Soul of Reason: Archiving a Historic 1970s Black and Latinx Radio Program

By Victoria Lubas | March 16, 2021

Dr. Roscoe C. Brown

Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, NYU professor and host of Soul of Reason

Special Collections and Community Members Join Together to Archive and Caption Decades of Broadcasts

Archiving is the name of the game at NYU Libraries’ Special Collections. Located on Bobst’s second floor, this team is responsible for the collection, maintenance, and availability of historical media artifacts, including photos, manuscripts, recordings, and broadcasts. Recently, the team has been expanding the Soul of Reason collection, containing more than 100 recordings from Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr.’s radio show that showcased Black and Puerto Rican scholarship and culture. 

Dr. Roscoe C. Brown and the Soul of Reason

Broadcast from 1971 through 1986, the Soul of Reason was a half-hour radio show hosted by Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr., an NYU professor, Tuskegee airman, and former director of the Institute of African American Affairs (IAAA). University Archivist Janet Bunde, explained that the radio programs’ goal was to “highlight the Black experience in New York City, and every kind of iteration of that from politics to art to performance to business.” The Soul of Reason was broadcast on WNYU and WNBC and consisted of one-on-one interviews between Dr. Brown and prominent New Yorkers.

Tanisha Jones, who is now a professional archivist, wrote her master’s final project for Tisch’s Moving Image Archival Preservation (MIAP) program about the Soul of Reason, shedding light on the show’s significance as a rich and unique cultural artifact and prompting its preservation. Bunde explained that the “quality of the recording is quite high [and] you have at most three people talking at the same time,” meaning the show lends itself easily to the archival process. Such clarity of audio quality is not typical of the artifacts preserved by Special Collections, which often includes recordings from events that contain a substantial amount of background noise.

The Soul of Reason was stored on one-quarter inch reel-to-reel audio, which is considered an at-risk audio format. The effort to digitize the recordings was funded by the State of New York. Once digitized, Carol Kassel, senior manager of Digital Library Infrastructure in Digital Library Technology Services, explained that the materials are described using ArchivesSpace, and then “the metadata is published to static HTML pages, called finding aids, and ingested into a search tool powered by Blacklight to allow patrons to discover the content” and listen to the archived recordings.

NYU’s work with Soul of Reason also received a Digital Humanities Seed Grant from the NYU Center for the Humanities, which sponsored the next step in archiving these recordings: transcription.

Expanding Access to Soul of Reason

Normally, due to the many hours of audio-visual content that Special Collections processes, the team uses an application programming interface (API) to caption the materials. For this project, NYU Libraries selected the transcription service Konch with plans to outsource this process for most of the Soul of Reason collection. When the pandemic began and the University converted to remote operations, community members sought new opportunities for connection and collaboration.

To help with the transcription task and maintain human relationships, NYU Libraries hosted two Transcribe-a-Thon events. Jasmine Sykes-Kunk, reference associate at NYU Special Collections, explained that they “invited community members in to help correct and edit auto-generated transcripts.” Alexandra Provo, Knowledge Access and Resource Management Services metadata librarian, explained that the events were conducted live on Zoom so they could assist participants with the process while also answering questions through email and a website, created by digital humanities technology specialist, Marii Nyrop.

The Transcribe-a-Thons were the first of their kind for NYU, enabling the NYU community outside of the Libraries a chance to get involved in the archiving process. The events were also a first for Konch, whose programming had never been used in this way. The guided nature of the events allowed for accurate, efficient transcription analysis. This approach meant the team could invite others to participate while still maintaining a controlled environment. Kassel explained the need for “a small, controlled, dedicated community” rather than open, crowdsourcing-style editing: “It really does depend on…our subject matter experts and…what they feel is going to lend itself to this kind of work.”

Expanding Data and Community

Bunde emphasized that holding the event on Zoom allowed them to focus on creating a community that expanded beyond New York City, “bringing people together to connect with the materials and to see how they might resonate contemporarily.. Another thing that really made this project successful…was having the support of the [IAAA]…as members of the project team who were able to effectively communicate the context of the collection and the Soul of Reason recordings.”

In addition to the Digital Humanities Seed Grant, the Soul of Reason team was supported by NYU’s Center for Data Science (CDS) and graduate student Nyla Ennels. Provo explained that as part of her Data Science program, Ennels worked to “write and adapt Python scripts to parse the corrected transcripts, which are text files, and use natural language processing (NLP) to identify entities such as works of art, people, places, and…generate that list as some additional data.”

Ennels’ contribution allows the project to expand beyond transcription and into new methods of data analysis that can be read by both humans and machines, such as creating visualizations.

The Soul of Reason Continues

The expansion of this data allows for many possibilities, from increased accessibility to shedding more light on history and allowing these materials to be examined by modern-day communities. Sykes-Kunk reflected that “Dr. Brown’s daughter found the project and participated in it, so it was a moment of pride to have her participate.”

As Provo expressed, “we’re not trying to mine the collection in an impersonal way. It’s about our researchers and the people who are represented in the collection and in the recordings.”

The Soul of Reason project has enabled a multifaceted reading of the radio show and expanded the sense of community around the archived interviews. The project’s success has sparked an interest in holding more collaborative events. While technologies and best practices change, the potential next steps for the project show that archived materials can continue to grow and foster communities.

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