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Gotta love the ironies of digital culture. A big fretful debate among publishers is whether the printed word is on the way out. But the first big internet retailer made its money selling books online. Amazon is a great example of what some folk call “convergence culture”— the term is a bit slippery: for some it means the way older media forms appear inside the newest media channels (like books and movies and TV shows showing up online); for others it refers to the way the technologies themselves are converging (that we can watch videos on our cell phones, which double as e-mail devices, and internet sources).

And now the Library of Congress is getting into the game. Check out their digital archives. The LOC has made its Slave Narratives, oral histories, and American Life archives available online. “Nearly 3,000 of the oral history interviews are now available on the Library of Congress’s W.P.A. Life Histories Web site, memory.loc.gov/ ammem/wpaintro/wpahome.html, with more to come.”

Since the late 1970s the Library of Congress has been quietly unpacking and vetting the contents of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project, making the materials available to researchers. During the Great Depression, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government employed over 6000 poets, essayists, journalists, and writers to interview and document the stories of the nation. Editors included John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy West, Kenneth Patchen and many more. They produced the famed American Guide Series, and they also produced the Slave Narratives. The timing was crucial: social and economic crisis met up with the literary, historical, and sociological imagination of the federally-employed writers. Plus, in the late 1930s the population of once-enslaved people was dwindling. Armed with microphones and notebooks, the editors went out into the nation and collected their stories. The editors also amassed oddball anecdotes and local histories. They believed—even in the face of a culture rife with white supremacy, anti-immigration laws, and the like—that they could celebrate a national culture of diversity. W. H. Auden called the whole project “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.”

And now all that material is available online. You can download audio files and listen to the voice ex-slave Fountain Hughes.

Take that, Facebook. I got yer “25 Things” right here.

Or, better still:

Dear 21st Century Writer, what should a poet do with those voices? What would a novelist do? Or an essayist?  What would you do? Would you listen? Bear witness? Or…

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