Detective work

Back in June I spent a day at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a long story, but Wisconsin has a huge collection of papers related to broadcast history. And, as things turned out, it’s where the NBC papers ended up. For anyone needing to conduct research into broadcast history, Wisconsin is a mandatory stop. (And don’t think one day will suffice, either. I am certain that had my schedule allowed, I could have spent a week and not scratched the surface. The NBC collection is huge.)

It had been about a decade and a half since I’d last done honest-to-goodness research in archival materials. Teaching at a small college means you don’t get much time to do research, because you have a dozen other duties demanding your attention and the day only has so many hours. Research has been one of those “I’ll get around to it” things. The Wisconsin trip let me break that cycle, and getting back into the documents was as delightful as I remembered. I had missed it, and each box the archivists brought out for me contained a new treasure.

This was my view most of the day: a big box of folders full of documents from yesteryear, each of them its own little time machine. I had little time for reverie; as soon as I opened a folder with a worthwhile document, I had the phone on my camera going like crazy capturing pages. It got really interesting in correspondence files, for so many of those documents were file copies produced with carbon paper (anybody remember that stuff?) on onion-skin paper. I’d hoped to get a copy of one especially intriguing document, only to find about ten pages in that it was just about half a ream of onion-skin paper, and I’d expend precious time and battery life to get a document not really related to Dave Garroway. (Argh! The choices we must make!)

Sometimes, though, I’d come across a box that left me speechless. For instance, a box containing the scripts, coordination charts, and other miscellany for each installment of Wide Wide World. I’ve watched this countless times, and yet before me was this:

It was the genuine, game-used (in the coordinating studio) script from that very telecast. In my hands. It was truly a moment. (And reading the script as written really drove home to me just what Dave Garroway could do with a piece of material – that little intangible something that took plain words and made them magic.)

There were dozens upon dozens of finds during that trip, and all of them will come to play somehow in this book we’re working on. But of all of them, this is definitely one of my favorites. It reminded me why I love the historian’s craft, how much I’ve truly missed it, and why I’m so glad I get to engage in it from time to time.