About the Archive

The PEN America Digital Archive dates back to 1966, resonating with the voices of literary luminaries; Nobel Prize winners in literature, economics, science, and peace; social reformers; philosophers; and political and artistic revolutionaries whose work, ideas, and actions explored and helped frame the most pressing issues of our time. Comprised of more than 1500 hours of audio and video recordings, the collection provides a unique historical perspective on the way Americans and American culture engaged, and at times disengaged, with the outside world during pivotal moments in history: the Cold War, the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam War, the Iranian Cultural Revolution and hostage crisis, the AIDS epidemic, the post-Communist decade, and September 11.  Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Allen Ginsberg are just a few of the icons and iconoclasts captured in the PEN America Digital Archive.

History of the Archive

The PEN America Digital Archive project began with a brawl. Not a Norman Mailer, Rip Torn brawl with head punches and savaged ears, but a brawl over the one of the most basic tenets of archives everywhere: Access.

Sold to Princeton in 1994 the PEN America Archive dates back to 1921—the year PEN International was founded, just a year before the birth of PEN America. Among paper documents, VHS tapes, audiocassettes, photographs, and magnetic reels, the physical collection includes personal correspondence and speeches by Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, H.G. Wells, and more. The collection was processed and catalogued in a  Finding Aid by  Princeton University’s Rare Books & Special Collections.

In preparation for the organization’s 90th anniversary celebration, PEN America staff hoped to gather materials from the archive that would help tell the story of PEN America’s evolution from literary supper club to global advocacy organization and anchor of the literary community. But when we traveled to Princeton to review the materials, to our surprise, we were denied access by the curator. A loud argument ensued. The recordings, we learned, had been deemed at-risk and were not available to the public in any capacity. One spin through a player, even for digitization purposes, could have caused irreparable damage that would have rendered a recording unusable forever.

What had begun as a curious adventure to explore our past and community at that moment turned into a mission. In 2012, PEN America received a planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to catalog and assess the physical condition of materials and develop a plan digitize the most at-risk resources. We hired Archives, Preservation, and Records Management Specialist Lisa Sisco, who found that a staggering 93 percent of the materials in PEN America’s archive was assessed to have significant cultural and/or scholarly value, but that 61 percent—including all of the audio and video recordings housed at Princeton—was at high risk of being lost due to physical deterioration or obsolescence.

In 2014, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded PEN America a generous grant to digitize, preserve, and make available for free online this entire collection of audio and video recordings. Working with staff, archivists, web developers, designers, and more over nearly three years, PEN America developed a comprehensive strategy to implement the creative search platform you see here today, bringing to the surface this remarkable material.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.