SUU Digitization Project is a Window to the Past

Mahala Ruddell Utah State Historical Records Advisory Board

Each year, the Utah State Historical Records Advisory Board (USHRAB) awards grants to organizations throughout the state to assist with the preservation and public access of our state’s history. These grants are made possible by funding from the National Historical Records and Publications Commission at the National Archives. As we get ready for the USHRAB’s 2022 funding season, we’re going to spend the next couple weeks taking a look at some past and current projects and the work the Board does to make Utah history more accessible.

Southern Utah University Finds a Window to the Past

Southern Utah University applied for grant funding last spring and was awarded $4,627 to digitize roughly ninety 16-mm film reels documenting campus and community life from the 1940s-1970s. Footage identified before the project began included a 1947 student party, a student trip to Zion National Park in 1948, university commencements from 1949 and 1962, a Louis Armstrong concert in 1962, the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s inaugural performance of Taming of the Shrew in 1961, campus life, athletic events, and more. 

Since its founding as the Branch Normal School in 1897, Southern Utah University has been a cornerstone of the Iron County and Southern Utah community. This footage provides a window into student and local life at a unique and critical time of change for the country. When cross referenced with paper based archival records in the University’s collection as well as historical newspapers, the significance of the footage comes alive. Of particular note is video from Louis Armstrong’s concert in 1962, especially because there is very little other documentation of the event.

The Beaver County News (left) and Iron County Record (right) both reported on Armstrong’s concert in 1962. Louis Armstrong and his All Stars band were part of the celebrations to dedicate the new College of Southern Utah student center. Sources: Beaver County News, March 22, 1962 and Iron County Record, March 1, 1962.

Project Challenges and Successes:

To date, SUU has successfully digitized all of the film, 85 reels in all, totaling 10,780 feet of film. They are currently working on managing files, identifying footage, and preparing it for exhibition. Sally McDonald, project director, reports that the team has “identified film as far back as 1940 color film of [Branch Agricultural College’s] homecoming parade in downtown Cedar City.” The portion of Main Street shown in the footage was destroyed by fire in 1962. The latest film dates to the late 1960s/early 1970s. “We have found films relating to WWII, including the Army’s Flight Training School on campus in 1943 and student life during the war (all in color),” McDonald shared. “Other film [includes] the construction of the temporary stage for the first production of [the] Utah Shakespeare Festival, the first ever known student induction ceremony, a faculty and staff breakfast, [and] color footage of several past college presidents.” 

University Archives is taking advantage of the fact that this year marks the 125th anniversary of Southern Utah University. Staff are thrilled to be able to share this footage as widely as possibly. “The film has already been shared with several professors and campus members,” McDonal said. Professors have approached the Archives to begin using the videos in classes. SUU’s marketing team is also involved, already using the film for marketing purposes. Additionally, the Archives has “begun work on an interactive, touch screen exhibit” and McDonal is “currently in the process of uploading selections into [the Archives’] system to be viewed by the public.”

Unfortunately, some of the film was discovered to be damaged, underexposed, and brittle. McDonald shared that “several of the older films have ghosting, poor exposure,” or bad focusing. “The most disappointing film was the Louis Armstrong footage,” McDonald said. The film was damaged and turned out to be extremely difficult to see. Despite this, it remains a historical treasure.

A Sneak Peek Behind the Scenes:

While the project is not quite ready to unveil, archivists are working hard to finish things up. Enjoy this sneak peek at some of the work:

Southern Utah University Archives is currently utilizing USHRAB funding to work with a vendor to digitize historical footage documenting university and regional history. Photo by Sally McDonald.
Some of the film was damaged, brittle, faded, or underexposed. Nonetheless, all of the footage remains a valuable window to the past. Photo by Sally McDonald.

The USHRAB’s grant program is funded by a State Board Programming Grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives. The USHRAB assists public and private non-profits, as well as non-Federal government entities throughout the State of Utah in the preservation and use of historical records.