Syracuse University Libraries home website

VALUE: Photographs, Memorabilia, Films and Syracuse University Archives

Throughout this week, we have explored many facets of preservation in the archives.

From considering the importance of TIME in the deteriorated photographs of Chester Rice from our Clara E. Sipprell Papers and the collected and digitized WSYR recordings of over 50 years of local history,

To recognizing the work of the photojournalist, Margaret Bourke-White, and acknowledging the RISK inherent in failing to preserve and digitize her photographs, negatives, and recordings,

To understanding that every item that is considered for preservation or digitization is a result of making a JUDGEMENT call, with special attention paid to the Pope Leo XIII cylinder recording,

And to realizing that there are UNKNOWN qualities to discover in any recording or object we are able to restore, as was found in the E. Thomas Billard cassette tape recordings.

Today, we turn to a final consideration in the preservation process: VALUE.

How do we define “value” in the archives? Culturally and historically significant materials may have a value assigned or ascribed to them. Sentimentality or nostalgia can also determine the value of an object, particularly for individuals or members of a community.

1970s Syracuse University video. Syracuse University Audiovisual Collection.

The photographs, films, and documentation that make up SCRC’s University Archives holdings are a key method by which staff, faculty, students, alumni, and the broader SU community can situate themselves in a certain time and place on campus, or in a historical moment of founding or protest, understanding or growth.

Syracuse University aerial view.
Aerial view of campus looking northwest, circa 1920s. Syracuse University Photograph Collection.

And textiles and memorabilia, everything from pennants and beanies to football jerseys, provide a tangible connection to the past. Maintaining the integrity of the artifacts we value through preservation extends the longevity of these materials, and increases connections to our shared history.

Syracuse Pennant
Syracuse Pennant. Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection.

Below, SCRC Director Petrina Jackson, speaks on the importance of preservation in the archives.

“One of our greatest priorities as stewards of the rare and unique materials that comprise the Special Collections Research Center is preservation. The responsibility of preservation is mission critical and permanent, meaning that we must care for our rare books, photographs, correspondence, recordings, and other archival and unique materials, not only now, or ten years from now, but for generations to come.”

Petrina Jackson, SCRC Director
Hendricks Chapel
Hendricks Chapel. Syracuse University Photograph Collection.
Ernie Davis jersey.
Ernie Davis’ #44 jersey, 1959-1962. Ernie Davis Collection.
Otto at SU game, 1982.
Otto the Orange mascot mingling with Syracuse University fans and cheerleaders at a game, 1982. Syracuse University Photograph Collection.
Chemistry students
Chemistry students, circa 1918. Edna Ruth Howe Papers.

“Being able to maintain this commitment takes a lot of invisible labor on the part of our staff, who spring into action at the sign of a leak or change in the building’s humidity or temperature and stabilize items that have deteriorated due to their chemical composition or age. As we continue to collect and care for special collections and university archives materials, we are guided by the fact that many have entrusted us with their collections and that documenting these histories are not only the root of new and original scholarship, but a source of accountability and remembrance.”

Petrina Jackson, SCRC Director
Syracuse Campus
View of the Syracuse Campus from the 1800s. Syracuse University Photograph Collection.
Orange and blue beanie
Freshmen beanie, circa 1930s-1940s from the Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection.
Students talking.
Students talking in long card catalog aisles in Bird Library. Syracuse University Photograph Collection.
Newhouse I dedication crowd.
Crowd before plaza at dedication of Newhouse I, 1964. Syracuse University Photograph Collection.

“Preservation is a protection of our investment in these archival and cultural heritage materials and a commitment that allows us to continue to provide access to materials to researchers and our SU community. For these reasons, we advocate for our collections and hope to share the importance of this advocacy with our users, donors, stakeholders, and the public.”

Petrina Jackson, SCRC Director
Class Marshalls sitting at 1961 Commencement. Syracuse University Photograph Collection.
Syracuse University Buildings. Syracuse University Audiovisual Collection.

This post features videos from our Syracuse University Audiovisual Collection (Syracuse University Audiovisual Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and images from our Syracuse University Photograph Collection (Syracuse University Photograph Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection (Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Ernie Davis Collection (Ernie Davis Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Edna Ruth Howe Papers (Edna Ruth Howe Papers, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) part of the Special Collections Research Center’s University Archives collections.

UNKNOWN: Cassette Tapes and the E. Thomas Billard Papers

The notion that incredible discoveries, hidden gems, and items thought to be lost to the ages are suddenly discovered in archival repositories is a rather romantic ideal that doesn’t frequently play out in the day-to-day operations of a special collections repository.

Audio is one area, however, due in part to the many different and sometimes obsolete mediums that exist, that lends itself to making unknown discoveries, as occurred in the digitization of the E. Thomas Billard cassette tapes. Billard was a Syracuse University MBA graduate and Vietnam War veteran who traveled abroad and exchanged “letters home” to his family in Central New York by recording and re-recording over the same cassette tapes.

Polaroid photograph of servicemen riding in a military vehicle. E. Thomas Billard Papers.

The recordings of Billard’s tapes can be found on SCRC Online. Listen below for a clip of Billard’s trip to Australia, where you can hear the ambient noise of a train moving in the background of Billard’s voiceover.

Australia trip excerpt, E. Thomas Billard Papers

And read on as SCRC’s Audio Preservation Engineer, Jim Meade, discusses some of the major audio formats and equipment at the Belfer Audio Lab, and how digitizing and preserving these records can lead to unexpected discoveries and recovery of lost or damaged content.


Cassette tape deck
The consumer-grade cassette deck used to digitize the Billard tapes.

The Billard tapes were digitized using this cassette deck among others. This cassette deck is a consumer-grade machine because professional decks have not been manufactured in decades. We use this model because it features an azimuth screw that allows for adjustment of the playback head alignment. Not all cassette decks have this. It was this feature that allowed us to retrieve recordings from the Billard tapes previously thought to have been erased. The Billard family reused cassette tapes, recording over audio letters to send replies between the USA and Vietnam. Because the erase heads on their tape recorders did not align exactly, we could retrieve the “lost” audio. The sound quality is poor, but intelligible.

Relevant SCRC collections: John and Susan Edwards Harvith Interview Collection, Shannon Davis Family Papers, Morton J. Savada Papers, Setnor School of Music Records.

Open reel tape

MCI open reel machines
Three MCI open reel machines acquired in the early 1980s.

These MCI open reel machines play back a number of different tape configurations contained in the collections. These machines were acquired from MCI in the early 1980’s when the Belfer building was first opened. Actually, our preservation studio is still called the MCI room! These machines are now obsolete, the company having ceased manufacturing in the early 1980s. Parts can be difficult to come by after 40 years, making maintenance of these machines increasingly difficult.

Relevant SCRC collection: Gregg Smith Singers Recordings.


The Archeophone designed by French audio engineer Henri Chamoux to play back early cylinder recordings.

The Archeophone, created in 1998 by French audio engineer Henri Chamoux, is a modern machine specifically designed to play back the many different sizes and types of early cylinder recordings, dating from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Cylinders produced during these years ranged from tiny cylinders inserted into talking dolls, to quite large concert cylinders and everything in between. Without this machine, we would need to keep and maintain an array of players to reproduce all the different cylinder types produced and sold between the late 1880s and 1929. This modern device also allows playback with a lightweight, modern tonearm, far better for maintaining the condition of fragile cylinder records than the original players. Henri produced around 40 of these machines, two of which Belfer acquired in the 1990s. The rest are in audio archives across the world, as well as with some wealthier collectors.

Relevant SCRC collection: Belfer Cylinders Collection.

Wire recording

Wire reel Webster Chicago machine
The Webster Chicago machine that was used to digitize 13 wire reels containing the voice of Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson.

Steel wire is one of the more unusual formats in our collections. Originally invented in 1898, it essentially works like tape, but sound waves are stored as magnetic fluctuations on steel about the thickness of light fishing line. The format was not commercially viable until the late 1930s and was used mainly for dictation purposes. This Webster Chicago machine was completely reconditioned at Belfer. It was used to digitize 13 wire reels containing the voice of Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson dictating her memoir. Due to a lack of a functioning period wire machine, the recordings had lain unheard in the George Eastman Museum in Rochester for years until a collaboration with Belfer resulted in digitization of the wire reels.

Relevant SCRC collections: Erica Anderson Collection, Belfer Wire Recordings Collection.

Assorted vintage analog equipment

tape players
Assorted vintage analog equipment
EQ units
Assorted vintage analog equipment

These equipment racks contain obsolete tape players and specialized EQ, or “tone shaping,” units. Some of these EQ devices are increasingly popular in modern recording studios due to their analog tonal characteristics, and command increasingly high prices in the vintage equipment market.


Two of Belfer’s phono record turntables.

Above are two of Belfer’s phono record turntables. The nearest is a Technics SP 1015 from the 1980s, and one of the few high-end players that will play 78rpm discs, of which we have 370,000 in our collections. In the background are vinyl LPs awaiting digitization.

Relevant SCRC collections:
Lacquer discs: Margaret Bourke-White Papers, WSYR Collection, Franz Waxman Papers.
Vinyl: Bell Brothers Collection of Latin American and Caribbean Recordings, Belfer Commercial Phonograph Disc Collection.
Shellac 78s: Belfer Commercial Phonograph Disc Collection.

The image and recording featured in this post are from our E. Thomas Billard Papers (E. Thomas Billard Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.

The Archives Preservation Countdown coverage continues on Sound Beat this week. Make sure to check out their episode on the E. Thomas Billard cassette tapes today!