In September 2014, two University of Michigan professors received a phone call that would set them on a race to save more than a half century of African music.
Heather Maxwell, a U-M alumna and current host of the Voice of America’s “Music Time in Africa” program, had phoned to tell them that the tapes, scripts and other materials from all of their prior shows—then sitting unused at the VOA studios in Washington, D.C.—would soon be boxed up and shipped to the salt mines of Western Pennsylvania.
“We knew right away that we had to do something, and that we had to act quickly,” said Paul Conway, a U-M School of Information professor. “When a government agency sends materials to their remote storage, they generally become inaccessible, which would have been a devastating loss for a number of reasons.”
Conway had already been working with Kelly Askew, U-M professor of anthropology and Afroamerican and African studies, on a project to digitize a small selection of “Music Time in Africa” shows—an effort that was made possible by a long-standing partnership with VOA, and funding from various U-M sources, including the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, the African Studies Center, the Office of the Provost and the Mcubed grant program.
After learning about the potential fate of the analog archive, Conway and Askew immediately began to search for funding and make a plan that would change their goal of digitizing just 30 shows to 900. This would involve sorting through and transferring nearly 10,000 original reel-to-reel tapes, cassette tapes and records to U-M. The archive also included additional related materials such as original scripts, fan mail, scrapbooks, posters and other ephemera.
As part of a long-term loan agreement that they worked out with the VOA, along with funding secured from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the archive would be moved to the U-M Library’s Special Collections Research Center with a condition: that the material be digitized and made available online to the broadest audience possible.
Read more about the digitizing efforts by Conway, Askew and several U-M School of Information students, and the man behind the “Music Time in Africa” program, Leo Sarkisian.