Carl Sagan, one of the most recognizable figures in the history of science, visited Portland State on March 5 and 6 in 1968. During his visit, Sagan gave two lectures on planetary exploration. For decades, the recordings of the renowned astrophysicist and science educator’s visit were lost, existing solely in the memories of the presentation’s attendees. Now, those lost recordings have been rediscovered and are available for streaming, once again giving a voice to forgotten words.
The discovered recordings of Sagan are two of over 200 newly recovered speeches, readings, interviews and panel discussions captured during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s on the PSU campus. The recordings are available for streaming as part of the Special Collections Oregon Public Speakers Collection. The list of guest speakers featured is expansive, containing figures like Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Robert F. Kennedy.
A REEL FIND
Recorded on campus, the audiotapes were initially available for listening on reel-to-reel players at the university’s library as a resource for students. As technology advanced, the reel-to-reel players and their tapes were made obsolete and taken off site, where they fell off the radar and out of mind.
The recordings were forgotten until 2010, when they were found in an off-campus warehouse by University Archivist and Head of Special Collections Cristine Paschild.
“We just found them kind of by accident. We were walking around, and it’s a giant warehouse but it’s fairly well organized, so some random boxes with an ambiguous label was intriguing. So when we popped them open and pulled them out, we realized that they seemed to be unique,” Paschild said.
Throughout the years of reel-to-reel usage, the university acquired many commercial copies of national addresses or lectures for academic use, but these boxes of tapes proved to be something unique.
“When we started looking at the boxes that were there, and that the dates were very specific and had locations on campus, we realized that they were original recordings at that point and unique to PSU,” Paschild said.
Realizing what they had found was an exciting moment for Paschild and Special Collections and Conservation Technician Carolee Harrison.
“When you pick up one and go, ‘Henry Kissinger!’ you run around and say, ‘I found Henry Kissinger on tape!’ Then the next you know, ‘Jean-Luc Godard is in here too!’ So it’s crazy after a while,” Paschild said.
“I was looking at the speakers’ names and it was blowing my mind that we had David Brubeck here, we had Allen Ginsberg here, we had Robert F. Kennedy here, we had Louis Lomax here, we had all these amazing speakers. And there were also a lot of Portland relevant [speakers],” Harrison said. “There was a whole series in that collection that has to do with urban renewal and urban development in Portland during that critical time in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and how Portland State plays a role in that with the university and city relationship.”
After realizing what possibly had been found, the next step for the archivists was to confirm that what they found was actually what was listed on the boxes.
“We didn’t listen to them because we wanted to be very cautious and treat it like we have one listen that has to be captured when we listen to it. So we didn’t know what was actually on the tapes. The boxes said what was on there, but we couldn’t confirm,” Paschild said. “That was very unnerving.”
Apart from their fragile state, Harrison said that students listening to the tapes in the past had the capacity to record over or erase them due to the machine’s inability to be locked. Because of this, the tapes very well could have been blank.
“We had the things, we might be able to get to play it, but we didn’t know if they were damaged, if pieces of the speeches were missing or blank altogether, we didn’t know,” Harrison said. “There was a lot of trepidation and a lot of feelings about that before we got started.”
After acquiring a grant to fund the project of digitizing the recordings, Special Collections was able to purchase a reel-to-reel player off eBay. Using a handheld digital audio recorder plugged into the player’s output, the tapes were played for the first time in decades and digitally rerecorded.
Several of the tapes were unplayable or slightly damaged, but many were able to be spliced together and repaired. Other than some of the audio files being recorded at odd speeds or segments where audience members who asked questions weren’t miked, but the majority were in great shape and very audible, Paschild said.
After a little editing, the files were backed up and the process was complete. The recordings are available for free streaming on the Special Collections & University Archives website.
A SPECIAL COLLECTION
“There are several moments in different recordings where there are these prophetic moments, that either you can’t believe that someone came up with an idea or had this concept in mind. Like Margaret Mead talking about where all of our information is going to be computerized and we’re going to be at the mercy of the accuracy of that,” Harrison said.
“There are numerous moments where I feel there’s a mirroring, a relevance, where many of the same issues are echoed back to us from the past. It’s been an interesting experience listening to these.”
One of Harrison’s favorites is a speech by Marline Dixon, a professor at the University of Chicago and writer on equal rights for women.
“She comes in and she’s telling the women in her audience that the leftist movement at the time can’t be relied on by women to support equal rights for women, and she cites the whole centuries of the oppression of women and how women in the ‘70s can’t turn to figures, can’t turn to the socialist movement, to Marxism and so forth, to champion equal rights for women,” Harrison said. “She had a lot of good zingers in there too. She’s very emphatic when she’s talking, and she was a really inspiring figure.”
As well as featuring prominent figures from across the globe, there are also a lot of recordings relevant to the university and the development of the university, Paschild said.
One of the pieces in the collection is a radio promotion piece by former PSU President Bradford Millar, recorded at the time PSU was attempting to transition from college to university status.
“It’s exactly what the university is still, what we are trying to promote. And it’s all about this partnership with Portland and how we are unique in being here in the metro region and what Portland State can do in that partnership. That’s fascinating to understand that that’s an outlook being laid way back then,” Paschild said.
“You can start seeing where we came from, early in those moments.”
CRITICAL MASS OF VOICES
Paschild said that part of what makes this collection unique is the critical mass of voices from this period.
“There doesn’t seem to be this mass of breadth and depth of discussion out there somewhere else. This collection, as a collection, I think is pretty rare. Where you can see the whole kind of discussions and interests and issues and ideas going on in America kind of across the board—arts and culture and politics—everything together. I think that makes it very unique,”Paschild said.
“The reason I think it’s very relevant is, for me listening to it, it’s easy to view this as ‘nothing ever changes, we’re talking about the same stuff,’ but that’s not what’s happening. These are the ideas that have dominated the late 20th century, and still dominate us. They’re still the things that have been important to the United States for three generations now, that we’re still talking to and still figuring out, and you see the currents of them there.”
“I think it’s really important for people to not think it’s Groundhog’s Day with every political campaign and suddenly now we care. No, we’ve been talking about this for a long time and it’s mattered, we’ve all recognized it’s mattered and it still matters. To me, that’s what’s relevant. The long picture.”
The recordings are available for streaming at: pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/orspeakers/