Employees in Kelvin Smith Library’s Freedman Center are used to preserving major life moments, as people regularly bring in home video footage or audio reels to be converted to today’s listening and viewing formats. But when a Glenville High School student brought in a reel-to-reel audio recording he and his art teacher found headed for the school’s trash, staff members were shocked: It was a recording from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 visit to Glenville—in perfect condition.
“The voice comes out and it’s crisp; it’s like he was in the room,” said Jared Bendis, creative new media officer at the library. “You hear MLK giving this charge to these students. It was pristine.”
The recording will now be used to help teach civil rights in Cleveland public schools, according to a Sunday Plain Dealer article. Plus, Bendis pointed out, it’s important to have this recording available for the community to hear. “The recording gives you a touch and taste of history that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. (You can listen to the audio on the Plain Dealer website.)
The Freedman Center, a partnership between the library and the College of Arts and Sciences, allows Case Western Reserve University faculty, staff, students and alumni to digitize their own audio and video files, free of charge. Certain formats that require work by the center’s employees—such as open reel audio and 8 mm film—are digitized for a fee.
Of all the recordings brought in by patrons for the conversion process, this was one of the most historically important the Freedman Center has ever received, Bendis said. For this reason, Bendis waived the digitization charges. “It was too important [to charge]. Plus, it was too much fun for us,” he said.
Other standout recordings have included a recording from a Muhammad Ali high school appearance in Cleveland, a video of a family watching the moon landing on television and tapes of the radio broadcast of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.
But it’s not just famous historical events that have meaning. Bendis recalled fondly converting audio files in which a husband in the military and his wife exchanged audio recordings of their voices for each other, and the couple’s child unearthed them many years later. He also remembered converting videos that showcased a family trip to Cedar Point in the early 1970s, as well as others that are simply home videos with great personal value.
Seeing people’s faces light up when they watch the video or hear the voices for the first time in years—or sometimes for the first time ever—is what makes the process so enjoyable for Bendis. “It’s not just bringing back the history [of an event],” he said. “It’s bringing back their history, personal history.”