Michigan State library gives spoken word a little respect

One day soon, you may be driving your car with the radio on and suddenly hear the crisp, firm inflection of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt branding the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor as ''a day which will live in infamy.'' Deja vu? In a way.

What you are actually hearing is one of the daily, two-minute ''Voices From Times Past'' excerpts offered to National Public Radio member stations by Michigan State University's WKAR under an NPR grant. Each broadcast recalls an important event in history on that day by letting listeners hear the actual voices of everyone from Vladimir Lenin and Florence Nightingale to Adolph Hitler and Thomas A. Edison.

''Some days are easier than others, and it may not always be a big event,'' cautions WKAR's Steve Jensen, who produces the program. ''The voices are really the highlight. We try to pick those things we have the best voices for.''

The picking he's talking about goes on at Michigan State's Voice Library, one of the first and largest of its kind on any university campus.

On tap here in a fourth-floor corner of the university's mammoth library are 9,000 tape recordings containing more than 30,000 famous voices. One room here is chock-full of seven-inch tape reels, and many more are being stored for the moment in a warehouse near the Lansing airport.

As you thumb through the Voice Library catalog, you will soon discover you can listen to everything from old Rinso ads and ''The Shadow'' serials to every detail of the Watergate hearings and the infamous speech by Britain's Neville Chamberlain in which he tells his countrymen he is convinced that Hitler has no more territorial designs on Europe.

The man at the helm of this collection is Dr. Maurice Crane, a humanities professor here, who says he enjoys nothing so much as listening to as many voices as he has time for and putting others who want to hear them in touch with the right reels.

''This is really delightful stuff,'' he says as he instructs a visitor on how to use the card index. ''It's like sitting down with a Sears catalog.''

As a handy aid to the WKAR program, Dr. Crane keeps a book listing all important events on any day in history. At home he has 365 reels of tape, one for each day. He notes that some days are relatively quiet, such as the last days before Christmas (the Bangladesh war in late December 1971 was an exception). By contrast, Nov. 22, the day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson sworn in as his replacement, is a particularly big one in this voice collection.

Does hearing the actual voice of an important figure in history really give a listener-researcher that much more than he would get by reading a transcript?

Dr. Crane insists that the answer is a resounding ''yes.''

For one thing, he says, transcripts are not always accurate. For another, the flavor and timing of speech are often only discernible by listening. Crane points to comedian Jack Benny's long pause after a would-be robber has threatened: ''Your money or your life.'' (''Well?'' demands the robber. ''I'm thinking it over,'' Benny replies.) Also, he says, trying to teach students about Sen. Joseph McCarthy without playing tapes to illustrate his unique ''inquisitorial'' style is a bit like trying to teach about Rembrandt without using a slide projector. It is one reason the voice collection is integrated into the regular card catalog where anyone researching a general subject is sure to see it.

Also, nothing can quite compare with hearing a lively discussion between two or more speakers, in Dr. Crane's view. One of his favorites is a January 1940 debate between then Wisconsin Gov. Philip La Follette and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes over the merits of lend-lease aid to Great Britain. Senator La Follette strongly opposed US entry in the war, and his friend Ickes, taking the administration's view, becomes worked up enough to accuse La Follette of being sympathetic to the enemy.

''These two very good men are screaming at one another - it's a debate that has to be heard to be believed,'' Dr. Crane says. ''It gives you a better picture of these two curmudgeons in action than any picture you might paint.''

Dr. Crane also notes that there is a certain ''tragic irony'' involved in hearing some voices from the past, such as Chamberlain's, when the listener knows the outcome but the speaker does not.

''There was never anyone so adamant as (former Vice-President) Spiro Agnew insisting he would never resign two days before he actually did,'' says the director of the Voice Library, who also has on hand a 1956 University of Chicago ''Roundtable of the Air'' discussion in which Philip Hauser, a sociologist, predicts that all slums in Chicago will have disappeared by 1980.

''It's like teaching about 'Hamlet,' where everybody knows how it's going to turn out except the speaker,'' says Dr. Crane. ''Nobody ever said, 'I'm so tired of the Middle Ages, I can't wait for the Renaissance' . . . It makes for a kind of excitement that you usually get only in theater.''

Student favorites in the Voice Library include comedy team Abbott and Costello's famous ''Who's on first?'' routine, Orson Welles's memorable ''War of the Worlds'' broadcast of 1938, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's Chappaquiddick statement, and former President Nixon's ''Checkers'' speech in which he defends the gift of a dog to his daughters. ''College kids listen to that one and just howl,'' says Crane.

This energetic man with a head of jet black hair and mustache to match came into the library world somewhat laterally. A former disc jockey, TV talk-show host, poet, and music composer, he had been teaching literature on campus for about 20 years when he was asked to take over the library post.

The Voice Library got its start when G. Robert Vincent, a one-time associate of Thomas Edison's who had been the chief sound engineer at the Nuremberg trials and at the opening of the United Nations in San Francisco, was invited to come to the campus in 1962 to catalog his personal collection of 800 tapes. Dr. Crane , who was then teaching a course on the history of comedy, says he first met Bob Vincent while looking for recorded examples for his lectures. Mr. Vincent was, he says, ''a real pack rat - the kind of man who saved depression glass during the depression.'' Later the two men collaborated on a show called ''Spin Back the Years'' for the Mutual Broadcasting Network. When Mr. Vincent retired in 1974 and gave his collection to the university, Dr. Crane was asked to succeed him.

Crane would much rather share the goods than put a protective hold on them. He finds the idea of an exclusive, little-used collection both tragic and ''wildly'' comic. The fact that you can buy a blank cassette for 85 cents in a vending machine as you step off the library elevator on the fourth floor is symbolic of his view of the Voice Library's mission.

''I was never trained as a stamp collector,'' he says. ''If you say something particularly poignant to me, I'm sure to repeat it to my students first thing Monday morning. I'm not a stockpiler. The people I like best never say, 'It's mine - you can't have it.' If you hear something here that's not under copyright and you want to take a copy home, be our guest.''

Dr. Crane says he trades and sends copies of recordings to other collectors much as if all involved were trading bubble-gum cards. He may trade a statement of William Jennings Bryan, for instance, for one of Warren G. Harding's.

J. Fred MacDonald, a professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University and a man who has been collecting voices for his own personal archives for a decade or more, says the attitude of his friend Dr. Crane is somewhat unusual.

''I think he's projecting his own generosity on the field in general,'' Dr. MacDonald says. ''Some archivists are very retentive and would rather collect it than use it. Maury is a professor of classics and he doesn't come at it with that disposition. Michigan (State) had the smarts to engage one of its brighter professors who believes in putting the material to use.''

Indeed, copies are the only way to really build up a collection, says Dr. MacDonald.

''You don't lose anything by making a copy because the original is always a little better,'' he says.

The Voice Library has occasionally gone to great lengths to get a good copy. Only after considerable and persistent cajoling, for instance, was the Wisconsin State Historical Society finally persuaded to ship to its neighbor state some fragile aluminum discs it had in storage that featured the voice of John L. Lewis, the late labor leader. To play them, in order to make a tape copy, Michigan State engineers had to locate some bamboo needles (no longer produced, but they found some in a university museum) and a voltage regulator to slow the speed.

Requests to use the voice collection have come from varied sources besides faculty and students, including the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Library of Congress, and a few movie studios. Paramount Pictures used some radio broadcasts from the 1930s for ''The Day of the Locust.''

The oldest item in Michigan's collection, made shortly after the invention of the first successful phonograph, is an 1888 recorded invitation to visit Canada from Canadian Governor General Frederick Stanley to then-US President Grover Cleveland.

The assets of the Voice Library have swelled considerably over this last year. Recent gifts include 905 conversations among public and academic leaders at Wingspread, a seminar site supported by the Johnson Foundation, and some reels of radio and TV news and interviews collected by a retired CBS recording engineer, Anthony Janak, and his wife.

Though his approach to sharing the collection is more relaxed than that of many of his counterparts, Dr. Crane suggests that the stored spoken word deserves considerably more respect than it generally gets.''Most people tend to look on recording collections as something nonserious for preschoolers, a sort of sandbox for illiterates,'' he observes. ''To some people, trying to teach from a record collection is like trying to teach Shakespeare from Classic Comics. But I think Shakespeare would have approved of a good record. . . .''

What Dr. Crane would most like to see now is a major integrated catalog of all voice collections in the US so that anyone hunting for a particular speech or voice would know exactly where to go.

In the meantime, if you're longing to hear what Woodrow Wilson said when he set off on his nationwide tour to sell the Versailles Treaty to the American people or hear Alfred Lord Tennyson read aloud his ''Charge of the Light Brigade ,'' head for Michigan State.

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