Auburn University Libraries Opens Archive of Audio Recordings from the 1960s and ‘70s
Auburn University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Department has been working to make available a large number of audio recordings of the university’s Horizons Lecture Series, Auburn Profiles Series, Auburn Conference on International Affairs, and various other speeches and programs conducted on campus, many of which have not been available to researchers and scholars for many years. Originally recorded in the 1960s and ‘70s, these recordings represent a treasure trove of the actual words of political and military leaders, sports figures, journalists and entertainers. The first of these newly digitized recordings are now available for researchers and casual listeners free online.
“When we discovered these hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes in our archives, I immediately appreciated the historical significance of them as a window into a turbulent time in American history,” said Aaron Trehub, Assistant Dean of Technology, Auburn University Libraries and head of Special Collections and Archives. “The Vietnam War was being fought, desegregation was gaining steam, and Watergate was in the news. They would be of interest to anyone either professionally or casually studying the period. Our problem was only having these speeches on obsolete magnetic media that could not be read by anything we had in the library.”
Auburn University’s annual Tiger Giving Day offered the solution. As its project, Special Collections and Archives requested donors give money to obtain a reel-to-reel tape player and the appropriate digitizing equipment to turn the magnetic tapes into digital files that could be easily shared. Many donors responded positively and the project was fully funded.
Special collections librarian Greg Schmidt has been heading the effort to digitize the recordings. “It is amazing how many prominent figures of the time came to Auburn University,” said Schmidt. “Boxer Mohammad Ali, Senators Barry Goldwater and Edward Kennedy, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, journalist Harry Reasoner, attorney William Kunstler and many others. These are all people who had reached the pinnacle in their fields. To hear their view of the world then in their own voice is inspiring. I also love listening to Auburn students engage with these speakers during question and answer periods. There is probably no more primary a resource than to hear a person speak without the filter of a person writing their words down as they understood them or reporting after the fact. And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what we have in these tapes. By the time the project is complete, we will have hundreds of recordings digitized.”
At one time the only way to hear these tapes was to physically come to Auburn to listen to them in the library on a reel-to-reel tape deck. But even that was lost when, over the years, Auburn University Libraries lost its ability to play magnetic tapes.
As a founding member of the international digital preservation community and a longtime advocate for sharable knowledge, Trehub has long been concerned about the loss of certain legacy media (such as magnetic tapes and magnetic computer media) that contain a great deal of irreplaceable material. Digital has become the standard for data storage, so the preservation of media still in analog formats becomes more important. The loss of the materials leaves a gap in our knowledge.
“Digitizing older media into a format that can be both readily shared by researchers and scholars worldwide today and preserved for future generations tomorrow, is a high priority for Auburn University Libraries,” said Trehub. “The loss of these speeches by some of the brightest of their generation would be a tragedy. Researchers and scholars looking for a window into how people of the past thought about similar challenges to the ones we face today will find these recordings invaluable. We’re fortunate that donors came through for us and we got the opportunity to save them. They will add greatly to the research excellence of our scholars looking into the period for social sciences, business and scientific insights.”
Recordings from the Auburn University Horizons Lecture Series, Auburn Profiles Series, Auburn Conference on International Affairs, and other events are available at https://archive.org/details/@aulibraries The coming months will see many more audio recordings added to the archive as well as other digital artifacts in the collection of Auburn University Libraries Special Collections and Archives.