Reel-to-Real: Archives and the Challenge of Obselete Technology

While new advancements in technology can certainly make remembering history easier, it is important not to forget what has already been done and make sure it is still accessible in the future. All organizations concerned with the preservation of culture must at some point address the problem of obsolete technology, archives chief among them.

The oral history collection at Cranbrook Archives holds fifteen recordings made on reel-to-reel magnetic audio tape that are in danger of being lost unless their content is migrated to another media source. The recordings were made between the 1950s and 1980s, with the oldest being a 1956 interview of Robert McMath, the solar astronomer who served as Cranbrook Institute of Science Board of Trustee from its founding in 1930 until 1962. Other interviews capture the wide breadth of life at Cranbrook and feature the voices of artists, craftsmen, administrative staff, teachers, and clergy, telling the story of Cranbrook’s history as it happened.

These are just a few of the reel-to-reel tapes from the collection. Justine Tobiasz/Cranbrook Archives

These are just a few of the reel-to-reel tapes from the collection. Justine Tobiasz/Cranbrook Archives

In partnership with Wayne State University’s Digital Media Projects Lab, we are now in the process of converting audio from the reels into digital files. The machine we’re using for this process is the Ampex ATR, which has been refurbished and modified with the record head removed to avoid accidental recording. The reels will continue to be preserved, but having another format ensures that these pieces of Cranbrook’s history will continue to live on.

Digital Media Projects Lab at Wayne State, complete with Ampex ATR.

Digital Media Projects Lab at Wayne State, complete with Ampex ATR. Image courtesy Wayne State University Digital Media Projects Lab.

Thank you to Wayne State for assisting us on this project, and stay tuned for future updates from the conversion process!

– Justine Tobiasz, Archives Assistant

Old Words, New Sounds: Oral Histories from the Cranbrook Archives

For the past nine months I have been working on a project to breathe new life into an oral history initiative at Cranbrook that began as early as 1964 as a collaborative project between Cranbrook School and the Cranbrook Foundation. These oral histories give us an intimate view of life here at Cranbrook over the past half century with interviewees spanning across the entire community. They range from Dr. Lee Dice at the Institute of Science, to Cranbrook Academy of Art painter Zoltan Sepheshy, as well as interviews with members of the Vettraino family, whose time living on the grounds spanned several generations. These interviews give us the kind of glimpse into the past of Cranbrook that is difficult to find anywhere else.

Cranbrook’s oral histories are found in the archives in analogue sound formats, namely on magnetic tapes. In order to preserve these interviews and provide access to a wider audience, the Archives is implementing a plan to digitize all of the content. Each oral history is digitized in real time and then transcribed, with each hour of audio taking anywhere from 8 to 10 hours to transcribe, depending on sound quality.

One of the latest gems to be uncovered is a recording of a conversation with brother and sister James and Doris Smith who worked as model makers and production designers from the mid-1940s for many of the artists and architects associated with Cranbrook. James began working with the firm of Saarinen, Swanson, and Saarinen in 1943, while Doris joined them in 1946. Both had their hands on many of the largest projects, such as creating the models for the General Motors Technical Center, and their insight into the daily work and life in the office is unmatched and cannot be forgotten.

In the following clip you can listen to James Smith discuss events and the atmosphere that surrounded the winning entry from Eero Saarinen & Associates for the Gateway Arch in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri–better known as the St. Louis Arch.

The Archives’ staff is currently building an online library for the digitized versions of the oral histories which will include the audio clips and written transcripts, and will soon be accessible through the Archives website.

Image

Construction of TWA model at Eero Saarinen & Associates taken by Claude de Forest, 1957.Cranbrook Archives.

Justine Tobiasz– Archives Assistant

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