Over the course of the past year we have undertaken some ambitious digitization projects, one of which involved working with the Audio Preservation Services (APS) at Harvard Library, to digitize some treasures from our newly processed audiotape collections. The engineers who do the reformatting gain unique insights into the collections and the lives that are documented within them. On one of my trips to deliver more materials, I met with Darron Burke, an audio engineer at APS. We got to talking about the collections. His enthusiasm for the materials and his work was inspiring. He agreed to write down a few thoughts, which we share with you below.
—Joanne Donovan, Archivist for Audiovisual and Photograph Collections
I tell my friends that while digitizing tapes for the Schlesinger Library, I've been getting a private education in women’s studies, at Harvard. I say this as a joke, but in reality, it is the truth. In my work at Harvard Library APS, I listen to tapes in real time as I transfer them from analog to digital. I work in a quiet setting, alone. A perfect place for contemplation. It’s an ideal spot for listening, and I am a lucky person. Over the past few years, I have digitized hundreds of hours of speeches, radio broadcasts, oral history projects, and personal interviews with women from both sides of the aisle and covering a wide spectrum of ideas. Sometimes I wonder who will be the next person to listen to the files I’m making, and whether they will listen as intently as I do. I might be the only person alive to have listened to more than 26 hours of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin straight in a row. It was heavy, it “did my head in” for a couple of days. I had to decompress, but it led to more questions, and I found myself doing research off the clock. I’m discovering these people, hearing their stories—and I want to know more.
In early to mid-2013, I digitized a collection of unedited personal interviews: subjects for the documentary film The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. I listened to about 40 hours of “Rosie” interviews with the real women who were hired by US industry and manufacturing to help with the war effort during World War II. In this batch of tapes is a great wealth of knowledge about industry, shipbuilding, aircraft construction, and marginalized ethnic groups in the years leading up to and into the war. It is a story of black history and women’s struggles to earn equal pay and to work how and when they want.
Lyn Childs, an African American welder and machinist, tells with a great sense of humor how she received her training. She also shares a story about how she confronts a man she refers to as a “big bully” on behalf of an abused worker. The bully, overseeing a group of Filipino men who are forced to haul a dangerously heavy piece of equipment down a stairway into a ship’s hold using a frail rope system, kicks and yells at a Filipino man who has fallen. Lyn, whose temper boils over witnessing this inhumane treatment, fires up her welding torch and directs the flame “at his belly,” telling him to stop, and she verbally gives him a lesson in humanity. She is shocked at her own actions. The man backs down. After the incident the ship’s horn cracks with the voice of the colonel: “Lyn Childs to the office immediately.” She goes—and as she walks, she finds that her fellow workers follow her. She thought she would lose her job. But the outcome of the meeting in the colonel’s office is a surprise: the bully breaks down, sobbing. He apologizes, saying that he was instructed to treat the Filipino men as animals; he knew no better, and he would never treat another man like that again. The colonel shrugs and sends them all back to work. (Listen to audio recording of Lyn Childs. RealPlayer required; click here to download player.)
I was sad to learn that many of the women lost their jobs immediately after the war without warning and were not offered follow-up positions. Many of the women interviewed talk about lost contact with their coworker friends from the line. It was an abrupt end to a time when the women reported feeling a sense of liberation, purpose, and kinship.
The subjects covered by the other women in their interviews are far-ranging and could bear more attention by American workers and citizens. The history contained in their words is a glimpse into how we got where we are today. There is a lot to learn, and there is something for everyone.