Monday, January 6, 2020

The Black Oral History Digitization Project: Part I

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Remember when I wrote about how I’d applied for a digitization grant from the South Central Regional Library Council? Well, the excited dolphin noises you might have heard emanating from the museum at the end of December were me, learning that I got the grant! Let me tell you a little about the project so you can be this excited too.

From 1989 to 1991, the CCHS collected oral histories from twenty-five leaders within our local Black community. Interviewees included trailblazers, community organizers, and religious leaders like Rev. Leo Hughey Jr., Nellie Jennings, Wilbur Reid, Bessie Berry, Donald Botsford, Charles Bright, and others. Over half of the participants are now dead. In some cases, these tapes are the only recordings of these people that exist. Some of the topics covered in the interviews include the civil rights movement, the Neighborhood House, EOP, NAACP, A.M.E. Zion Church, Glove House, and the personal histories of the participants. The stories captured in these oral histories are invaluable. 

Participant Delmar Rouse at his place of work, 1989
Unfortunately, the audio cassettes on which the interviews were recorded are inherently unstable. Each time an audio cassette is played, there is a risk it may get damaged. As anyone who remembers destroying their favorite tape can attest, audio cassettes can unspool, tear, or become demagnetized.  While digitization is not technically a preservation tool, it does allow users to listen to the recording without risking damaging it. 

Two of the 29 cassettes we'll be digitizing

Later this week, I will be sending off the tapes to a vendor in Maryland. There, the vendor will stabilize and repair the original tapes and then digitize them. He will create a 24-bit 96kHz PCM archival WAV file of each recording along with a 128kbps 44.1kHZ MP3 use file. Why the two file formats? WAV is a much more stable audio format, but it is also incredibly large and unwieldy for things like CDs, while MP3 can be played and shared easily. 

Part of the grant requires that we share the digitized recordings on the New York Heritage website. Since I don’t know how to do that, I’ll be taking some training classes on sharing audio files. We’re also working on plans with the local chapter of the NAACP to hold at least one public listening event where we’ll share and discuss the recordings. I will be posting updates as the process goes along so stay tuned.


  1. Hello, I believe that I have family from the Elmira New York, most likely in the 18-30s to unknown date. I am looking for any registries that might have my family name. Who can i contact from the historical society?

    Thank you,

    1. Hello JoAnn,
      You can contact our Archivist Rachel Dworkin at and she may be able to help in your search.