Oral History Audio Preservation Project

Preserving Historic Audio Content: Developing Infrastructures and Practices for Digital Conversion

Columbia University Libraries has received support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a two-year project beginning July 2008, to preserve 820 recordings containing almost 1200 hours of sound. The audiotapes are part of the Oral History Research Office’s collection of recorded interviews and memoirs, and have been selected because they are among the most important and the most threatened by imminent deterioration due to the inherent fragility of the media.

Among the recordings are oral histories of politically and socially active figures such as Nikita Khrushchev, Walter Lippmann, George Meaney, Clarence Mitchell, Nelson Rockefeller, Gloria Steinem, Robert F. Wagner; historians and literary figures such as James Baldwin, Jacques Barzun, Isaiah Berlin, William Buckley, Robert Heilbronner, Irving Howe, Anita Loos, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Isaac Bashevis Singer, C. Vann Woodward; and members of the arts and entertainment community such as Judith Anderson, Gene Autry, Frank Capra, Joseph Cotton, Joel McCrea, Otto Preminger, Richard Rogers, Virgil Thomson, Mies van der Rohe, King Vidor.

Scholars are increasingly turning to the sound of oral history for documentation of critically important political and social events in which it is important to rely on first-person sources both for information and for understanding the intersection of history, politics, and culture. Sociologists, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, and contemporary historians demand access to the voices of those who are interviewed, in order to judge the motivations and interpretations of innovators, political leaders, and those who bear witness to the critical events of recent times.

This means that the recordings themselves must be carefully preserved—a serious challenge given the short life-span of most recording media, and the technical rigor needed to create a high-quality digital copy that can serve scholarship well into the future. This project will enable the Libraries not only to preserve these specific recordings but also to build up its audio digitization program to address further recordings after the project ends.


During this two-year project:

  1. We will select a group of high-priority audio materials totaling 1,200 hours as a target for the project and will move them through the steps of digital conversion and metadata creation;
  2. We will build an infrastructure model for institutions that do not have an in-house audio conversion lab;
  3. We will collaborate with expert consultants and a leading service provider for audio preservation conversion to develop practices that are mutually functional for both content-owning institutions and service providers;


This project will result in the following outcomes:

  1. Preservation through digital conversion of 1,200 hours of seriously endangered analog audio recordings that have been identified as important for future research;
  2. Creation of cataloging records and other metadata to facilitate discovery of the preserved content by scholars, and to support preservation of the digital versions;
  3. Establishment at Columbia of a carefully designed and fully functional audio preservation infrastructure that is in compliance with current best practices and incorporates smooth working relations with an external service provider; and
  4. Creation and ongoing maintenance of a public project web site with full information about the project, including the final proposal and documentation created during the project.

Background Documentation

Working Documents