Harvard College Library Digitizes Iranian Oral History Interviews

Iranian Oral History Project site

A screenshot from the Harvard Iranian Oral History Project site. The result of a multi-year digitization effort, the site offers scholars access to hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of pages of transcripts.

March 20, 2009 - Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Habib Ladjevardi, MBA '63, while working as a research associate at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, launched the Iranian Oral History Project (IOHP) to preserve eyewitness accounts of the upheaval before they were lost. After nearly three decades, however, the recordings are in increasingly fragile condition.

To preserve the physical quality of the material, and make it available world-wide, the Harvard College Library in 2003 began digitizing some of the more than 700 cassette tapes and thousands of transcript pages, and created the Harvard Iranian Oral History Project Web site. To date, 118 of the 134 interviews conducted as part of the project have been digitized, and are freely available to scholars on the site, which includes searchable indices of the interviews as well as background on the project itself.

"One of the most significant events in Iranian history was the overthrow of the monarchy and the rise of the Islamic republic in 1979," Ladjevardi said. "Ned Keenan, then Dean of the Graduate School of FAS, suggested the idea for this project, because some of the stories and some of the memories regarding what happened, and how it happened, would be lost if we didn't talk to and record people who had been eyewitnesses or who had reliable second-hand accounts."

While the IOHP is widely considered the most comprehensive collection of eyewitness reports on the revolution, it's one many scholars may not be aware of, said Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library, where the material is held. Digitization and the project Web site, she said, allows the College Library to disseminate the material to a world-wide audience, and ensure the material is preserved for future generations.

"Houghton is not particularly known for contemporary Persian history," Morris said. "However, as part of a project to digitize the finding aids for all manuscript collections at Houghton, several years ago we put the finding aid for this collection online, and we have since seen much more use of the collection."

Given the condition of the tapes - some of which are more than two decades old - Morris believes the digitization was of critical importance, and will ultimately allow scholars to make wider use of a fascinating resource.

"Magnetic media are very fragile, much more so than paper," she said. "Even though they make up a relatively small proportion of what we have in the collection, it is the video and audio tapes we worry most about, because we know they get brittle with time. We have a lot of tapes in our collections that people aren't allowed to listen to because they haven't been reformatted, and we don't want to risk damage to the material."

Initially funded with a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the IOHP began in 1981, when Ladjevardi and several other researchers began recording interviews with foreign diplomats, nationalist leaders, members of the Islamic movement and leaders of various Iranian political parties about the revolution. Over the next 19 years, with more than $1 million in funding from over 100 foundations, corporations and individuals, the project expanded to include more than 130 interviews, and thousands of pages of written transcript.

Sponsored by the Middle Eastern Division of Widener Collection Development, the digitization of the IOHP material began in 2007, and involved both HCL Imaging Services staff and Loeb Music Library's Audio Preservation Studio. Staff from the Office of Information Services (OIS) also worked on the project, creating a database for the digitized materials.

"Due to the large number of tapes and the importance of the historical era - both for the Middle East and the world at large - the IOHP offers substantial and unique primary source documentation of supreme historical importance," said Virginia Danielson, the Richard F. French Librarian of the Loeb Music Library. "The material also illustrates the importance of audio preservation services to libraries. The tapes were made on inexpensive and ubiquitous equipment and material: consumer cassette players and tape. After exploring numerous consumer-based options for "preservation" that resulted in unclear, difficult-to-understand results of uncertain longevity, Habib Ladjevardi ultimately chose Harvard and APS as home for his collection because of the clarity our engineers could produce using professional staff and equipment, and the longevity offered by Harvard's Digital Repository Service. The results he and his colleagues heard when using the tapes convinced him of the value of professional audio preservation. The research completed by Ladjevardi and other scholars using this valuable material is a credit to Dave Ackerman and the APS staff."

From the very beginning, Ladjevardi said, his intent was to see the material and its inimitable perspective on the tumultuous days of leading up to the revolution, preserved for future scholars.

 "Whether they were digitized or in some other form, the idea from the beginning was always to have the interviews preserved somehow," he said. "I can remember going to Iran as a doctoral student to look for a particular book published by the Iranian government on communist influence over labor unions, but when the librarians there realized what I was looking for, they told me, "Don't even bother looking, they were all taken away in 1953." It is my belief that somebody has to, in whatever way they can, preserve these materials while they can. My mission has been to preserve this history in any way I can."