Literary Archives Rerecord History

Nick Twemlow
From the January/February 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Sticky-shed syndrome, head azimuth, ferromagnetic particles, hydrolysis, meta-data, vinegar syndrome, reel-to-reel, and tape-to-head are familiar terms to audio engineers, librarians, and archivists; they are not the words one normally hears at poetry readings. But understanding these terms and many others like them is the first step in preserving the oral tradition that these events are based upon.

Steve Taylor, a professor at the Naropa Writing & Poetics program and the archive's project director, describes the collection as a who's who of the post–World War II literary landscape.

With a start-up grant of $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002, Naropa University has established the Naropa Audio Preservation and Access Project ( to archive the program's vast holdings of recorded readings, lectures, panel discussions, and workshops. The collection, which has been accumulating since Naropa was founded in Boulder, Colorado, as the first Buddhist university in the U.S. nearly 30 years ago, has grown to over 7,000 hours of recorded material—one of the most important collections of its kind, along with those held at the Poetry Project in New York City and at San Francisco State University's American Poetry Archives.

Steve Taylor, a professor at the Naropa Writing & Poetics program and the archive's project director, describes the collection as a who's who of the post–World War II literary landscape: Diane Di Prima and the Beats, Robert Duncan and other writers of the San Francisco Renaissance, Amiri Baraka of the Black Arts movement, Robert Creeley from the Black Mountain School, and the New York School's John Ashbery and Barbara Guest, to name a few. A recording of William Burroughs describing the secret life of plants resides in the same collection as Michael Ondaatje's discussion of his writing of The English Patient.

Preserving the archive has proven to be a formidable task for students and faculty at Naropa. The initial NEA grant—which Naropa had to match, and did, largely through the fund-raising efforts of enthusiastic current students—permitted the creation of a small, part-time staff. Their challenge, aside from the monumental task of cataloguing and archiving the thousands of hours of tape, has been to learn the complex technologies that define the current state of audio preservation and migration.

Audiocassettes—the mainstay of recording technology for the past 40 years—corrode; their deterioration is noticeable after 10 years. At Naropa, each audiocassette goes through a multistep digitization process. The first copies made from the original analog master are recorded in four different mediums: a digital audio CD, two different computer data CDs, and an 8-millimeter data tape. These, along with the original cassette tape, are then sent to Iron Mountain, an archive repository with holdings around the country. Two optimized CDs—on which hiss and static have been removed and, in some cases, high-end sound levels have been boosted—are also generated. These comprise Naropa's on-site versions and remain in the school's library.

The staff at the Naropa Audio Archive began by choosing approximately 400 hours of recordings to digitize during the program's first year. "When we initially applied to the NEA, [we assumed it was] not for us to say which things are more important; [we thought] everything should be taken and we should start from the beginning," Taylor says. "The NEA said, ‘You take the most endangered things and most valuable things first,' so [we] are expected to make value judgments."

This led to the formation of a selection committee composed of several people close to Naropa, including scholar and writer Ammiel Alcalay, poet Lorenzo Thomas, and historian Douglas Brinkley, who will prioritize the contents of the collection. But the initial 400 hours, culled from a list made by Anne Waldman, will be archived this year, both as an example to potential funders of the program's work and as evidence that it can assimilate this technology into the Naropa literary culture.

Naropa is not alone in its struggle to find ways to preserve its collections. The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City ( is home to a significant collection of audiotapes, all currently stowed away because they are simply too fragile to allow repeated listening. According to Artistic Director Ed Friedman, roughly one percent of the nearly 3,000 tapes have been digitized, a number that is a reflection of the lack of adequate facilities and necessary funding. The Poetry Project is currently looking for an institution to purchase the collection, in order to ensure its preservation.

The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University (, which houses the American Poetry Archives, is the oldest of the three collections. It features audio and video recordings of the Center's reading series, which started in 1954. With a West Coast focus, the collection includes scores of past and present Bay Area writers, from Lawrence Ferlinghetti to Robert Hass and Lyn Hejinian, as well as one of the first Ginsberg readings of "Howl" and a series of edited outtakes from the 1960s KQED San Francisco television show Poetry USA, featuring interviews with Anne Sexton, Louis Zukofsky, Denise Levertov, and Frank O'Hara.

Funding for the archive's preservation has come in the form of some small NEA grants and the occasional private donation. Executive Director Steve Dickison is working with a small, paid staff on a comprehensive preservation plan. They have already made the switch to recording readings on digital video technology, and have migrated much of the early reel-to-reel recordings to digital and analog backup cassettes.

Although there are no formal plans to integrate their collections, Naropa, the Poetry Center, and the Poetry Project are committed to coordinating their archiving efforts. "The three of us have collections that differ widely but they're extremely complementary of one another," Dickison says. "And instead of everybody going off and doing this in isolation…we're trying to say that these things exist in parallel." Last fall the Poetry Project held a joint fund-raiser with Naropa in New York City, which included a performance by Lou Reed. The Poetry Center will hold a similar event in San Francisco in March.

Future plans for the Naropa collection, though largely dependent on funding, include manufacturing CDs for sale to the general public and making the archive available to interested libraries, possibly as a subscription service. A Web site, coordinated with the National Gallery of the Spoken Word, an online project in its early stages at Michigan State University, is also in the works.

But all of this depends on the success of the first year of archiving, which ends in May, and Taylor says the long-term prospects for the collection require much more money, in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. It's hoped some of that money will come from a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for which Naropa is currently applying. Private donations and increased public awareness are pivotal. "Because we've gotten so used to the sound bite and canned, preplanned television," Alcalay says, "I think it is all the more important to retrieve the improvisatory possibilities that these readings, talks, lectures, and discussions embody."

Nick Twemlow is a poet and filmmaker who lives in Eugene, Oregon.