Unlike a written language, preservation of American Sign Language requires documentation of movement and use of space. In the Deaf community, by keeping and caring for film, linguistic features are preserved. This was one of many points made during Capturing Deaf Heritage Day, an event dedicated to the preservation of Deaf cultural materials.

“As a history major and deaf person, Capturing Deaf Heritage Day gave me a valuable first-hand experience of preserving our rich history,” said Trevor Anderson, Student Body Government president.

The Center for Deaf Documentary Studies (CDDS), in close collaboration with Gallaudet University Archives and with support from the Office of Alumni Relations, hosted the day-long event. There were 17 presentations with technical, digitizing assistance on October 28, 2016. Alumni brought photos or documents and worked with Archives staff and history majors to have their materials scanned and handed back on a free USB.

An introduction to preservation included images of ways photos and documents are damaged by light, water, insects, rodents, and mishandling. Also of note was the loss of individual collections when a member of the deaf community passes on and no arrangements are made for the care of their photo albums, letters, and films. Individual collections often have historical value that is not evident to family members, resulting in the loss of significant material culture.

Sessions during the day focused on collecting and the use of individual collections. One session addressed how objects are used in exhibitions with an explanation of how they help visitors relate to a topic or event. Other presenters showed how materials from the Archives informed their research.

A panel on autobiographical writing included perspectives on finding and interpreting truth in telling one’s personal story, concerns about saying anything less than flattering about deaf family members, and also how – or when – to include American Sign Language (ASL) gloss in English written narrative. Film and capturing ASL was discussed during presentations on filmed interviews within a family, documenting stories of deaf printers, and developing a visual story to engage an audience. A session on filming ASL demonstrated how to light the dominant signing hand, accessible camera angles and use of space in the film frame, as well as multiple technical issues.

The day ended with a discussion on how to annotate ASL film so that it is searchable for anyone – historians, linguists, and other researchers. Capturing Deaf Heritage Day was made possible by a grant (PY-234457-16) from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We are grateful to the NEH,” said Dr. Brian Greenwald, director of the CDDS, “This was a day to demonstrate ways to preserve Deaf historical and cultural heritage that would not have happened without their support. We hope people gained technical information on caring for their collections and learned that we all have a role to play in the stewardship of Deaf history.”

A full program is available at

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the Humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nations. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at

Any views, findings, conclusions for recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

by Jean Bergey, associate director, Center for Deaf Documentary Studies, and principal investigator, NEH grant (PY-234457-16)

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