Student Perspective: Digitizing the Written Word

Columbia College Chicago Library

As a college student, I know how much you hate that mandatory speech class. Some of you have gotten it out of the way early, and good for you, but I know there’s that group of students who have been putting it off… and putting it off….  Soon enough, it’s your last semester, and you still haven’t gotten that ridiculous public speaking class out of the way. I mean, who needs it, right? You’re in art school! You gave enough useless speeches in high school to last you a lifetime.

But how many of you know that Columbia College Chicago opened in 1890 as Columbia School of Oratory? A speech school. Forget about that one semester of standing up in front of people, prattling on about whatever you crazy kids are doing these days, all eyes watching your every move. (Shout out to my fellow vocal performance students here.) But what about years of speech class? A degree in public speaking? Or even slightly more unheard of: doing it for fun.

Phi Sigma, established in Chicago in 1877, is a group dedicated to public speaking and is the oldest continuously running organization of its kind in Illinois. The collection pays homage to Columbia’s early curricula in oratory arts and it speaks to Columbia’s mission and curricula today. Think about it, a bunch of people sitting around giving speeches to each other. For fun. Anyone else get shivers at that thought? It can’t just be me. They came to us, having once been a school of oratory, asking us to take in their extensive collection into our Archives. Among many items was The Voice, a monthly publication including members’ personal writings as well transcripts of their speeches. The earliest issue I’ve come across thus far was written in 1879. And yes, they are the originals. That’s almost forty years before the First World War. The Civil War had only been over for fourteen years at that point! You don’t have to be a history buff to agree that my job is pretty awesome.

There’s something wonderfully haunting about holding a yellowing nineteenth century document in your hands. The people that wrote those words haven’t written a single letter since well beyond any of us can remember. (And by the way, whatever happened to good penmanship? It’s a lost art, I’m telling you.) But paper fades. These voices from well over a century ago will eventually turn to dust, it’s no question. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to make these pieces of history accessible to the public. Scans of the original documents will be available to the public within the next year, and until then, we’re hard at work getting them ready for the eyes of a new generation.

These documents have become incredibly brittle over the years, and it hasn’t been uncommon to find rusted bindings and moldy pages, so they must be treated carefully. They have to be taken apart in order to be digitized in order to get the best quality possible. The bindings range from materials like staples and brass fasteners, to decorative ribbons, glue, and string. Keep in mind, these things have been bound together for over a century. They don’t come undone without a fuss. We do our best to keep the integrity of the pages, but sometimes that patch of glue just won’t budge. The digital images are then cleaned up in Photoshop, covering any blemishes while also trying to keep the pages looking like the originals as they came to us. Then the issues are assembled into PDFs to be made available to you!

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