Where to Find the Freshest Memories

Students examining records in the Archives (photo by Scott Cook)

Last week, The New York Times featured an article about the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and their efforts to preserve and share their memories with others (“Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Survivors Pass Their Stories to a New Generation”). I was surprised to read that some survivors have entrusted their memories of this event to “denshosha”:  younger people who are designated to speak on their behalf and tell their stories.

Hiromi Hasai, who was 14 years old at the time of the bombing, is one such survivor.  According to the Times, he would like denshosha to also relate the stories of witnesses who are no longer alive, but whose accounts of the bombing, collected soon after the war, are preserved in the archives of Hiroshima’s Peace Museum. “There are all kinds of records, but how many people actually seek them out?” Mr. Hasai says, adding, “The freshest memories are stuck in an archive.”

This statement strikes a particular chord with me.  As an Archival Specialist, one of the first lessons I learned from our Archivist is that our role is to preserve and provide access to the archival records, then let them speak for themselves. And I have found that they do:  a photo, a letter, or a news story from long ago–to an archivist, these are “primary sources”:  items from eyewitnesses or participants in history, offering a firsthand account of events. But such a technical term fails to convey the powerful impact these records can have on those who encounter them in the Archives.

A photo of a relative, seen for the first time; a letter in a family member’s handwriting; or a story published long ago in our student newspaper, The Sandspur, can be profoundly moving to our visitors. The term “archive” may sound a bit dull and lifeless, but actually, it’s a place alive with voices and memories, where an event or a person from the past often seems to spring vividly back to life for a moment.

The “Rollins Reminiscences” files (left)

Some of our earliest students and faculty have left behind written reminiscences or letters describing their days at Rollins. I have shared some of these memories in our blog posts over the years, such as those of William Webster Lloyd, who taught class on the very first day the College opened. He later recorded his reaction to his first sight of the new, unfinished campus:  “The non-existence of the college buildings shown on the prospectus of Winter Park was a chilling shock.”

I also sympathized with the story of Henry “Hank” Mowbray, class of 1897, who waged a tough campaign to have the College colors changed to blue and gold, in the hope of winning the heart of his classmate, Marie. More than 50 years later, he wrote, “It still brings tears to my eyes, and today I hope to your eyes, that after all this labor of mine, for her, the ungrateful Miss Marie transferred her affections from me to my rival, Ernest Missildine. How bitter life is!”

We are lucky to have some of these early voices preserved on reel-to-reel audiorecordings, and that we have a machine in working order to listen to them. It was exciting to play one of these last year and clearly hear the voice of Ida May Missildine (one of the two members of the first graduating class of 1890) reminiscing about her student days, when Rollins had just been founded. And I find it moving to hear the voice of Pres. Hamilton Holt delivering his last speech at Rollins, as he left the presidency after 24 years.

There are many more Rollins memories saved in this format that we have yet to hear.  (Today such interviews are saved in our Oral History Archive, which is much more accessible.)

Some of the reel-to-reel recordings in the Archives

The work of an archivist, is, of course, a human undertaking and therefore imperfect. Not everything makes it into the record; some stories will be lost. Sometimes sources contradict one another. But this human aspect of the Archives is also the source of its emotional power:  whether amusing, inspiring, or heartbreaking, each photograph, document, or recording has its own story to tell. Give them your attention, and they will speak to you.

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

3 thoughts on “Where to Find the Freshest Memories

  1. Wonderfully inspiring information in this post. It reveals such pathos. Memory keepers are a special breed, so thank you for the meticulous work you do! It’s important.

  2. Wonderful little essay Darla. I wonder if there will be a time–if not now–when there will be no machine that will play these–then what.

    Keep up the good work


  3. Professor Lane,

    You make an important point about the danger of technological obsolescence and the potential for irreversible loss of our analog memories as we continue to become and more and more digitally focused society.

    You’re right! Older analog media like reel-to-reel — LP records, camera film, slide projectors, VHS tapes, cassette tapes, etc. — is becoming more difficult to read because the technology is increasingly expensive or hard to find, and often is in disrepair due to age or neglect.

    There are two strategies archives tend to take in facing the imminent danger of technological obsolesce for analog media, though they are not mutually exclusive:
    A) Find, keep, and maintain the original hardware and media as long as possible.
    B) Migrate the content to a digital format.

    The former might include regulating the environment the media is stored in, limiting its use, and in some cases, making conservation efforts to ensure the media’s physical condition. Of course, as Rollins College’s Digital Archivist, I know that this is a fight against time that even the most conscientious curator will eventually lose if no other action is taken. Therefore, the archive is beginning to consider the latter approach for audio collections – digitization.

    While a very enticing project, digitization of audio content requires a concerted effort by a knowledgeable professional, is usually expensive as its requires a lot of time and resources, and in the end (believe it or not!) does not necessarily yield better quality sound.

    Of course, the benefits of digitization are that digital formats are easier for archives’ patrons and staff alike to access with today’s digital hardware. In addition, if this digitized content is put on the web, it has potential of greatly increasing the overall level of access to the college’s archival record.

    Because the archive is called to not just preserve the College’s rich history but also ensure wide and unfettered access to those records for the long term, we are committed to digitization efforts. It is my hope that we can carry over our expertise from earlier digitization projects (for example, our now fully digitized College yearbook collection, The Sandspur) to new projects focusing on our many unique audio recordings like the one Darla pointed out in her post.

    -Rachel Walton
    Digital Archivist, Rollins College

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