Society and Culture

Lit sounds: U of A experts help rescue treasure trove of audio cultural history

Professor and librarian team up to salvage tens of thousands of lost recordings across North America.

  • October 27, 2023
  • By Geoff McMaster

Michael O’Driscoll is on a mission to restore sound to its rightful place in literary studies.

Apart from shifting his own students’ attention on poetry from the printed page to a “close listening” of the spoken word in the classroom, the professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of English and Film Studies is helping to rescue thousands of lost audio and video recordings — on reel to reel and cassette tape across Canada.

This treasure trove of cultural history — much of it languishing in dusty library storerooms or consigned to the landfill — is often overlooked because it is largely “impenetrable,” says O’Driscoll. Unless the recording is digitized and meticulously time-stamped, you can’t quickly flip through the contents of a reel-to-reel tape like you can a book.

But O’Driscoll — also director of the Kule Institute for Advanced Study — along with the U of A’s digital curation librarian, Sean Luyk and digital media expert Geoffrey Rockwell are joining a drive to change that. Through a seven-year, SSHRC-funded partnership called SpokenWeb, they are helping to make recorded lectures, interviews, performances, oral histories and other creative artifacts more readable and accessible online.

The challenge is partly one of historical bias, says O’Driscoll. Despite a recent resurgence of sound in popular culture — think hip-hop, spoken-word poetry and Indigenous oral traditions, not to mention audiobooks — there has long been a neglect of sound in the study of literature, he says.

“For a century and a half, literary studies have been primarily a print-based undertaking. One of the results of that has been the disregard or simple disinterest in the sound of literature and the way sound is produced.

“Of course, literary sound has always been with us — whether that’s reading by the fireside, reading to your children, or poets presenting their work at public readings — but it's never been a concerted part of the study and teaching of literature.”

O’Driscoll and Luyk are also working with SpokenWeb Montreal at Concordia University, and principal investigator Jason Camlot, who are developing an open-source metadata portal that can be shared with other institutions interested in making their digitized literary recordings available to scholars.

The tool, called “Swallow,” will be available to the public in the coming months and will link thousands of recordings held in collections across Canada. Researchers, students and members of the public will be able to quickly and easily find and experience literary sound recordings that have never been previously available.

As an initial test case, the Concordia team has been documenting live recordings of a Montreal poetry reading series from 1966 to 1974 featuring performances by major North American poets. Other teams across the country have been busy digitizing and documenting collections that include famous Canadian literary talent.

The SpokenWeb network comprises 50 multidisciplinary researchers in 18 institutions in Canada and the United States, and is also linked to a similar AV software project called AVAnnotate, funded by the prestigious Mellon Foundation and based at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We couldn't do this without archivists, librarians and people in sound, literary and cultural studies, as well as technicians and performers — that’s the only way to make this work,” says O’Driscoll. 

“We also have grad students and postdocs all trying to create a new, rapidly growing field that’s becoming more and more at the forefront of things.”

The U of A’s Sound Studies Institute embarked on a similar project five years ago when it struck a partnership with the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society to digitize thousands of reel-to-reel audio tapes and 16 mm film reels collected in its archives. Contents include interviews, photographs, stories, songs, ceremonies, and radio and television programming dating back to the mid-1960s.

Even in his home department, O’Driscoll points to a valuable collection of some 3,000 analogue recordings, some of which were slated for disposal. His partner and English and Film Studies colleague, Cecily Devereux, worked with other colleagues to inventory and preserve them.

One gem in the collection is a 1971 recording of celebrated Canadian sound poet bpNichol giving a talk and reading from his work. “It’s never been heard by anybody else since that moment in time, and it’s an absolutely unique item. There are several hundred of those unique historical objects in this collection.”

Some of those gems include readings and interviews with the likes of Rudy Wiebe, Sheila Watson, W.O. Mitchell, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.

O’Driscoll says much of the collection will hopefully be acquired by the SpokenWeb UAlberta hub of the partnership — time-stamped and made accessible over the internet to scholars or anyone else with an interest.

The plan is for a publicly accessible portal into all sound collections that are part of the SpokenWeb network “for study, research or pleasure.” The project also supports a podcast, now in its fifth season, to explore and critically engage with the archives.

“We are cultivating a whole area of cultural heritage that people aren’t particularly aware of, not even amongst my fellow academics,” says O’Driscoll.