By: Maddie McDermott
Finding internships in archives can be a daunting task. Pretty much every archive has a backlog of collections that need to be processed: worked through, repaired, rehoused, cataloged, organized, and prepared for researchers. Because one of an archives’ main goals is to assist people who come in to learn, these tasks are very important. However, they’re also time-consuming and sometimes tedious. If you have the option of processing a cool collection over a boring one, it’s usually not a hard choice. When I had the opportunity to process a collection of radio scripts here at the College Archives & Special Collections at Columbia, I jumped at the chance. In my mind, I envisioned piles of old radio shows, with scripts for detective mysteries or talent shows, folk tales and story times. What I found didn’t fit into any of the categories I imagined, but surpassed my expectations in other ways.
On the first day of my internship, I sat down with the collection of radio scripts. It was smaller than I imagined – rather than piles of scripts, it was more like a couple small stacks. And as I began the first step of my processing, an initial look-through to get a feel for dates and contents, I realized that they weren’t the hardboiled detective stories or dramatic soap operas I expected, either. No, the first folder I looked through was full of … commercials for a local department store? It was a little disappointing. Here I was, thinking that I’d get to be entertained by radio shows for weeks, and I was wrong. Gone were my plans – outreach possibilities to theatre classes! Opportunities to bring in radio students! Potentially recreating shows for audiences! I was only through the first folder, though, and my radio script luck was about to change.
The scripts in this collection date from 1941 to 1945, the entirety of America’s involvement in World War II. I could see the war reflected in some of the commercials I first ran into, mostly in regards to rationed materials and suggested alternatives (leg makeup instead of nylons, ladies?). Suddenly, though, I was running into war-focused programming. Thanks to a US Treasury-sponsored show that ran weekly during the war, I was now reading interviews where soldiers detailed their experiences in combat and businesses touted their involvement in war bond sales. These interviews were totally unexpected for me, and incredibly interesting. They also meant that this collection could be of interest to a whole new group of researchers. Instead of people interested in vintage radio culture, people looking for soldiers’ experiences in the Pacific Theatre or information on the war bond program could use these scripts. They offer insights into life on the homefront, particularly as to what information about the war was released to everyday people. They even include a few interviews with veterinarians and animal care in the 1940s!
I also did a little research into the woman we believe amassed this group of radio scripts, Helen Mary Knox. I found out that she grew up in northwest Illinois, went to college in Iowa, and then became one of the first women radio broadcasters in that state. She then moved back to Chicago, and worked as a writer, broadcaster, and manager for two different stations in the city. Having a woman radio broadcaster was unusual for the time, and having a woman in positions of power at the radio was even more unusual. Knox continued to defy stereotypes even after moving away from Chicago. While teaching in an inner-city grade school, she noticed that many students needed leadership experience, and also had no contact with nature. She helped found Outward Bound Adventures, an outdoor leadership academy (unaffiliated with Outward Bound). It’s still a community fixture in Pasadena, California, offering outdoor skills and leadership education to underprivileged youths and young adults.
In the end, the scripts I worked with were not the scripts I anticipated. I didn’t spend my days leafing through romantic tales or scary mysteries, and I don’t think that any radio or acting class is going to want to recreate these scripts for practice. But the scripts that I did find are full of information that a whole different group of researchers will want to explore, and I’m proud of my finished product.