Sounds of the Silent Majority: Digitizing the Recordings of Political Culture in the Spiro T. Agnew Papers

“In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Rhetoric like this, found scattered throughout the hundreds of speeches performed by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew illustrates the quotable, and sometimes comedic, aspects of the nation’s most vocal Vice President. As a man of controversy and alliteration, Vice President Agnew’s voice called out to the theoretical “Silent Majority” from 1968 to 1973 to speak up about their opinions opposing “corrupted” national news media and supporting President Richard Nixon’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War among other social and political topics.

The audio recordings after being returned from vendor.
Photo by Jen Piegols.

In October 2018, Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) began a twelve month project to digitize, describe, and make accessible 559 audio recordings (407 ¼” open real tapes and 152 cassette tapes) found in the Spiro T. Agnew papers . With the support of a Council on Library and Information Sources (CLIR) Recordings at Risk grant, SCUA has added approximately 253 hours of recorded speeches, press conferences, broadcasts, and constituent-created content to the University Libraries’ Digital Collections.

Starting in 1977, Agnew began donating his personal collection of over 500 linear feet of materials to the University of Maryland Libraries. Included in those materials, were 1,368 audiotapes spanning Agnew’s time as Governor of Maryland, the 39th Vice President of the United States, and his post-resignation career. Identified as preservation concerns and potentially high- use items, the audio recordings became a digitization priority for the University Libraries. In 2017, SCUA unit ran a pilot digitization program converting 173 of the tapes to digital recordings and making them accessible to patrons visiting the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library. In 2018, curators identified an additional 559 audio recordings within the Spiro T. Agnew papers to be digitized and made accessible to researchers.

Obtaining funds and selecting recordings was only the beginning. In November and December 2018, the 559 open reels and cassette tapes were pulled from various boxes in the Spiro T. Agnew papers. This process included verifying metadata for the materials confirming the correct material was pulled. The reels and tapes were then packed in shipping boxes and prepared for shipment to the vendor. About 40 of the open reels were previously identified as mold risks and were packaged separately with new containers for their return. The digitization vendor baked the tapes to prevent further mold damage as part of their work. We received our newly created digital files and physical materials in April. The files were then checked by staff in our Digital Conversion and Media Reformatting Lab to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the files. At that time, issues with speed, pitch, and volume were identified.

From June through August, I listened to each of the 559 audio recordings to create an accurate and searchable title and a description that informed researchers of what kind of topics were addressed during that recording. Some of the recordings were short, while others were as long as 90 minutes. While this process was tedious, all our newly digitized recordings now have unique and searchable titles and descriptions that will allow researchers to discover these material and learn more about the political climate between 1969 and 1973.

Notes made while listening to the recordings.
Photo by Jen Piegols.

Once the metadata was complete and reviewed by our metadata librarian, the files were ingested to University Libraries’ Digital Collections and the finding aid to the collection was updated. Researchers now have access to these recordings online. Recordings with copyright protection are available for education use only on campus at the University of Maryland.

Topics of these recordings range from

  • the Vietnam War
  • urban renewal plans
  • dissent on college campuses
  • the flights of Apollo 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, and 14
  • revenue sharing plans
  • the 1968, 1970, and 1972 campaigns
  • the SALT talks
  • foreign relations between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Soviet China
  • and many other political and social issues.

The recordings also demonstrate the support Agnew received from constituents, including homemade songs and voice recordings praising the Vice President for his integrity and candor.

The breadth of information that these recordings hold are not only valuable to Vice Presidential scholars and Agnew supporters, but for anyone interested in learning about the United States at the turn of the decade.

More information about the CLIR grant program, made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


Post by Jennifer Piegols, Special Collections Services Specialist.

Jen Piegols graduated in May 2019 with her MLIS from the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. She works in the State of Maryland and Historical Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives, and is assisting with the digitization of the collections’ unique audio recordings.

New Exhibit Celebrating Maryland Public Television’s 50th Anniversary Now on Display in the Maryland Room Gallery

Special Collections in Mass Media & Culture is pleased to announce the exhibit “Made Possible By Viewers Like You: Maryland Public Television Turns 50” is now on display in the Maryland Room Gallery at Hornbake Library through July 2020. It celebrates the milestone anniversary of Maryland’s only statewide TV broadcaster, and highlights the fruitful partnership between MPT and UMD Libraries. 

The exhibit includes artifacts and documents from 1969 to the present, including the very first Program Journal from 1969, an original script from the 1977 production “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, a GoPro camera smashed during a Motorweek shoot, a trophy case filled with Emmys® and other prestigious awards, and dozens of videos featuring segments from some of their best-known programs. 

Nothing in the exhibit would have survived if MPT hadn’t taken great care to preserve their rich and unique history. Unlike most other TV stations—commercial and noncommercial alike—MPT has dedicated the resources to maintain an archive both at its Owings Mills headquarters and at the University of Maryland.  After UMD Libraries established the National Public Broadcasting Archives in 1990, MPT was one of the first organizations to begin depositing print and audiovisual materials. The latter presents particular challenges because simply saving AV materials isn’t enough; due to the obsolescence of playback machines and deterioration of master copies, videotapes must be migrated to modern formats in order to ensure the content remains accessible. This is a timely and expensive process. 

Fortunately, efforts to preserve public broadcasting in the U.S. have risen dramatically, thanks in large part to the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), which just announced the availability of over 50,000 historic public media programs available in the Online Reading Room (ORR). When the AAPB launched in 2013, MPT immediately answered the call to submit programs for digitization, sending over 1500 tapes during the first phase of the project. Since then, MPT and SCUA have continued to work together to digitize their AV holdings at Hornbake Library, which are comprised of Umatic, betacam, VHS, 1” and ¾” tapes and 16mm film. As of fall 2019, nearly 700 programs have been reformatted and are steadily being uploaded into Digital Collections. The newly-established Maryland Public Television Preservation Fund is designed to support this important work well into the future. 

Visit the Maryland Room Gallery and find out how MPT has become a national leader in public television and a treasured resource for the state. Hours vary by semester, check current hours online


Post by Laura Schnitker | Ethnomusicologist, Audiovisual Archivist, and Curator of Mass Media & Culture in Special Collections and University Archives at University of Maryland Libraries

Making the case with Case Maker

Studying primary sources allows us to discover information about the past. A primary source might be anything from correspondence to photographs to newspapers and diaries. Primary sources are extremely useful not just for projects, but provide us a way to understand the history more deeply and personally from those that came before us.

Casemaker website homepageWhen visitors come into the Maryland Room, they use primary sources to help with their research projects.  Researchers pour over material, thinking critically about what the material is and what answers it can provide. Critical thinking and inquiry are crucial tools when conducting a research project that involves archival material and primary sources.

These sophisticated research skills are being introduced to children earlier than ever. Case Maker is one of the tools educators can use to help middle school students begin to develop their critical thinking skills. Continue reading

New Exhibit for Sexual Assault Awareness Month

This blog post and its accompanying exhibit in the main lobby of McKeldin Library chronicle the ongoing student activism at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) to create a culture that actively works to prevent power-based violence and support survivors of sexual assault.

Though sexual assault was not part of the public discourse at UMD prior to the 1970s, examples from the 1950s and 1960s highlight how sexual assault and rape culture impacted student life. This Associated Women Students Revised Dress Code from 1968 highlights the way that women were seen as responsible for the treatment they received based on their personal appearance, and how accepted standards of behavior based on gender roles often reinforced and obscured rape culture. Strict limitations on women’s conduct and dress connect to an ideal of purity and serve to prevent women from having sexual contact before marriage. Women were often blamed for any unwanted contact if they did not abide by these codes. Ideas like these often reinforce the idea that rape is result of the behavior or appearance of the victim, rather than the actions of the perpetrator. It is also important to note that these stark distinctions between men and women can often erase the fact that a person of any gender can be sexually assaulted.

Report from the Association of Women Students
Association of Women Students — Reports, 1954-1964. Division of Student Affairs records, 5.1.4. Special Collections and University Archives. University of Maryland Libraries.
Continue reading

Offensive content in our collections

Since the revelation of Governor Ralph Northam’s offensive yearbook photos a few weeks ago, many have taken time to dig into their own University’s historical yearbooks to see if they also contained offensive and racist imagery. Due to libraries’ efforts to provide free and publicly accessible digital versions of material online, it didn’t take researchers long to find these histories in their alma mater’s past.

Academic librarians are actively communicating with each other, seeking advice so that we foster access to these materials, and the offensive language and imagery, in responsible ways. Historical material can contain images and language that illustrates racist or hateful attitudes toward people of color, people identifying as LBGTQ, people with disabilities or people from other marginalized communities. These images and language are offensive, and sometimes traumatizing, especially for those who have experienced violence, acts of hate, or microagressions in their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Here at the University of Maryland, our librarians believe in the importance of facilitating the dissemination of knowledge and information, providing a broad view of the University’s history. We seek to be transparent about our digitization choices and practices. Digitization has allowed increased access and discovery of our collections and our campus’ history.  It is not our wish to hide anything from our collections. We know offensive material is there, and we want these records to be to used for research. Our collections enable all of us to engage in more truthful conversations about this history.

We encourage you to use our online collections or to visit us in person to see material that is not yet available online.

Navigating Archival Collections

As we prepare to say goodbye to ArchivesUM, we look toward the future and how much better searching will be using our new Archival Collections database. Our previous blog post explored why we decided to adopt a new database for managing our finding aids. This post will provide tips for successful navigation within the new Archival Collections database.

Welcome to Archival Collections. The homepage provides some background on what users can expect to find using this search and helpful tips on how to request desired material for use.

Archival collections homepage
Archival collections homepage

Searching is super simple and results to keyword searches much improved. Advanced search is already included on the main page, but simple keyword search will yield great results.

On the results page, you will see individual items, folders, digital material or collections, related to your search term. Use the filters on the right hand side of the screen to limit your results by date, type or choose another filter. For more information or to find answers to frequently asked questions, visit our Archival Collections help page.

Archival Collections search results page
Archival Collections search results page

Once you find something that you would like to view, click the “Request” button in the top right column of the item record to view the box, and click “Request” again to import the information into your Special Collections Account.

Archival Collections item page
Archival Collections item page
Archival Collections box list page
Archival Collections box list page

Returning users will be prompted to login. If you are a new user, you will need to set up an account.

Special Collections Account login screen
Special Collections Account login screen

Once you have imported everything into your account, you will select the first group of up to 15 items or boxes that you would like to view in our reading room and schedule the date of your visit. Material can be requested on site, but it is recommended that you request material in advance of your visit in case it needs to be pre-screened or retrieved from Severn Library. Material can be placed on hold and quickly retrieved upon your arrival, allowing you to get right to your research.

Special Collections Account unsubmitted requests screen
Special Collections Account unsubmitted requests screen

For more information about any of these topics visit our Archival Collections help page.