All posts by Kaley Deal

Voices from the Movement

This past year the SNCC Digital Gateway has brought a number of activists to Duke’s campus to discuss lesser known aspects of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)’s history and how their approach to organizing shifted over time. These sessions ranged the development of the symbol of the Black Panther for the Lowndes County Freedom Party, the strength of local people in the Movement in Southwest Georgia, and the global network supporting SNCC’s fight for Black empowerment in the U.S. and across the African Diaspora. Next month, there will be a session focused on music in the Movement, with a public panel the evening of September 19th.

Screenshot of “Born into the Movement,” from the “Our Voices” section on the SNCC Digital Gateway.

These visiting activist sessions, often spanning the course of a few days, produce hours of audio and video material, as SNCC veterans reengage with the history through conversation with their comrades. And this material is rich, as memories are dusted off and those involved explore how and why they did what they did. However, considering the structure of the SNCC Digital Gateway and wanting to make these 10 hour collections of A/V material digestible and accessible, we’ve had to develop a means of breaking them down.

Step One: Transcription

As is true for many projects, you begin by putting pen to paper (or by typing furiously). With the amount of transcribing that we do for this project, we’re certainly interested in making the process as seamless as possible. We depend on ExpressScribe, which allows you to set hot keys to start, stop, rewind, and fast forward audio material. Another feature is that you can easily adjust the speed at which the recording is being played, which is helpful for keeping your typing flow steady and uninterrupted. For those who really want to dive in, there is a foot pedal extension (yes, one did temporarily live in our project room) that allows you to control the recording with your feet – keeping your fingers even more free to type at lightning speed. After transcribing, it is always good practice to review the transcription, which you can do efficiently while listening to a high speed playback.

Step Two: Selecting Clips

Once these have been transcribed (each session results in approximately a 130 page transcript, single-spaced), it is time to select clips. For the parameters of this project, we keep the clips roughly between 30 seconds and 8 minutes and intentionally try to pull out the most prominent themes from the conversation. We then try to fit our selections into a larger narrative that tells a story. This process takes multiple reviews of the material and a significant amount of back and forth to ensure that the narrative stays true to the sentiments of the entire conversation.

The back-end of one of our pages.

Step Three: Writing the Narrative

We want users to listen to all of the A/V material, but sometimes details need to be laid out so that the clips themselves make sense. This is where the written narrative comes in. Without detracting from the wealth of newly-created audio and video material, we try to fill in some of the gaps and contextualize the clips for those who might be less familiar with the history. In addition to the written narrative, we embed relevant documents and photographs that complement the A/V material and give greater depth to the user’s experience.

Step Four: Creating the Audio Files

With all of the chosen clips pulled from the transcript, it’s time to actually make the audio files. For each of these sessions, we have multiple recorders in the room, in order to ensure everyone can be heard on the tape and that none of the conversation is lost due to recorder malfunction. These recorders are set to record in .WAV files, an uncompressed audio format for maximum audio quality.

One complication with having multiple mics in the room, however, is that the timestamps on the files are not always one-to-one. In order to easily pull the clips from the best recording we have, we have to sync the files. Our process involves first creating a folder system on an external hard drive. We then create a project in Adobe Premiere and import the files. It’s important that these files be on the same hard drive as the project file so that Premiere can easily find them. Then, we make sequences of the recordings and match the waveform from each of the mics. With a combination of using the timestamps on the transcriptions and scrubbing through the material, it’s easy to find the clips we need. From there, we can make any post-production edits that are necessary in Adobe Audition and export them as .mp3 files with Adobe Media Encoder.

Step Five: Uploading & Populating

Due to the SNCC Digital Gateway’s sustainability requirements, we host the files in a Duke Digital Collections folder and then embed them in the website, which is built on a WordPress platform. These files are then formatted between text, document, and image, to tell a story.

The Return of the Filmstrip

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked on the cutting edge. In the fight for Black political and economic power, SNCC employed a wide array of technology and tactics to do the work. SNCC bought its own WATS (Wide Area Telephone Service) lines, allowing staff to make long-distance phone calls for a flat rate. It developed its own research department, communications department, photography department, transportation bureau, and had network of supporters that spanned the globe. SNCC’s publishing arm printed tens of thousands of copies of The Student Voice weekly to hold mass media accountable to the facts and keep the public informed. And so, when SNCC discovered they could create an informational organizing tool at 10¢ a pop that showed how people were empowering themselves, they did just that.


SNCC activist Maria Varela was one of the first to work on this experimental project to develop filmstrips. Varela had come into SNCC’s photography department through her interest in creating adult literacy material that was accessible, making her well-positioned for this type of work. On 35mm split-frame film, Varela and other SNCC photographers pieced together positives that told a story, could be wound up into a small metal canister, stuffed into a cloth drawstring, and attached to an accompanying script. Thousands of these were mailed out all across the South, where communities could feed them into a local school’s projector and have a meeting to learn about something like the Delano Grape Strike or the West Batesville Farmers Cooperative.


Fifty years later, Varela, a SNCC Digital Gateway Visiting Documentarian, is working with us to digitize some of these filmstrips for publication on our website. Figuring out the proper way to digitize these strips took some doing. Some potential options required cutting the film so that it could be mounted. Others wouldn’t capture the slides in their entirety. We had to take into account the limitations of certain equipment, the need to preserve the original filmstrips, and the desire to make these images accessible to a larger public.

Ultimately, we partnered with Skip Elsheimer of A/V Geeks in Raleigh, who has done some exceptional work with the film. Elsheimer, a well-known name in the field, came into his line of work through his interest in collecting old 16mm film reels. As collection, equipment, and network expanded, Elsheimer turned to this work full-time, putting together and A/V archive of over 25,000 films in the back of his former residence.


We’re very excited to incorporate these filmstrips into the SNCC Digital Gateway. The slides really speak for themselves and act as a window into the organizing tools of the day. They educated communities about each other and helped knit a network of solidarity between movements working to bring power to the people.  Stay tuned to witness this on when our site debuts.

Communication in Practice

The SNCC Digital Gateway is a collaborative, Mellon-funded project to document the history and legacy of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on a digital platform. One of the challenges of this undertaking is the physical distance between many of the project partners. From Washington, D.C. to St. Cloud, MN and Durham, NC to Rochester, NY, the SNCC veterans, scholars, librarians, and staff involved in the SNCC Digital Gateway Project are spread across most of the country. We’ve had collaborators call in anywhere from grocery stores in Jacksonville to the streets of Salvador da Bahia. Given these arrangements and the project’s “little d” democracy style of decision-making, communication, transparency, and easy access to project documents are key. The digital age has, thankfully, given us an edge on this, and the SNCC Digital Gateway makes use of a large selection of digital platforms to get the job done.


Say hello to Trello, an easy-to-use project management system that looks like a game of solitaire. By laying cards in different categories, we can customize our to-do list and make sure we have a healthy movement between potential leads, what’s slated to be done, and items marked as complete. We always try to keep our Trello project board up-to-date, making the project’s progress accessible to anyone at anytime.

While we use Trello for as a landing board for much of our internal communication, Basecamp has come in handy for our work with Digital Projects and our communication with the website’s design contractor, Kompleks Creative. Basecamp allows us to have conversations around different pieces of project development, as we provide feedback on design iterations, clarify project requirements, and ask questions about the feasibility of potential options. Keeping this all in one place makes this back-and-forth easy to access, even weeks or months later.

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Much of the project’s administrative documents fall into Box, a platform available through Duke that is similar to Dropbox but allows for greater file security. With Duke Toolkits, you can define a project and gain access to a slew of handy features, one of which is a project designation within Box (giving you unlimited space). That’s right, unlimited space. So, apart from allowing us to organize all of the many logistical and administrative documents in a collective space, Box is able to rise to the challenge of large file sharing. We use Box as a temporary landing platform through which we send archival scans, videos, audio recordings, and other primary source material to project partners.

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With the student project team, we’re also producing hundreds of pages worth of written content and look to Google Drive as our go-to for organization, access, and collaborative editing. Upon the completion of a set of drafts, we hold a workshop session where other members of the project team comment, critique, and contribute their knowledge. After a round of edits, drafts then go to SNCC veteran and former journalist Charlie Cobb, who puts red pen to paper (figuratively). With one more round of fact-checking and source logging, the final drafts are ready for the website.

And who doesn’t like to see the face of who they’re talking to? We make good use of Skype and Google Hangouts for long distance calls, and Uber Conference when we need to bring a lot of people into the conversation. And finally, an ongoing volley of e-mails, texts, and phone calls between individual project partners helps keep us on the same page.

While non-exhaustive, these are some of the digital platforms that have helped us get to where we are today and maintain communication across continents in this intergenerational and interdisciplinary collaboration.

The Duke-SLP Partnership Continues with the SNCC Digital Gateway

Content production is deep underway here at the SNCC Digital Gateway, a continuation of the collaboration between Duke University, the SNCC Legacy Project, and Movement scholars that created the One Person, One Vote website.  Our project room is piled high with books about the Movement, our walls covered with information about source documents and citation, and our workshop sessions are rich in conversation about who SNCC was, what SNCC did, and what SNCC’s legacy is today.

Over the past few months, the project has been working to lay the digital groundwork for the website.  Before beginning the conversation with design contractors about the vision for the SNCC Digital Gateway, we first had to explore some of the challenges of working with a digital platform ourselves.

Lucky for us, the library has a wealth of knowledge about web development
Lucky for us, the library has a wealth of knowledge about web development on the third floor of Bostock.

Unlike a book, there is no straight-forward beginning, middle, and end to a website, and there are limits on the amount of text that we can put on a page.  So, how do we present this material in a way that keeps the user engaged?  How can we have multiple access points to this content while still keeping it grounded in the larger narrative?  How will the users want to approach this material, and how do we hope to steer them?

Rather than following a linear exploration of this history, the SNCC Digital Gateway emphasizes the layering of ideas, people, and places. It recognizes the importance of chronology for contextual understanding but is not driven by it.  It emphasizes the need to document not only the stories of those involved in the Movement, but also how they organized, the local landscape of where they organized, and the kinds of conversations they were having.  It hopes to tie the narrative of SNCC and other Movement veterans to today’s struggles, exploring history to not only understand the roots of systemic oppression but to provide tools for organizing today.

Why, Brinck, we would love to design a website that works!
Why, Brinck, we would love to design a website that works!

We asked ourselves, how do you start to organize all of this information?  Well, why not pick up an Expo marker and start drawing on the walls (if you’re in The Edge, of course)?  This is, at least, what SNCC Digital Gateway team did this past spring.

Wireframe after wireframe, we began to piece together an information architecture for the site content.  With a projected scope of hundreds of discrete pages, each with written content, embedded primary source documents, and audio/visual material, it was clear that this would have to be carefully planned so that the user wouldn’t get lost or overwhelmed.

We want users to be able to engage with the site differently each time they visit – following thematic threads through SNCC’s history, understanding the political landscape before SNCC came to the scene, delving into defining moments that spurred ideological shifts in the organization, seeing what the complexity of this narrative and these relationships meant to different people.  And we want to do so in a way that even a 5th grader can understand.

Hopefully our site will be a little easier to follow than this affinity model found in _Information Architecture for the World Wide Web_.
Hopefully our site will be a little easier to follow than this affinity model found in _Information Architecture for the World Wide Web_.

Armed with book upon book about site design and navigation, we’ve tried to find a way to break with the typical hierarchical site structure and find one that was more suited to the fluidity of our content’s dimensions.  We settled on having two main entry points into the content: chronological and thematic.  We will continue to produce profiles that are tied to different geographic areas and have a section that explore SNCC’s internal and external network and relationships.  But these will be connected to the thematic/chronological core of the site, so that the user can easily navigate between all different categories and types of content.

Without going into the nitty gritty, we’ve pulled together the skeleton for our site (just in time for Halloween) and have begun to flesh out this conversation with a design contractor.  Not only is it important for us to think about how to tell the story of SNCC, it’s important for us to think about how to present it.