January 20, 2022

U.Va. Library's New Streaming Oral History Project Tells the Legal Story of the Civil Rights Struggle

From U. Va. Today:

In March 1985, civil rights leader and former Howard University president James M. Nabrit did an extended interview for an oral history project led by then-University of Virginia English professor William Elwood.

Cigar in hand, Nabrit – a former NAACP lawyer who worked with Thurgood Marshall and others to fight segregation – recalled the series of legal challenges both before and after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

“We tried cases all over the country. Everywhere: north and south and east and west,” he said. “And we won some and we lost some. But the people – our people – never deserted us.”

That 114-minute discussion, originally shot on U-matic videotape, is one of 86 interviews with prominent civil rights lawyers and others that are now restored and streaming online, thanks to the recent completion of a nearly decade-long project by the U.Va. Library.

The William Elwood Civil Rights Lawyers Project tells the legal history of the civil rights struggle. The online interviews, which filled 273 tapes left to the library, are available through the library’s Virgo service. “It’s primary source material that students, scholars and even documentarians can use,” said Leigh Rockey, a preservation reformatting specialist in the library. “These are firsthand accounts of this important history.”


The interviews were on 158 Betacam tapes and 115 U-Matic tapes, and weren’t in the best condition when the library decided to restore them in the early 2000s. Some of the videos suffered from “sticky shed syndrome,” which results from deterioration of the binder, a glue-like substance that holds the recording layer to the plastic base, Rockey said.

In 2005, the library sent the tapes to restoration specialists capable of repairing damage done by sticky shed syndrome. “They literally put some of the tapes in an oven and baked them. That’s a technique that’s strictly for professionals,” Rockey said.

When the restoration work was completed, the library had the actual restored tapes as well as DVDs and digital versions of the footage. Using streaming video technology recently licensed to the University through SHANTI, the library began the arduous process of putting the videos online in a searchable database.

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About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.