PEN America Digital Archives
It began with a brawl...
It began as a brawl with an uptight archivist in the Firestone Library reading room—a verbal brawl, really, that almost came to blows. I had trekked to Princeton to root through PEN’s archives. It was 2012, PEN America’s 90th anniversary, and I planned to create an online series using archival materials to tell the story of PEN’s evolution from literary supper club to global advocacy organization over nine decades. Pablo Neruda, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Henrich Böll… these were just a handful of the writers whose voices had been captured on thousands of hours of recordings held in the archives. And that day there was one man—the archivist—telling me that I couldn’t listen to them, couldn’t see them, couldn’t do anything to or with those recordings because they were old and at risk of falling apart, even with one play. I was livid—and ignorant—and made the bold and unsubstantiated threat that I was going to listen to those goddamned tapes.
In the following months, I plunged into the paper archives, into library science, into digital archives, and into how other institutions handled at-risk but incredibly valuable archival materials. Over the course of the next four years I drafted grant proposals for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Archives, and other funding institutions and raised close to $400k to preserve, digitize, and make available online free of charge PEN’s audio and video collection dating back to 1966, and consisting of over 1800 hours of recorded programming. On those tapes live the voices of Nobel Prize winners in literature, economics, science, and peace; social reformers; literary luminaries; philosophers; and political and artistic revolutionaries, whose work, ideas, and actions explored and helped frame the most pressing social, cultural, and political issues of our time.