How is this for irony? Just weeks ago, analog TV sets across America went dark. Just months from now, the matrix of TV screen shaped ceiling lights at the David Sarnoff Library will go dark for the last time.
Opened in 1967 by RCA at the Sarnoff Research Center, the David Sarnoff Library is a repository of research archives, exhibits, and a content-rich Web site that documents the life of communications visionary and corporate dynamo David Sarnoff (1891-1971), as well as the history of milestone achievements of radio, television, electronics, and communications, both analog and digital, told through a collection that contains 25,000 photographs and thousands of notebooks, reports, publications and artifacts.
“Yes, it is ironic,” says Alex Magoun, curator and executive director of the library. “Depending on how you date it, the color TV standard was established around 1953 and the monochrome black and white standard around 1941. Both of them were basically RCA systems standards for broadcasting. Color picture tubes still live on in many households, and the LCD still lives on in a variety of devices.”
The Sarnoff Corporation, the research company that has occupied the campus since RCA ended operations in 1986, will cease hosting the library at the end of this year. “Sarnoff Corporation is a for-profit company,” Magoun says, “and any business person understands the need to make decisions on a bottom-line basis. If the library does not tangibly benefit the company’s contract research or product sales, then the decision to no longer support its operation is a rational one.”
Magoun grew up in Manchester-by-the-sea, MA, where his father was a municipal bond trader, and his mother was director of the Lynn Historical Society in Lynn, MA. He earned a bachelor’s in history from Trinity College in Hartford in 1981, a master’s in history from the University of East Anglia, England, in 1983, and a PhD in history from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2000. He began his association with the library in 1994, when he began visiting to research his doctoral thesis.
“That’s when I discovered the importance of the collection,” he says. “Because when my advisor suggested the library as a possible source for my dissertation, it’s an even chance I didn’t know who David Sarnoff was.”
He became an official member of the RCA “family” in 1998. “It began to sink in that this was an extremely amazing, creative, inventive site for technologists and I could perhaps, with various forms of support, turn it into a public-private enterprise that could serve the public, serve the company, serve schoolchildren, and serve the researchers,” Magoun says.
“This has become a crossroads, as many libraries are. If you look at libraries like Plainsboro’s library or Princeton’s library, it’s not so much the quiet place where people are squirreled away with books, although that is still a fundamental role, as it is a place for community groups and the exchange of information, and a resource of information and the gatekeeping that can direct you to other places.”
He notes that the Sarnoff library drew about 1,500 people in 2008, from individual visitors to school field trips. He also receives hundreds of E-mail or phone inquiries annually from researchers all over the world; like the researcher who was looking into the origins of the now ubiquitous LCD. “The beginnings of liquid crystal display technology were here,” Magoun says, “in Somerville, Raritan, and Optel further up Route 1. It’s the researchers who, digging through the lab notebooks and the technical reports, are the ones that will point out what people have forgotten, because nobody bothered to ask the original people; research that ends up in textbooks, because people writing text books need to go to the original sources.”
He also notes the professional audiences that the library has hosted, ranging from the ACM/IEEE computer science people to the Einstein Alley Board, local Chambers of Commerce and the New Jersey Technology Council. “The library has become a showcase for what New Jersey has done, is doing, could do,” he says.
Magoun says that one of the best parts of the job has been meeting a wide variety of members of the so-called RCA family, from the Sarnoff family members down to the 90-year-old engineers and the 60-year-old technicians, and their children and grandchildren. “They all have a story to tell,” he says, “and for all the cynicism one might have about corporate paternalism, the feeling in general about the RCA family strikes me as legitimate, and if not unique in American corporate annals, at least relatively rare.”
Another side of his stint at the library has been his role as tour guide for thousands of young people, college students from Rider, Mercer County College or TCNJ who, prior to taking the tour, had no idea about the straight line that can be drawn between the discoveries chronicled at the Sarnoff Library and the electronics they use to communicate, listen to music, and watch videos.
Magoun is particularly enthused about speaking to the hundreds of grade school students who come in for field trips. “I’ve seen them alternately light up with historical awareness, or an awareness of the science and engineering that goes on at a very basic level that leads to this sort of work,” he says, “and thinking that maybe they could do this.”
He remembers a girl from Branchburg, who, when asked “How many of you are good at math?” replied “Well, I’m good at math, but I don’t like it.”
“I like to think that by the end of that session that we had convinced her and some of her classmates that it’s not just fun to invent, but that you can make a serious contribution to solving problems,” he says. “Not just like David Sarnoff and the RCA people, but in medicine, the environment, or in energy.
“That’s what gets the kids really excited,” he continues. “That that’s what they want to make a mark in, and then to have this historical context from ‘my state,’ ‘my county,’ ‘my region,’ and think that maybe they’re going to be a part of this, and ideally stay in New Jersey instead of disappearing to California, or Atlanta or some other place.”
Magoun, who has been notified that his position at the library will end at the end of this year, has been participating in the search for a new home for the library. He hopes that the entire collection can be kept intact in the care of a single institution. “The power of this library is its holistic nature,” he says. “We could distribute the computer-related material to one museum, the video displays and the televisions to another museum and the archive to an archival repository, and they’ll all take good care of them, but then you’ve lost the fact that this is the 20th century’s version of the (Menlo Park, NJ) Edison site. New Jersey punted on the original Edison site, which is why it’s in Michigan at the Henry Ford Museum.
“The challenge is, between the state of the economy and the fact that larger institutions have their own strategic plans and exhibition plans, how are you going to make room for this valuable but unanticipated resource?”
On a recent tour of the library, I asked Magoun what he would save if disaster struck and he only had time to save one exhibit. He pondered a moment as he glanced around the room. “The color picture tube was a crowning achievement, he says, “but there are millions of them around the world. Perhaps the liquid crystal displays, or Sarnoff’s telegraph key. We haven’t talked about it, but see that silver, ice cream cone shaped picture tube? That’s the predecessor of all black and white picture tubes.
“The first thin film transistors, or TFT’s are here, and I believe this electron microscope is the oldest intact production model, at least outside of Germany. Then there are the lab notebooks and the technical reports…”
Perhaps we should just hope that Magoun and the powers that be find a way to save it all.
David Sarnoff Library, 201 Washington Road, 609-734-2636, www.davidsarnoff.org. Tours of the library may currently be scheduled between 9:30 am and 6 p.m, Monday through Friday. A donation of five dollars per person is suggested. You must book your tour in advance by contacting Alex Magoun at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 609 734-2636.