Over the years, Swarthmore College has played host to thousands of performances and incubated a thriving arts community. Since 2013, the Underhill Library staff has been on a unique mission of archiving decades of that community's history.
Performing Arts Librarian and Head of Underhill Library, Donna Fournier, began the archiving project as a way to preserve the legacy of the performing arts at the college spanning back nearly eight decades. Fournier and her team deal with a variety of audio and visual materials such as reel-to-reel tapes, DAT tapes, audio cassettes, and VHS tapes. Sometimes identifying recordings can be an arduous process. Fournier must decipher labels on recordings with illegible handwriting, written in confusing shorthand, making it difficult to ascertain the recording’s origin. While the process of digitizing recordings can be tedious, Fournier and her staff are often amazed by what they find. One such discovery was an audio cassette that Fournier found in the library’s collection, a performance by Jerry and Susan Reed at the Swarthmore Folk Festival dating all the way back to 1948.
Audio and video recordings aren’t the only materials the library staff organizes for the archives. Concert programs, posters, and even articles in the independent student newspaper The Phoenix are some of the digitized print materials marked for preservation. Gregory Boatman ‘23, a senior that has worked with Fournier for the last four years, recalls a particularly interesting observation he made while scanning senior papers into the archive. He noticed that papers written in the 70s tended to focus on composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. As he worked his way through the 80s and into the 90s, the topics of the papers became far more diverse and interdisciplinary, which reflects the music department’s shift towards a more expansive perspective on musicology and music education.
What truly makes the project special is the sense of community behind it. Fournier began working at Swarthmore in 2005, and has had the pleasure of getting to know many performing arts students over the years. Seeing students that she’s built relationships with in these recordings allows her to reminisce on her early days at the college, and reminds her of the importance of the project. Additionally, Fournier’s work has given her the opportunity to speak with alumni who attended Swarthmore long before her time at Underhill. Adam Payne ‘91, member of Swarthmore’s oldest a cappella group Sixteen Feet, contacted Donna to see if Swarthmore had any concert recordings that he could access for their reunion. He was thrilled to learn that there were more than twenty, remarking to Donna, "I am at a loss for words to express my gratitude for your help in posting those audio and video files of Sixteen Feet. It means the world to me to be able to relive some wonderful moments and see some old friends."
Fournier and her team will always have more work to do. Office cleanouts, ongoing concerts, and the unique challenge of finding pandemic-era performances provide a never ending stream of material to organize, digitize, and archive. Her team is also working towards making the archive easily discoverable to the greater Swarthmore community, using XML code to add it to the Tri-College Libraries website. For now, any inquiries or requests can be made directly to Donna Fournier (firstname.lastname@example.org).