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Syracuse University and The King Center announce The King Center Audio and Visual Digitization Project

November 16, 2011

Scott McDowell
(212) 826-1449

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (The King Center) and Syracuse University announce The King Center Audio and Visual Digitization Project, a collaboration that will ensure that the slain civil rights leader’s legacy will be preserved for generations to come. Working with the Atlanta-based King Center, SU will preserve and digitize some 3,500 hours of audio and video footage of King. 

“I am pleased to announce that The King Center has joined with Syracuse University for The King Center Audio and Visual Digitization Project,” says Martin Luther King III, president and CEO of the center. “This endeavor will enable people to see and hear my father deliver his message as he did more than 50 years ago, and preserve it for generations to come. With the generous support and encouragement of my dear friends Sam and Carol Nappi, and the technical expertise of the University, we are continuing to fulfill the mission of The King Center as the official living memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and ensuring that his work toward freedom, justice and equality is as relevant today as ever.” 

The King Center archive is the largest repository of primary source material on King and America’s civil rights movement in the world. Its collections include footage that few, including some members of the King family, have ever seen or heard. The center houses a number of unique holdings, like raw footage from various productions over the years. A 16 mm film of King speaking in Syracuse in July 1961 was also discovered. The speech explores many of the themes that would emerge in his landmark 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. The film at The King Center appears to be the only extant copy. There are also a large number of unlabeled reels and canisters that may contain undiscovered footage. 

To execute the project with the technical expertise of the Syracuse University Library, SU trustee Sam Nappi and his wife, Carol, have given their financial support to realize this venture.  “This project is very special to me and Carol. It is a humbling experience to help preserve the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and empower The King Center to extend its mission to a new generation. It is also gratifying to join with my friend, Martin Luther King III, and Syracuse University to exclusively digitize and preserve historic audio and film of Dr. and Mrs. King,” says Sam Nappi, who is also a King Center trustee.

Challenges always present themselves in the preservation of historical media of the kind housed at The King Center, established by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, in 1968. At almost 50 years old, even under the best care, excessive exposure to light, humidity and inconsistent temperature levels can be factors that contribute to the degradation of original media materials. The SU campus is home to the Belfer Audio Archive, now the fourth largest sound archive in the United States. The specially designed, climate-controlled facility makes SU a leader in the preservation of historical recorded sound. 

The partnership was set in motion during an April meeting when Martin Luther King III and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young visited the SU campus. It was then that Suzanne Thorin, dean of libraries and University librarian, and Sean Quimby, senior director of the Special Collections Research Center , introduced the guests to some of the library’s most valued possessions, including letters written by Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X. They also played an audio file of veteran journalist Mike Wallace interviewing King. The conversation shifted very quickly to the world of media preservation. 

The Nappis’ gift will be used to construct and staff a moving-image preservation laboratory in SU Library. Quimby will lead the three-year project and supervise a team that includes a media archivist, digitization technicians and student interns. According to Quimby, “We intend to build upon our existing expertise in preserving and digitizing historical sound recordings.” The library’s Belfer Audio Archive is among the nation’s pre-eminent sound archives and pioneered the preservation and digitization of Edison wax cylinders. The library team will catalog, repair and digitize a wide array of media, including reel-to-reel audiotape, 16 and 35 mm film, and a variety of obsolete video formats, for listening and viewing at The King Center. 

"There is a proud tradition of inclusiveness and social justice at Syracuse University," says Thorin. "Our partnership with The King Center honors that tradition. I am excited that our library has been selected for such an important task." 

The Special Collections Research Center of Syracuse University Library collects primary source material in a variety of media, including manuscript, print, illustration, photography, recorded sound and moving image, which support and enhance research and scholarship. Collections range in date from cuneiform tablets dating to 2000 BC to the “born-digital.” 

The King Center envisions a world where the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., are embraced by men and women of all colors and creeds, and regardless of culture or political philosophy. It is devoted to ensuring that his work toward freedom, justice and equality continues in the 21st century. Realizing that dream will require a new generation of change makers devoted to principles of nonviolence and personal empowerment, as well leaders from across sectors who believe, as King did, that poverty, injustice and war must be rendered obsolete.

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