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.

Why does it take so long to digitize everything?

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to, oh, let’s say, seven months ago.

On the night of Sept. 2, 2018, the National Museum of Brazil was engulfed in flames.  Several historical an irreplaceable artifacts that called the museum home were lost forever.  The world mourned such a massive loss of our civilization’s rich history.  The tragedy sparked concern for other historical artifacts and ways to make sure that something like this never happened again.

Right after the devastation, the idea of preserving historical artifacts through digitization was brought up.  It certainly didn’t go unnoticed by our students here at UMD especially with all of the artifacts and collections stored in our very own Special Collections at Hornbake.

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Our Digitization Services room located in Hornbake. (Photo courtesy of http://www.lib.umd.edu/dss/services/digitization.)

Here’s the thing: the university has been very active in trying to preserve the histories of both the school and the state of Maryland for many years.  After all, the university suffered a similar fate 107 years ago.

So why aren’t we trying to digitize our archival materials faster?  We don’t know what will happen at any given time.  So… what’s the hold-up?  

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Katherine Anne Porter Correspondence Project: An Introduction

“She always kept things secret in such a public way.”

Katherine Anne Porter, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (1930)

        Katherine Anne Porter’s description of Cornelia, daughter of the titular Granny Weatherall, is apt considering the tensions between Porter’s own private and public personas. Porter, too, was a secretly-public person – she was forthcoming with information about her life and experience, though she sometimes elaborated on the facts, exaggerating details or creating new information.  The reality of her life became mysterious, as Callie Russell Porter became the Katherine Anne Porter who captivated the literary communities of which she was a part. In the margins of Katherine Anne’s books in Hornbake Library’s Porter Room, there are even notes from Katherine Anne’s sister, Gay, that call attention to the points at which Katherine Anne’s stories depart from or obscure the source material of her own life.


Katherine Anne Porter with hair down in garden, Mixcoac, Mexico. Back inscription: “Ophelia in Mixcoac, March 1931.”
Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries
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Digital projects using archives

#BlackLivesMatter   #SayHerName   #BringBackOurGirls   #ICANTBREATHE

Internet activism has changed the national conversation and must be taken seriously. Social media is reshaping how scholars study social movements. Is there an opportunity for archival collections to support these conversations on race and digital social justice activism? Can archival primary source materials that weren’t born digital be more effectively used alongside born-digital records in data analysis and scholarship? This semester members from the AADHum Project Team, along with our Teaching and Learning Librarian and Labor History Archivist, explored these questions to gain a broader sense of how primary resources support projects in the digital humanities.

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