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Arts & Culture

UNT library receives grant to digitize recordings from The Black Academy of Arts and Letters

Erykah Badu performing at TBAAL in 2008, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters
The Black Academy of Arts and Letters
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Erykah Badu performing at TBAAL, 2008

UNT received a federal grant to digitally preserve audio and video recordings from the archive of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, representing more than 40 years of Black cultural expression.

The grant, totaling $126,989 from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission, will fund the library's efforts to digitize over 1,800 pieces of archival media from the TBAAL archive. The recordings will be publicly available to stream through the Portal to Texas History.

Works by artists Erykah Badu, Kirk Franklin, Dee Dee Warwick, Jennifer Holliday, and Margaret Walker are among those proposed for digitization.

The two-year project is already underway and projected to be completed by summer 2023.

"These are unique recordings," Head of Special Collections Morgan Gieringer said. "They don't exist anywhere else. They only exist in this collection."

Gieringer highlighted the importance of archiving the works of marginalized artists.

"The larger goal that we're working towards is to diversify the content of the Portal to Texas History. Because what we're seeing now is sort of the repercussions of the very limited amount of collecting that was done to document the history of communities of color."

To digitize the work, library staff and students view each recording and add detailed descriptive metadata to make each recording easily searchable.

"For some time, archivists have been aware of this gap in collecting," Gieringer said of the limited documentation of communities of color. "But now what we're seeing is also there's a gap in what's being digitized."

"When people are searching in the Portal to Texas History, we want to provide a representative sample of primary source materials. Very few people have the resources to travel across the country to come here to look at this archive. We're making a diverse array of materials accessible," Gieringer said.

The recordings UNT is digitizing are particularly at risk due to their age and the fragility of the media containers. Magnetic tape media such as VHS, BetaCam and audio cassette tapes have a life expectancy of 10-30 years, and many recordings in the TBAAL archive are 40 or more years old.

"In 2014, the libraries officially became the custodian of the Black Academy's archives. And that happened through Curtis King, who is the director and founder of TBAAL, and had a lot of materials he had saved through the course of TBAAL's history. He invited me to come and take a look at the archives, and I was absolutely astounded by everything that I saw," Gieringer said.

Gieringer hopes that those that view the archive come to appreciate the work TBAAL and King have done.

"They have just been a powerhouse of performance art and visual art and literary arts," Gieringer said. "I think they are just deserving of, you know, such a greater level of recognition."

"I'm hoping that people will get excited and say, 'Gosh, I've never seen James Baldwin's Amen Corner. I'm going to go online and watch it right now'," Gieringer said. "I also think this collection is going to play an important role in the study of performing arts and the role of black artists."

The recordings that have already been digitized can be viewed at The Portal to Texas History.