Media Preservation Project for Archives of PEN American Center

The Library congratulates PEN American Center on its successful $300,000 grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Humanities Collections and Reference Resources, in support of PEN’s two-year project, “Digital Archive of Free Expression.” Approved in March, this project aims to preserve and digitize approximately 1,200 hours of PEN American Center audio/video media, including nearly all of the media in the PEN archives at Princeton (C0760) and a significant portion of that still held by PEN itself. For the past twenty years, the Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, has served as the archival repository for PEN American Center, which was founded in 1922, with offices in New York City. PEN American Center ( is the largest and most influential of 144 PEN Centers worldwide. It is dedicated to freedom of expression and a belief that the free exchange of information and ideas is a universal human right and essential to a free and open society. The PEN archives contain 282 cartons and boxes of historical materials, 1922-2008, and are complemented by PEN-related holdings in the papers of Edmund Keeley, Mario Vargas Llosa, and other authors, editors, and translators in the Manuscripts Division.

The PEN archives include about 30 boxes of audiovisual materials at Princeton, containing approximately 500 reel-to-reel audiotapes, film, video cassettes, audio cassettes, and other formats that date from 1966 to 1994. The archives document award ceremonies, conferences, dinners and receptions, panels and symposia, press conferences, programs, and radio and television programs. Among those who have taken part in the World Voices Festivals and whose voices are captured in PEN’s collection are Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Vladimir Sorokin, Umberto Eco, Annie Proulx, Ian McEwan, Mario Vargas Llosa, Michael Ondaatje, and Nobel Laureates Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and Orhan Pamuk. Of particular interest are addresses, interviews, and conversations involving important authors, such as Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie, Grace Paley, Margaret Mead, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Heinrich Böll, and Chinua Achebe. Captured here are the candid thoughts of authors in public discourse, speaking spontaneously or in lively discussions, on subjects of vital interest to authors.

People are often surprised to learn that tape recordings, floppy disks, and other forms of modern information technology are far more endangered than writing materials that are thousands of years old. Software and hardware obsolescence are major problems for born-digital files, and audiovisual materials are at great risk due to the impermanence and physical deterioration of the media, complicated by a lack of playback equipment and technical documentation. Content can be unrecoverable without professional reformatting, which is costly. Some years ago, the Preservation Office surveyed archival collection containing media and found that the Manuscripts Division has hundreds of such collections. Old media needs to be remastered before it can be safely used.

The Library experimented several years ago with outsourcing preservation of a small sampling of PEN media. But given the large quantity of media in the PEN Archives, external support was needed for staff and contractual services. The present NEH-supported project is an outgrowth of conversations between PEN American Center and the Princeton University Library, as well as a pilot project for PEN funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Once remastered, the Library will house copies of the digitized files and the original source materials already in the collection, as well as others in PEN’s possession that are part of the overall digitization project. As part of the project, an archivist will analyze the intellectual content of the media in order to produce searchable metadata to improve access.

The Library will store the original media, after professional remastering at the Media Preserve, in the Library’s media vaults at its ReCAP storage facility; incorporate links to the online digital files and metadata PEN compiled during the digitization project into the Library’s online finding aid for the PEN Archives, as well as into online discovery tools; offer archival and technical expertise and advice as needed to PEN American Center. Princeton will be able to use these archival digital copies and derivatives for scholarly dissemination, including from patron photoduplication orders to website content. The principal goal of the initial project is for the digital files to reside on PEN’s proposed website and be made accessible via links through Princeton’s finding aid and other online resources, when possible. Princeton is committed to strengthening and building upon this partnership and collaboration with PEN American Center and invites PEN to continue to send to the Princeton University Library all PEN archival records of enduring value.

A detailed finding aid for the Archives of PEN American Center is available online. For more information, contact Public Services at

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