A New Frontier of Literary Engagement

SpokenWeb's network of digitized audio recordings brings new life to Canada's literary heritage

Donna McKinnon - 03 August 2018

When portable recording technology became widely available in the 1960s, people recorded everything from crying babies to private conversations. Across university campuses, literary events and author readings were recorded on reel to reel tapes and (later) audio cassettes, boxed away and for a variety of reasons, largely forgotten.

At the University of Alberta, there are four decades of these recordings, some 3,000 in total. A newSSHRC Partnership Grant project - SpokenWeb - aims to take these now digitized materials and make them available to researchers, teachers and the general public for the first time in 50 years.

Over the seven-year span of the project, the SpokenWeb consortium, which includes 12 institutional and community partners, will build a nationally networked archive of literary and creative audio recordings through a program of digitization, technical advancement, protocol development, cultural research and pedagogical innovation.

"We'll use this as a way to build bridges between researchers not only across different disciplines, but also between researchers, librarians, digital humanists, archivists and community partners, all of whom have similar problems around audio preservation and access," says Faculty of Arts Vice-DeanMichael O'Driscoll, who along with UAlberta's Geoffrey Rockwell and Sean Luyk, serves as Co-Applicant on the project.

SpokenWeb dates back to 2010, when Concordia University professorJason Camlot was developing a web-baseddigital spoken word archive of a Montreal poetry reading series from 1966-1974. Across the country, other researchers were beginning to deal with their own audio archives, including here at the University of Alberta. As connections were made (facilitated locally by O'Driscoll's graduate student Lee Hannigan, who had previously worked with Camlot), the project grew into its current iteration as a multi-partner, North American-wide effort to capture, in Camlot's words, "an entire world of literary life and activity that has yet to be discovered."

SpokenWeb Co-Applicant Michael O'Driscoll

O'Driscoll says the hundreds audio recordings housed in the Faculty of Arts - which includes lectures, panel presentations, distinguished visitor readings and literary events of all kinds - can be directly attributed to the success of English and Film Studies' robust creative writing program and its renowned faculty, past and present. He cites in particular the acclaimed Writer-in-Residence program, founded in 1976 by Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe which, to this day, is the longest running residency of its kind in Canada.

Writers from across Canada flocked to the UAlberta campus to give readings or take part in the residency, building a rich cultural legacy of audio recordings from the likes of Margaret Atwood, W.O. Mitchell, Timothy Findley, Robert Kroetsch and Margaret Laurence, among many others.

Before these recordings were digitized - a project funded by the Kule Institute for Advanced Studies (KIAS)CRAfT Digital Research Archive Grant - the collection, most of which was recorded on magnetic tape, was nearing the end of its shelf life making preservation a necessity. These unique audio artefacts faced a more ominous threat, however, from those who, over the years, wished to clear space in the department's media room. O'Driscoll credits SpokenWord Collaborator and fellow English and Film Studies professor Cecily Devereux for "throwing herself over the collection" - figuratively speaking - to protect it from being tossed. "She's the real hero of the story," he says.

An important feature of a SSHRC Partnership Grant is the development of innovative training experiences for students and postdoctoral researchers. O'Driscoll and his team see many opportunities to create and improve the ways digitized archives can be accessed, indexed and shared, enhancing critical engagement with this "new frontier" of literary audio materials and, over the course of seven years, train a generation of young scholars interested in literary audio performance and technology.

"We want to open up this cultural history so that it can be understood in new ways," explains O'Driscoll. "Take, for instance, a Margaret Atwood poem from 1970. It has different lives in the different books, but it's a fairly stable piece of text from the perspective of literary history. We have seven versions of her reading that text at different times, in different places, answering questions and talking about it, introducing the poem to audiences in different ways. Now suddenly, that poem springs to life in terms of its variations and the ways in which it can be understood, including the author's ideas about it, but also the audience's reception of it and the conditions under which it circulates. Literature isn't just something that sits on a page - it's an event."

SpokenWord has also partnered with two Montreal-based literary organizations that have an archive of audio tapes but no access to the technology or the dollars to facilitate their preservation. As a pilot project, O'Driscoll says the team will investigate how SpokenWord can best support these community-based organizations, and how, over the span of the project and beyond, other community partners who want their own stories told through preservation and access can be engaged. "My hope," he says, "is that SpokenWord becomes a very diverse collection over time."

"Partnership grants are an incredible opportunity," says O'Driscoll. "It's a big network of people, and seven years is a long time to work on a project but you can accomplish amazing things with enough funding and a few dozen smart people. You can think really big."

SpokenWeb: Conceiving and creating a nationally networked archive of literary recordings for research and teaching

Funding: $2,499,514.00 over seven years; Project Director: Jason Camlot, Concordia University; UAlberta Co-Applicants: Michael O'Driscoll (English and Film Studies), Geoffrey Rockwell (Digital Humanities/KIAS) and Sean Luyk (Digital Initiatives Projects Librarian); UAlberta Collaborators: Cecily Devereux (English and Film Studies) and Geoffrey Harder (Associate University Librarian)

NEW! Listen to the SpokenWeb podcast HERE.