This is the first post in what will be an ongoing effort to document the conceptualization and building of a digital sound archive in the University of Alberta’s English and Film Studies department. Initiated by professors Cecily Devereux and Michael O’Driscoll, this archive, which is still unnamed (though I’ve seen “SpokenWest” pop up in a few places, which would make sense, seeing as the project intends to build off and likely partner with the existing successes of the SpokenWeb project at Concordia University) will contain recordings from literary reading events hosted by UofA dating back to 1966. In its current state, the collection includes approximately 1300 cassette tape recordings. Many of these, however, are commercial recordings reproduced for teaching purposes, so our primary task is to filter the database and comb through the catalogue to determine which recordings to include, which is to say any singular, local readings or performances specific to UofA. This will be the project’s framework, though it’s interesting to think about how it might change as we go through the tapes. Without question, there will be surprises.
This particular digital archive will not be born-digital (though it will certainly include born-digital content, as recent and forthcoming reading events are added). Rather, it’s a digitally transformed archive. The archive itself already exists, and has existed for many years. I’ll have to do some more digging to learn more about the history of the tapes themselves, where they’ve been, who made them, for what reason, who’s looked after them, have they’ve been copied. For now, they’re on the fourth floor of the university’s Humanities Centre, room 409, and this material investigation is taking place at an exciting time, as 2015-16 marks the 40th anniversary of the university’s Writer-in-Residence program, the longest lasting series of its kind in Canada, featuring authors of national and international prominence, including Phyllis Webb (’80-’81), Fred Wah (’88-’89), Gail Scott (’94-’95), rob mclennan (’07-’08), and Erin Moure (’13-’14), to name a few.
The collection also contains recordings independent of the Writer-in-Residence program, as UofA hosts regular reading events every year, as well as a collection of approximately 700 reel-to-reel recordings, featuring names such as Dorothy Livesay, bpNichol, Sheila Watson, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, D.G. Jones, Myrna Kostash, and Irving Layton. Of course, these lists are preliminary, and each physical item will have to be closely inspected and listened to to determine its contents. Unfortunately, recordings aren’t always documented adequately, and basic metadata (speaker names, reading dates, venues) is often missing, making it rather difficult to develop a comprehensive catalogue. Sometimes information is contained within the tape itself, such as in a speaker’s introductory or closing remarks. And sometimes it isn’t, in which case secondary archival materials (press releases, event posters, written reviews) can prove helpful. As Camlot states in Beyond the Text, sometimes archives are “perfectly useless,” until someone actually rolls up their sleeves, blows the dust from the reel, feeds the tape into the machine, and presses play, to find out exactly what they’re dealing with. This kind of deconstruction has always been possible, but now it’s possible on a new scale. The digitization of large bodies of poetry recordings takes place at an intersection of digital and critical methodologies, one that has much to offer.
At this point, the possibilities for where the archive might go seem endless. In addition to the recordings I’ve mentioned, the catalogue includes a series of recorded readings held during the 1969 “Poet & Critic Conference,” which includes recordings of Eli Mandel, Gary Snyder, Rudy Wiebe, and many others listed as “various,” as well as a number of other reel-to-reel recordings of lectures by noteworthy authors. We also expect to uncover additional archives along the way (including more recent, born-digital materials) held in personal collections. In short, there’s a lot of material to sort through. For now, as mentioned, it’s a matter of organizing the tapes, collecting metadata, and establishing principles of inclusion and exclusion — what’s in and what’s out. When our corpus is complete, we expect somewhere between 42 and 106 items containing between 30 and 80 hours of recorded content.
Like I said, this is all very nascent, and part of a much larger project, building off the work done by the SpokenWeb project (see Reading Series Matter, or just go play around at SW, or read any number of the essays published in Amodern 4: The Poetry Series). Professors O’Driscoll and Devereux are currently working to partner with similar projects and research interests at Concordia University, Simon Fraser University, UBC Okanagan, the University of Calgary, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Texas, Austin to develop a consolidated interface for archiving, mapping, and engaging with literary spoken recordings across Canada and North America. Which is really exciting, and which I look forward to writing about as the project moves along. For now, I introduce UofA’s English and Film Studies Department’s newest digital audio archive, which only exists conceptually.