Revisiting & Recontextualizing “The War of the Worlds” Broadcast

Curator's Note

I enjoyed the distinct privilege of attending the workshop “War of the Worlds Letters: Fan Mail, Fake News, and the Digital Archive” as presented by Phil Hallman and Vincent Longo of the University of Michigan, A. Brad Schwartz of Princeton University, and Ryan Reft of the Library of Congress.

Before the interactive portion of the workshop began, the discussants explain the breadth of their project which includes 2 boxes of 1,344 fan/hate mail letters from the Orson Welles & Richard Wilson papers held at the University of Michigan as part of their Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers special collection. These letters were scanned and digitized for an interactive and public digital archive that they hope to make live in October in time for the 85th anniversary of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. In addition to the scans of the letters the site will host transcriptions of the letters. Transcription was provided by Zooniverse, a crowdsourcing site, where their project was estimated to take 6 months to a year, but was completed in 26 hours by 1.291 volunteers. An incredibly short time considering each letter had to be transcribed by 5 people and compared for accuracy. The future website will also host lesson plans for various ages and skill levels on media literacy, using primary sources, audio/visual rhetoric, and teaching about the historical moment and context of the broadcast.

The presenters then shared preview access to the collection images, and participants were able to look through letters and database info. We examined letters by location of origin, support or rebuke of the program/creators, and requests for copies/rebroadcast. So much of the story around the “War of the Worlds” broadcast is around the panic and scandal around the program, that we often take these stories as plain truth or as fact, but the reception of the program was far more nuanced and layered than we typically hear discussed. Many of these letters include very colorful language to describe duped audiences as less intelligent, while others write that they enjoyed being duped and scared. I for one, can’t wait to host a listening party with my students and take a longer examination of this collection in the future.

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