December 3, 2020

Literature and Cultural History: PEN America Launches New Digital Archive Featuring More Than 1500 Hours of Audio and Video

The PEN America digital archive went live today.

2017-07-26_10-57-46PEN America [is announcing] the launch of its online archive, chronicling 50 years of seminal American literary and cultural history with more than 1500 hours of audio and video dating back to 1966. The recordings include meetings, panels, and public events covering a breathtaking range of social, political, and cultural topics that will allow listeners to tune in to many of the most impassioned and important debates in late 20th- and early 21st-century intellectual life.

A major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled PEN America to preserve, digitize, and make available for the first time PEN America’s entire collection of audio and video recordings, many of which were previously at risk of physical deterioration.

“Over nearly 100 years, PEN America has convened America’s leading literary and intellectual lights in debates and dialogues that have framed the most pressing social, cultural, and political issues of the time,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America. “With the release of the PEN America Digital Archive, these essential voices have been brought back to life, brimming with personality, passion, opinion, and sometimes bombast. Hearing directly from these greats will offer information and inspiration to writers, scholars, and free expression advocates for generations to come.”

The PEN America Digital Archive project began with a brawl. Not a Norman Mailer, Rip Torn brawl with head punches and savaged ears, but a brawl over the one of the most basic tenets of archives everywhere: Access.

Sold to Princeton in 1994 the PEN America Archive dates back to 1921—the year PEN International was founded, just a year before the birth of PEN America. Among paper documents, VHS tapes, audiocassettes, photographs, and magnetic reels, the physical collection includes personal correspondence and speeches by Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, H.G. Wells, and more. The collection was processed and catalogued in a Finding Aid by Princeton University’s Rare Books & Special Collections.

What had begun as a curious adventure to explore our past and community at that moment turned into a mission. In 2012, PEN America received a planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to catalog and assess the physical condition of materials and develop a plan digitize the most at-risk resources. We hired Archives, Preservation, and Records Management Specialist Lisa Sisco, who found that a staggering 93 percent of the materials in PEN America’s archive was assessed to have significant cultural and/or scholarly value, but that 61 percent—including all of the audio and video recordings housed at Princeton—was at high risk of being lost due to physical deterioration or obsolescence.

In 2014, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded PEN America a generous grant to digitize, preserve, and make available for free online this entire collection of audio and video recordings. Working with staff, archivists, web developers, designers, and more over nearly three years, PEN America developed a comprehensive strategy to implement the creative search platform you see here today, bringing to the surface this remarkable material.

The digital archive provides a unique historical perspective on how American intellectuals engaged on major social and political challenges and crises including racism, censorship and surveillance, sexuality and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, the Iran hostage crisis, and September 11. PEN America’s physical archives are housed at the Princeton University rare book collection.

Direct to PEN America Digital Archive

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Browse the Hyperlinked Archive Index

See Also: Princeton University Library P.E.N. American Center Records Finding Aid

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.

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