Transcribing Deaf Folklore from the 1981 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Promoting Accessibility through Transcription

In 1981, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival included programming about folklore from the Deaf community—often represented with a capital D. Presentations featured Deaf theater, poetry, “signlore,” puns, and many other forms of Deaf folklore. Participants recalled experiences from their childhood, what it’s like to be “deaf in a hearing world,” and some of the challenges they face daily. Overall, the Festival provided attendees with a glimpse into what it’s like to live as a deaf or hard-of-hearing American.


Young visitors learn some American Sign Language at the 1981 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo by Jeff Ploskonka, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.

Until now, the audio recordings of discussions and presentations at the Folklore of the Deaf program have been archived in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections but inaccessible to non-hearing people. Now, the Smithsonian Transcription Center is working to caption the audio recordings so that everybody can learn from and enjoy these resources.

Since the launch of the Transcription Center’s “#TCSound” project in June 2019, online “volunpeers” have been hard at work transcribing these valuable Festival recordings. However, audio files present some unique transcription problems that those familiar with transcribing text documents might not encounter. One of the biggest hurdles in transcribing audio files is correctly identifying speakers. Unless a speaker is explicitly introduced, it’s hard to know who is talking when. And if a sudden new voice you don’t recognize enters the recording, it can seem impossible to identify it.

With the Folklore of the Deaf audio projects, this issue is compounded by the fact that many of the speakers are deaf, so the voice we hear is actually an American Sign Language interpreter. It can certainly make your head spin trying to keep track of each interpreter’s voice while simultaneously inferring who they’re interpreting for. We want to make sure that we’re preserving everybody’s contributions to Deaf programming at the Folklife Festival, and that means crediting both the speakers who were signing to the audience as well as the interpreters who provided the voices we hear on the recordings. But with so many names to keep track of and sometimes unclear transitions between speakers, it can seem impossible to make sure you’re crediting the correct speaker and interpreter.

The answers aren't always conveyed in content of the audio recordings. The Rinzler Archives also holds in its collections supplementary text documents, called audio log sheets, recorded by Festival volunteers about each presentation. These detailed notes reveal specifics about who participated in each event and other specifics about what took place on the National Mall. For the Folklore of the Deaf sessions, these notes are especially helpful because they detail not only the presenters’ and interpreters’ names, but also, in many cases, which presenter signed which portion of the program. These log sheets are often the key needed to correctly identify speaker and interpreter names, allowing our transcriptions to be as accurate as possible and properly credit people for their contributions.

Example audio log sheets and can also be found here.

But how can we ensure that these connections between audio files and text documents are made? How can we make sure that volunpeers have easy access to supplemental information that will make their transcription job much easier? For us at the Rinzler Archives, this meant first having volunpeers transcribe the log sheets, then providing a link to these documents within the description of each audio project posted by the Transcription Center. That way, all the relevant information about who that mysterious speaker is in the “Deaf Theater: Kaleidoscope” recording is just one click away! Having trouble spelling a presenter’s name? (Does the linguist from Gallaudet University spell her name Barbara Kanapell? Or maybe Kannapell? Or even Canapell? Ahh!) Take a look at the audio log sheets to see how the audio documentation volunteers spelled each presenter’s name. While these notes aren’t always perfect or comprehensive, the information they contain is still invaluable for creating accurate transcriptions.


Connections between materials like this exist all over the Smithsonian’s collections. Transcribing documents and audio recordings to make them more searchable will aid users in making these connections themselves as well. Finding that connection that makes everything clear is one of the great joys of using archival materials, whether you’re a professional researcher, a history buff, or a first-time Smithsonian collections user.


Lastly, be on the lookout for more upcoming #TCSound projects from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, including more Folklore of the Deaf recordings. The Rinzler Archives thanks you for every contribution that makes our materials more accessible! Click here to start transcribing today.


*Note: this blog uses both “Big D and little d” spellings of the word “deaf.” The lowercase “d” refers to those who are audiologically deaf, while the uppercase “D” tends to refer to those who identify both culturally and linguistically with the Deaf community. This blog was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog