo.edu/pl The Poetry Collection’s current gateway placeholder for “Hear @ Buffalo”: http://library.buffalo.edu/pl/collections/audioarchive.php UB digit : http://ubdigit.buffalo.edu Safe Sound Archive: http://www.safesoundarchive.com
  • 20. Thank you Any questions or comments, please contact me at: [email_address] James Maynard, PhD Assistant Curator The Poetry Collection