Saving Sounds of the South

Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The Southern Folklife Collection (SFC) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the nation’s most important collections of southern vernacular culture, with more than 250,000 sound and 3,500 video recordings.

Guy and Candie Carawan’s collection of unique documentary and music recordings of major civil rights demonstrations and conferences during the 1960s is at risk of being lost permanently. “The Carawans were educators and activists at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee,” says Steven Weiss, the collection’s curator. “Guy helped introduce the song ‘We Shall Overcome’ to the civil rights movement.”  Much of this collection is on open-reel audiotape, which “was introduced after World War II. Tapes from that era are made from acetate plastic which can become brittle with age.” 

Also at risk is the Nancy Kalow and Wayne Martin Collection, of video recordings made in the late 1980s to document traditional fiddlers from North Carolina, like Kilby Spencer, who is not just one of the top old-time musicians of his generation but also a music researcher and scholar of the genre himself.

Joe and Odell Thompson, Mebane, North Carolina, August 17, 1987. Video courtesy of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Southern Folklife Collection, Gift of Nancy Kalow and Wayne Martin.

A planning grant from Mellon allowed the SFC to hire an audiovisual conservator to manage the project and engage AV Preserve to analyze its collections and make recommendations for improving archival workflows. “With AV Preserve’s guidance, and thanks to additional funding, we hired new staff, including an applications analyst who has helped us clean and consolidate our preservation and access metadata to streamline our process and to make our holdings more accessible. We also hired an AV Archivist, an audio engineer, and an AV assistant,” says Weiss.

“Providing online access is essential to saving these collections. Without access the challenges are substantial, and researches would have to order copies or make a visit to our Library’s reading room here in Chapel Hill, all of which slows the preservation process.”

Over 40 percent of the collection will be discoverable to scholars, researchers, documentarians and other artists by the time the project is complete. They are also on track to complete the digitization and discoverability of all its unique media, before it’s too late.

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