Elizabeth Russey Roke

Digital Archivist, Emory University

As an archivist concerned with description of and access to digitized and born-digital material, I am interested in the potential of ARLO and the HiPSTAS project to provide increased access to large, unidentified sound collections.

I will be focusing on audio recordings in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference records held at Emory University.  Material in the collection documents the nonviolent direct action initiatives of the organization, including boycotts, marches, rallies, protests, hearings, and other programs designed to secure and protect civil rights in America.  The collection contains over 1000 audio recordings of SCLC leaders, programs, and events, including rare recordings of the radio program Martin Luther King Speaks, as well as recorded speeches by SCLC leaders such as Ralph David Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Martin Luther King, III, Joseph E. Lowery, and Andrew Young, among others. Also present are recordings of programs and events, including the annual National Convention, the Poor People’s Campaign (1968), the Crisis in Health Care for Black and Poor Americans hearings (1984), the Martin Luther King Memorial Pilgrimage for Economic Justice (1988), and many more.  Although most recordings are preliminarily identified, scarcity of staff time and resources made precisely identifying every recording in the collection infeasible.  As it was, archivists in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library spent six full months listening to and identifying recordings just to provide minimal description.

The EAD finding aid description for the collection identifies key names, events, and dates.  Most recordings, however, feature multiple speakers, not all of whom are identified in the finding aid.  Descriptions for conference recordings, in particular, do not include information beyond the name of the conference, location, and date and do not detail more specific information about speakers or topics of conference sessions.  Researchers wishing to access the all the speeches of Ralph Abernathy, for instance, must first identify those conferences at which he spoke using other portions of the collection rather than directly accessing the sound recordings.  Though he is identified on some recordings in the collection, it can reasonably be assumed due to his prominence in the organization that Abernathy speeches are present on more recordings than have currently been identified.

Archival description is by its nature incomplete.  Finding aids are intended to provide only a starting point for researchers to look for relevant information.  I am excited about the possibility of using machine learning and data visualization techniques to expose “hidden” information in archival collections, especially important for sound recordings, one of the more time-consuming and complicated formats for archivists to describe fully.

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