Mellon Foundation Awards Columbia University Libraries Grant to Preserve Unique Audio and Moving-Image Collections

Weng Wango A frame of 16mm Kodachrome film shot by Weng Wango in Beijing, ca. 1947-48. (C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Weng Wango Collection, Film ID WW0110)

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Columbia University Libraries $750,000 to preserve nearly 21,000 unique audio and moving-image recordings. The recordings are held by the Avery Art & Architectural Library, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, and the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. They range from film footage of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) to poetry readings by Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), complete, previously unreleased interviews by Rolling Stone journalist Albert Goldman (1927-1994), and raw footage captured by the Chinese American documentary filmmaker Wan-go H.C. Weng (1918-). The project also encompasses recordings from Columbia’s renowned Oral History Archive, including interviews relating to the Eisenhower administration, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the AIDS crisis. In total, recordings from eighty different archival collections and more than 5,000 oral histories, will be digitized, described, preserved, and then made available to researchers.

According to Sean Quimby, the project’s coordinator and Director of Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, “Much of the documentary record of the twentieth century resides on media that is deteriorating rapidly. Preserving that heritage requires swift and decisive action on the part of libraries and archives.” Indeed, the University joins the ranks of other institutions such as Indiana University, the New York Public Library, WGBH (Boston), and the Library of Congress in prioritizing the preservation of audio and moving image collections. In 2012, the Library of Congress released a National Recording Preservation Plan, which served as a catalyst and call-to-action for libraries, museums, and archives that have over time acquired these materials with no clear plan for preserving and providing access to them. Columbia is partnering with experts in the field to digitize unique and rarely-held items in its collection, and at the same time is expanding its capacity to identify, describe, and make these resources accessible to as many researchers and in the most dynamic way possible.

Scholars, meanwhile, are eager to tap into resources that have long been unavailable to them. Columbia Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Brent Edwards, whose courses include Black Radicalism in the Archives, notes that, “When my students have access to an audio or video recording, it allows them to experience the artist or activist in the creative moment of performance--in the midst of the dance or delivery. It enables us to talk about the social power of words and ideas and delve into nuances that the written version alone simply can’t capture.”

Work on the grant began in October 1 and will run through September 2021. According to Vice Provost and University Librarian, Ann Thornton, “Columbia University is deeply grateful to The Mellon Foundation for its support of this important work, work that will enrich scholarship at Columbia and beyond.”

Bob Fass Radio Personality
Audio recordings of "Radio Unnameable," hosted by radio personality Bob Fass (pictured above) and now held by the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, will be preserved as part of the grant awarded to the Libraries by The Mellon Foundation.