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Portland State University uncovers lost tapes of Robert Kennedy, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Sagan and more
Author: John Kirkland, University Communications
Posted: June 19, 2014

Library archivists at Portland State University (PSU) have uncovered recorded speeches given on campus during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s by luminaries such as Robert F. Kennedy, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Sagan and Toni Morrison, and converted them to digital format for all the world to hear before the original tapes are lost to decay.

Visitors to The Oregon Public Speakers Collection at pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/orspeakers can listen to hundreds of hours of complete, professionally recorded speeches from history makers, activists, scientists and cultural icons. 

  • Ten weeks before his assassination in 1968, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy is, in turns, witty, earnest, engaging, and completely relaxed in a gym full of college students. Almost an hour into his presentation when a student says she needs to leave for her 11 a.m. lecture, Kennedy decrees that everybody can skip school for the week. “Just remember when you’re deciding who to vote for, it was Kennedy who got you out of class,” he quips.  
  • Sen. Wayne Morse, D-OR, one of only two U.S. senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that led to a dramatic escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, says to a PSU crowd in 1965 “I say with all solemnity that … if we follow our present course of action in Southeast Asia, then 12 months from today there will be several hundred thousand American troops in Asia and there will be thousands of them coming back in coffins.”
  • In 1962, five months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling (a Portland native) warns that fallout from nuclear arms testing will cause birth defects in children.
  • African-American novelist Toni Morrison, speaking in 1975, criticizes the teaching of history for perpetuating racism by generalizing peoples and cultures. “To continue to see any race of people as one single personality is an ignorance of Gothic proportions – an ignorance so vast, and a perception so blind and so blunted, an imagination so bleak, that no nuance can be ascertained,” she says.

Bringing this recorded treasure to light happened almost by accident. The tapes were part of the PSU library collection for years, and students could listen to them on library tape players. But as technology changed they were packed away in boxes and shipped off to a warehouse -- along with hundreds of other boxes -- to make room for newer library collections.

“I was wandering through the warehouse one day in 2010 and noticed a bunch of cardboard boxes labeled ‘reel-to-reel,’” said Cristine Paschild, PSU’s university archivist and head of special collections. “I popped them open and realized they were original recordings made on campus, not copies of national speeches.” 

Paschild and library technician Carolee Harrison thought the tapes would be so fragile from age that a single listen might cause them to break. So before putting them on a tape machine, they hired a consultant to oversee the process.  

The first one they listened to was of Branford Millar, president of Portland State College in the 1960s and the namesake for PSU’s main library.

“As soon as we heard his voice, we teared up because the tape worked, and also because we heard his voice.  We never knew what he sounded like until then,” Paschild said. 

Paschild obtained a $10,000 grant through the Library Services and Technology Act to pay for an audio professional to transfer the 257 hours of tape recordings into digital format. To support the project, the library also acquired a quality reel-to-reel tape deck – a challenging purchase given the old technology. 

The transfer process took a year, and was completed on May 21.  A few of the tapes were unplayable because they were stuck together, but the vast bulk of them are nearly flawless and sound as clear as the day they were recorded.

The list of lecturers also includes social activists Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael and Chicago Seven member John Froines; scientists Margaret Mead, Paul Ehrlich and B.F. Skinner; writers Alex Haley, Timothy Leary, Arthur Schlesinger and William Stafford; jazz master Dave Brubeck; and political figures Henry Kissinger, Elliot Richardson, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern.  For a full list, visit the web site: pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/orspeakers.