Hear the voices of Picasso, FDR, Malcolm X and half a million others at MSU's Vincent Voice Library

The Vincent Voice Library at MSU
Posted at 4:34 PM, Feb 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-10 16:34:21-05

LANSING, Mich. — To hear the voices of Martin Luther King Jr., Pablo Picasso and every U.S. president since Benjamin Harrison, you can go up four floors, down one hallway through two locked doors at Michigan State University's main library.

Which is where you'll find the G. Robert Vincent Voice Library, the largest academic voice library in the country and home to more than 100,000 hours of spoken word recordings dating back to 1888.

"Many universities will collect speeches of some sort, but what makes us somewhat unique is that we're solely focused on the human voice," said Shawn Nicholson, associate dean and librarian at MSU. "So we don't combine it with video. We don't combine it with music. We just are interested in the human voice."

The collection includes the voices of more than 500,000 people from all walks of life.

Audio is stored on reel-to-reels, VHS and vinyl with a focus on preserving the natural audio sound of the time.

"Some of the recordings are poor quality, even with the digital transfer there’s only so much we can do to correct the recording," said Nicholson. "We’ve made a conscious choice not to remove a lot of the noise."

As technology develops, the library has employed students to transfer the recordings to digital files. Students categorize the files, describe them, list them and ultimately preserve them for public access on the Michigan State University website.

"So what we have to do is take that material and migrate its format to a digital file and so this lab is set up with some high-end equipment including reel-to-reel decks," said Nicholson.

Most recently, the voice library is being used for research into the development of the human voice and the progression of public affairs.

Scholars at MSU collect outside recordings and they have a studio at the library to capture their own audio.

Tens of thousands of the recordings still require an in-person visit to the library to be heard, but every day more and more are being added to the MSU website in galleries such as Michigan Supreme Court Justices, The Black Imaginary, Women's Overseas Service, and Michigan Writers.

"Hearing, not just reading a speech, but hearing and getting a sense of how the human voice emotes and allocates words and pauses is so much more important sometimes than the written word," said Nicholson. "That is what the voice library is really about is bringing that sense of humanness as we listen as opposed to simply reading."

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