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Washington University Libraries Awarded Grant to Preserve Assembly Series Recordings

The Washington University Libraries have been awarded a grant of $34,520 from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to fund the project “Echoes of Voices Past: Preserving the Public Lectures from Washington University’s Assembly Series.” The project will digitize more than 1400 audio recordings from Washington University’s Assembly Series, a collection of public lectures featuring the most prominent voices of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Jan Taylor (left), president of the Association of Black Student’s program committee, introduces Assembly Series speaker Alex Haley in the Field House in 1977. Haley, author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, spoke at Washington University in 1977 and 1990.

The grant was awarded as part of CLIR’s Recordings at Risk initiative, which seeks to preserve at-risk audio and visual recordings. Through the initiative, CLIR has funded 110 projects, making possible the digital preservation of more than 17,400 rare audio or visual recordings.

The University Libraries will digitize lectures from the series that took place between 1949 and 2008. Access to the recordings of these lectures has been limited due to the fragility of analog media. The grant will allow the University Libraries to preserve these historically significant recordings and make them available to library users.

Assembly Series speakers such as First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalyn Carter, literary stars Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, creative groundbreakers Aaron Copland and Spike Lee, scientific pioneers Francis Crick and Walter Massey, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Harry Blackmun, and many others remain central subjects of academic and public interest.

The Assembly Series lectures document how discourse surrounding critical topics like race, gender, and class has evolved over time. The collection has the potential to augment research and learning in a number of disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, including African-American studies, the dramatic and cinematic arts, economics, gender studies, history, international studies, literature, philosophy, political science, religion, and technology.

“We have long been aware of the incredible scholarly value of this important collection of lectures but access to it has been restricted due to the instability of the recording format,” says Nadia Ghasedi, associate university librarian for Special Collections Services. “We are beyond excited to receive this support from CLIR and finally bring the collection to light.”

The University Libraries were selected from a pool of 100 applicants to receive one of only 17 awards through the Recordings at Risk project. The digitized lectures will be made freely accessible to patrons, by request, via the Box platform until their migration to a new digital repository. A digital exhibition, curated in consultation with faculty and featuring a selection of lectures, is planned to promote the use of the collection.

Check out a recent article in Washington Magazine for a look at some of the famous figures who have participated in the Assembly Series. For more information about the grant, please contact Joy Novak, head of Special Collections Management.