Librarians are always pleased when users find what they are looking for. But sometimes the real joy is seeing them find what they didn't come looking for.
Asher Miller, 18, just needed a job for the months between his graduation from Evanston Township High School in June 2009 and his departure for Grinnell College in the fall. He had spent the previous summer working in University Archives and enjoyed it enough to come back. "It's a surprisingly physical job, because you're moving boxes around a lot of the time," he says, "but working with the materials can be really interesting." Since Archives often fields questions about the student lives of celebrity alumni, one of Miller's projects that first summer was creating a spreadsheet of locations where famous and infamous alums lived while attending Northwestern. (The eclectic list includes Ann-Margret, Zach Braff, and Rod Blagojevich.)
Last summer Miller's assignment didn't seem quite as glamorous. Archives was processing a collection of 1,300 audiotapes from a radio show called Reviewing Stand that aired on WGN and the Mutual Broadcasting System from 1959 to 1985. The show featured guest experts addressing topics of current or historical interest. Miller's job was to go through all the tapes; create spreadsheet identifying them by date, topic, and guest; and then organize them into 54 storage boxes in their proper chronological order.
One afternoon, he picked up a box labeled "A Look at the Man Called Darrow," containing tape of a show that had aired in 1964. Miller knew that his late grandfather, Arthur Weinberg, had been a leading expert on Clarence Darrow and that he'd collaborated with his wife, Lila, on three books about Darrow. "In this case, the label on the box only said the name of the radio segment, not who the guests were," Miller recalls. "But when I mentioned it to my mom at home that night, she said, 'You should listen to it. If could be your grandfather.' "
So the next morning Miller threaded the tape into the old tape player in University Archives and listened while the announcer's voice crackled out: "This morning we are pleased to welcome our guests, Arthur Weinberg, author of Clarence Darrow, Verdicts Out of Court, and Attorney for the Damned… and Elmer Gertz, prominent Chicago attorney and author."
The show features his grandfather chatting with Gertz (the attorney who won parole for murderer Nathan Leopold in 1958) about Darrow's life and legacy. Weinberg makes a few remarks that are personally revealing as well – such as declaring that when he was a little boy he wanted to "be another Clarence Darrow."
"I was shocked," Miller says, "I'd never heard my grandfather's voice before." Weinberg died in 1989, two years before Miller was born. But his grandmother, Lila, still lives in the area. "We made a digital copy of the tape for her, and I was able to play it for her," he says.
As Miller embarked on college life last fall, he was thinking he might ultimately like to teach – either English or history. He says his job in University Archives was most interesting to him when he could "connect history to myself in some way. There were so many names on those radio tapes that were famous, that I recognized, like Adlai Stevenson. But it was really moving to see this one that I recognized in another way."