“Revealing Her Story: Documenting African American Women Intellectuals” is a two-year project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to arrange and describe the personal papers of nine African American women writers, artists and musicians. Collections included in the project are the Pearl Cleage papers; additions to the Delilah Jackson papers; the Samella S. Lewis papers; the Almena Lomax papers; the May Miller papers; the Undine Smith Moore papers; the Geneva Southall papers; the Mildred Thompson papers; and the Sarah E. Wright papers. To read the press release announcing the project, click here.
If processing Delilah Jackson‘s immense audiovisual collection taught me something, it was this: always label your tapes. Of course, I do not expect future historians to go through my – now almost exclusively digital – collection of music and research interviews. Still, the principle stands: by investing a tiny amount of effort up front, the use of clear, detailed labeling saves you (and perhaps your grandchildren once you are gone) moments of intense frustration and hours of fruitless browsing.
A contemporary historian, Delilah Jackson was fortunate enough to meet and befriend many of her study subjects, most of them musicians, dancers, singers, and entertainers of the vibrant era of the Harlem Renaissance. She talked with them for hours and, both for her benefit and that of other researchers, recorded them as they shared their memories and anecdotes. A jazz and blues lover, Jackson’s tape collection also included hundreds of hours of music copied from the radio and other media.
When the time came to process her audiovisual records, we found ourselves facing at least five hundred unlabeled and labeled-but-barely-readable tapes. This proved to be a bit of a challenge. Initially, we restricted our work to only those tapes with at least some recognizable label, even if it seemed illegible. Then we listened to at least a few seconds of each recording, and separated the music from the interviews.
The last and most challenging part was identifying the interviewees. I can only describe this as “detective work,” and, when it proved successful, was extremely rewarding. Sometimes it meant deploying some amateur cryptography to unscramble the letters scribbled in the tape or its case. Those were the easy cases. Most times, however, we ended up with only part of a name, which led us to consult the two volumes of the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Routledge, 2004) and, oftentimes, Google, in search of potential matches. Besides allowing me to think of myself as a sleuth, these investigations taught me quite a bit about the Harlem Renaissance, which – as it turns out – was a fascinating cultural movement.
For the most difficult cases, we had to listen to the tapes, hunting for some clue about the identity of Jackson’s interlocutor. Sadly, this measure was extremely time-consuming and only rarely proved fruitful. By the way, for those actual and potential researchers reading this post: it is a good habit to start your recorded interviews by stating the name of the interviewee and the date of the session. It is a great defense against mislabeling, a great blessing for future archivists, and a way into my heart.