In the 1960s, the Navajo Culture Center of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity (ONEO) turned to technology to preserve the oral histories of the Navajo people. Over the course of the next decade, the center recorded thousands of hours of oral histories, logging stories, songs and details about life as experienced by many Navajo elders. But while the preservation effort documented priceless details for generations to come, keeping the stories safe is harder—and more expensive—than it sounds.
Now, the Navajo Nation Library is looking for help to digitally preserve thousands of hours of oral histories that were once thought lost to the world, Claire Caulfield reports for Cronkite News.
In the late 1970s, the library first acquired ONEO's collection after it was discovered in a jail cell. The delicate audio recordings were done with reel-to-reel tape, and in an effort to better preserve the audio, the library received federal funding to start transferring reels into hundreds of cassette tapes. But funding for the project ran out long before the entire collection could be transferred, and then the tapes that were created were destroyed decades later during a 1998 fire at the Diné College Shiprock Campus where they were kept, the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education reported at the time.
“We don’t even know everything that was recorded in the ’60s—there are thousands of hours and, as far as we know, everyone originally interviewed is now gone,” Navajo Nation Librarian Irving Nelson tells Caulfield. “It’s incredibly exciting. I don’t…fully know where to start when explaining the journey, of this oral history.”
Still, the fate of the Navajo National Library’s oral history collection is fraught. With only the fragile original tapes sealed away for their own protection in fireproof containers, their contents were never fully catalogued or made widely available to those interested in hearing the voices they contain.
Back in 2007, the library had the surviving tapes assessed, and luckily they were still viable. But even though they have been kept in sealed containers in filing cabinets for years, there is still a time limit before the original audio tapes will get too old to transfer to a digital format.
"We need to get this collection digitized before it turns to dust," Nelson tells Smithsonian.com. "We had another collection with the Navajo Land Claims collection and it just turned into dust. It got too brittle."
The library is currently petitioning the Navajo Nation Council for $230,520 to digitize the oral history collection. That would cover the year-long process of transferring the audio tapes into a digital format as well as cataloguing the collection so that historians will finally know for sure what information the tapes contain in addition to preserving language and dialects for future study. While the library is considering turning to other grants to preserve the tapes if necessary, Nelson says that the library wants the funding to come from the Navajo Nation Council because he says it would allow the library to maintain control over how the tapes are preserved and presented.
"These tapes contain culturally sensitive materials," Nelson says. "We'd like to maintain sovereignty over them."
While securing funding for projects like this can take time, Nelson hopes that it won't take too long this time, considering how delicate the original tapes are, and how fast the clock is ticking before they could become too old to be transferred—not to mention his personal stake in the project.
"I've been with the library for 40 years, and I'm planning on retiring in five years," Nelson says. "I'd like to see this happen before I retire."