About Sam Sfirri

Sam Sfirri is a processing archivist at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania.

A relationship between author and publisher in letters: the James Conway collection relating to James T. Farrell and William Targ

For those interested in the professional (and personal) relationships between author and publisher, the SCPC is proud to have the James Conway collection relating to James T. Farrell and William Targ (Ms. Coll. 1438) open for research use, serving as an excellent companion to the James T. Farrell papers (Ms. Coll. 886).

James T. Farrell engaged in reading

James T. Farrell (1907-1979) was an American writer born into a South Side Chicago working-class Irish-Catholic family. Farrell is recognized as a leading figure for 20th century naturalism in American literature through his brutally realistic depiction of his childhood conditions and environment, additionally drawing inspiration from the writings and social attitudes of John Dewey, Theodore Dreiser, and Leon Trotsky. Over a nearly fifty year period, Farrell wrote and published his work in a variety of formats, including short-stories, poetry, literary criticism, and especially novels. Among his many publications, he is best known for having written the Studs Lonigan trilogy. It should also be noted that he was a prolific writer of letters, known for developing personal relationships and ongoing discursive conversation with a variety of intellectuals, especially other authors and publishers.


Well-respected Chicago book editor and publisher, William Targ (1907-1999), began his career in 1925 at Macmillan Publishers. He left his post at the tender age of 22 to open his own rare book and first edition bookstore in 1929. He later worked for World Publishing Company eventually rising to the position of editor-in-chief, and for G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Upon retirement, he founded his own limited edition publishing company, Targ Editions. He is best known for publishing the novel, The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, recognized as the single most profitable novel ever published.


A handwritten letter from Farrell to Targ showing signs of the deterioration of their relationship (and Farrell’s penmanship)

Plagued by the early success of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, the trajectory of Farrell’s writing career can be seen as one of slow decline from the very beginning. As evinced in his correspondence, he became deeply embittered by his own publishers, William Targ included. This collection, predominantly comprised of correspondence with Targ from 1945 to 1969, provides tremendous insight into the slow death of a professional and personal relationship between the author and the publisher. The handwritten correspondence from Farrell reveals a slow decline in his handwriting, eventually rendering his letters virtually illegible. Thankfully, the donor and compiler of this collection, James Conway, made valiant attempts at transcribing some of the handwritten correspondence, but even he fell short of deciphering large swaths of content.

In addition to Farrell’s correspondence with Targ, there is correspondence with a select few other publishers, drafts to introductions for his books No Star is Lost and My Days of Anger, a small selection of other working files and publisher materials, obituaries, and some press coverage of events surrounding his centennial.

The James Conway collection relating to James T. Farrell and William Targ (Ms. Coll. 1438) finding aid can be found here.

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: Voice-O-Graphs

“Voice-O-Graph and Mail Sleeve”

Between the 1920s and the 1960s, Voice-O-Graph machines afforded the paying customer an opportunity to record a voice message onto a small vinyl record. Similar to a photo booth, these coin operated recording machines would allow from one to three minutes of audio content, spitting out a record and a mailing sleeve after the short recording session was complete.

Unlike a published vinyl record, Voice-O-Graph records provide unique audio content of everyday people, oftentimes containing voice messages from soldiers to their families heading off to battle, and could also be seen at fairgrounds and on the boardwalk.

Ida, Kate. “The History Of Those Recording Studio Booths.” Vinyl Me Please, last modified June 27, 2017, https://magazine.vinylmeplease.com/magazine/history-those-recording-studio-booths/

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: Email

1. “Mail”; 2. “Artistic Interpretation of Email”

The first evidence of email dates back to 1965 at MIT, where users would log on to certain computers to write and receive messages using a program called “MAILBOX.” To access their messages, a user would log on to MAILBOX and read those left for them by colleagues who had logged on earlier, or write their own for colleagues who would later log on to the program.

By 1969, the United States Department of Defense developed the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), where messages could be sent and received within a computer network. 

Ray Tomlinson is credited as having sent the first email in 1971, apparently consisting of the following message: “QWERTYUIOP.” Tomlinson famously used an @ (at symbol) to join the recipient name and the computer on which their mailbox was located, an enduring convention that has lasted up to the present day. However, the method of messaging the Tomlinson employed was still bound to a closed network of computers, where the successful transmission of Tomlinson’s message required that both his and the message recipient’s machine also needed to share the same messaging software.

By the 1980s, the first internet service providers (ISPs), namely The World, connected internet users without the necessity for shared local networks and software. This paved the way for worldwide access to the internet, a medium where email was seen as its first major practical tool.

In 1991, astronauts from the International Space Station send the first email to earth, using a Macintosh Portable brought aboard the Atlantis

By the mid-1990s, American Online (AOL), Echomail, Hotmail, among others exposed email to a wider public user base. Between 1997 and 1999, the internet user base increased from 55 million to 400 million, ensuring the pervasive use of email up to the present day.

“A brief history of email: dedicated to Ray Tomlinson.” Phrasee, last modified March 10, 2016, https://phrasee.co/a-brief-history-of-email/

“A Short History of Email.” Macworld, accessed September 3, 2020, https://www.macworld.com/article/1167303/timeline-a-brief-history-of-email.html

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: VHS tapes


“VHS tape”: 1. VHS tape including a description of its content

VHS tapes, or Video Home System tapes, are a consumer-grade analog video recording standard, famous for housing many of our home videos. By 1977, the Victory Company of Japan (JVC) had released their product to the Japanese and American markets, starting a chain of events that would have major implications on the way we consume our entertainment.

Together with its recording and playback device, the VCR (Videocassette Recorder), VHS technology changed the way television viewers approached their viewing experience. In addition to providing a relatively inexpensive way to capture precious family moments, youth sporting events, and other amateur video projects, users of the VHS would be able to record their favorite television program, regardless of its broadcast slot, and then watch the program at their convenience. This posed a major problem for television broadcasters, screwing their viewership data, and losing adversing confidence with the knowledge that viewers could easily fast-forward through the commercials. 

Fast-forward to the present day, and it should be no surprise as to why we now have so many subscription-based on-demand and streaming services (and are simply unable to skip through advertisements)! The broadcasting and entertainment service industry has had to change their approach to providing content, essentially allowing viewer the option to watch whatever they want, whenever they want; it’s all thanks to the ingenuity and pervasiveness of VHS technology from over 40 years ago!

“Milestones: Development of VHS, a World Standard for Home Video Recording.” ETHW, last modified December 31, 2015, https://ethw.org/Milestones:Development_of_VHS,_a_World_Standard_for_Home_Video_Recording,_1976

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: Floppy disks


“Floppy disks”: 1. 8-inch disk; 2. 5.25-inch disk; 3. 3.5-inch disk

The floppy disk was, until the advent of the CD-ROM and other optical disk, the primary carrier of portable computer data for personal and professional computer use. Invented by Alan Shugart of IBM in 1967, the 8-inch disk (or “diskette”) containing a magnetically coated plastic sheet with a circular hole in the center, allowed for data to be stored on either side. 

By 1981, the 8-inch disk was replaced by a similarly constructed, 5.25-inch disk. Capable of holding 360 kilobytes of data, the new design included a flexible plastic envelope to protect the magnetic sheet, which earned the disk its famous nickname: floppy.

Another design improvement was implemented by the mid-1980s, reducing the size to 3.5-inches, allowing for the ability to read and write information, and increasing the storage capacity four-fold to 1.44 megabytes. 

Until the mid-1990s, most computers had both 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch drives, after which point the 5.25-inch drive started to be replaced by CD-ROM drives. Eventually, by about 1998, 3 1/2-inch floppy disks began their descent into obsolescence, ultimately losing their place to optical disks like CD-ROMs, CD-Rs, CD-RWs, and DVDs.

While most of us may never see a real floppy disk ever again, it is thanks to Microsoft and other software producers that we continue to keep company with the ghost of the floppy disk in the form of the modern-day “save” icon!

Brown, Gary. “How Floppy Disk Drives Work.” HowStuffWorks.com, last modified February 26, 2001, https://computer.howstuffworks.com/floppy-disk-drive.htm

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: Cylinders


“Cylinder”: 1. Cylinder; 2. Spiraled groove

Before the advent of the disc as the standard shape, the cylinder represented the first grooved media to be made commercially available. In the summer of 1877 Thomas Edison is cited as having moved indented tin foil underneath the stylus (like the needle of a record player) of his new telegraph device, discovering the phenomenon of sound reproduction. With some more experimentation, Edison was able to record “Mary Had A Little Lamb” onto a sheet of tin foil, shaped into a cylinder, where a single spiral groove “held” the recorded song in the form of peaks and valleys, running from one end of the cylinder to the other, along the outside of the cylinder like a spiral staircase.



“Phonograph”: 3. Cylinder; 4. Stylus

Eventually, with help from rival inventors, tin foil was replaced by wax (wax cylinder), then a variety of shellac substances (“Amberol,” “Blue Amberol”) with corresponding playback machines, such as the Phonograph (Edison) and Graphophone (Bell & Tainter). By 1888, Emile Berliner developed a similar technology, but changed the shape of the media from a cylinder to a disc, affording the potential of a much larger surface area than the cylinder. This enhanced feature, alongside the possibility of recording audio content on both sides of the disc, rendered the obsolescence of the cylinder as a commercially viable media by the 1920s.


Taintor, Callie. “Chronology: Technology and the Music Industry.” Frontline, PBS, last modified May 27, 2004, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/music/inside/cron.html

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: Wire recordings


“Wire recording”: 1. Magnetic wire spool; 2. Magnetic wire, itself, spooled


“Wire recorder/player”: 3. Uptake reel; 4. Magnetic wire spool

Dating back as early as 1898, inventor Valdemar Poulson introduced the first magnetic audio recording technology in the magnetic wire and its corresponding recording device, called the telegraphone. The wire itself appears as a thin (4mm) wire usually wrapped around either a 2.75-inch or 3.75-inch diameter reel. Produced primarily from 1939-1955, magnetic wire was made of stainless steel alloy and could reach lengths of up to 7,200 feet depending on the size of the reel. A predecessor of magnetic tape, wire recording occurs when the wire is rapidly pulled across a recording “head” supplied with an electrical signal at the instant of recording. To play back the recorded material, the wire is once again pulled across the “head,” but this time, the head is no long supplied an electrical signal, and the varying magnetic field of the wire “recreates” the original signal, or in other words, the sound of the recording.


Maguire, Marsha. “Description of Audio Recordings.” In ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation, edited by Sam Brylawski, Maya Lerman, Robin Pike, and Kathlin Smith, 22. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2015.

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: Computer hard drives


“Computer hard drive”: 1. Magnetically coated, rapidly spinning platter (disk); 2. Actuator arm

Computer hard drives are an essential element of our daily life, responsible for the storage of vital digital information, from our emails to the photographs we take with our digital cameras, the articles we read on the internet to music we listen to through our favorite streaming services. Simply put, when we interact with any kind of digital data, it needs to be stored somewhere in the first place, whether it is on our own computer, or someone far away, accessible through the cloud.


While there are many ways to analyze their progression, hard drive technology has exploded in terms of capacity and affordability since they were invented. In order to appreciate the advancements that have been made, we should first get a grasp of the units of measurement that we will be discussing. The smallest unit of information is the “bit.” Specifically, it is a storage unit for either a “0” or a “1,” one or the other unit of information in the binary system. The next largest unit of storage is the “byte,” which holds 8 “bits.” Then, there are “kilobytes,” or KB, which store 1 thousand bytes, followed by “megabytes” (MB, 1 million bytes), “gigabytes” (GB, 1 billion bytes), and “terabytes” (TB, 1 trillion bytes). It goes on from there, but you get the idea.

Essentially, computer hard drives are storage units that store and retrieve digital data. The most common hard drive technology is known as the hard disk drives (HDD), which involve magnetically coated, rapid spinning platters (or disks) that store data that is written onto or read by an actuator arm, looking something like a futuristic, metallic record player.

In 1956, IBM unveiled the first hard drive, housed in a computer called the RAMAC 305. It was able to store 5MB (megabytes) of data and cost $10,000 per MB. The drive itself was cylindrical in shape, comprised of fifty 24-inch diameter disks stacked on top of each other, housed in a 16 square foot box, roughly the size of two refrigerators sat next to one another.

From this point on, technological ingenuity led to the components of devices–not to mention the disks themselves–became more efficient, which allowed for progressively smaller hard drives with progressively larger storage capacities, all driving the price down per unit of storage.

For comparison, you can buy a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop with a 1TB hard drive from Best Buy for $839.99. That works out to just $0.00000000083999 per MB, and that isn’t even taking inflation into account!


Farrance, Rex. “Timeline: 50 Years of Hard Drives.” Last modified September 12, 2006. https://www.pcworld.com/article/127105/article.html.

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: 16mm film



When we whip out our smart phones to capture a precious family moment on video, it is easy to forget that the task of taking a video used to involve actual film!

Motion picture dates back at least to the mid-19th century, when photographers interested in documenting events and places such as the Civil War and its battle fields developed a simple device capable of displaying the illusion of movement through a succession of pictures in rapid motion, called the zoetrope.

In 1879, English photographer Eadward Muybridge developed the first projector capable of displaying photographs taken in rapid succession, essentially paving the way for the motion picture film development.


“16mm film”

16mm acetic plastic film and the Cine-Kodak amateur film camera were introduced in 1923 by Eastman Kodak. The film merited the nickname “safety film” due to its non-combustible chemical properties, a reference to its predecessor, the extremely flammable cellulose nitrate chemical compound used in the ubiquitous 35mm film used since its introduction in 1889. Not only was this film safe to store without the worry of catching fire, the film yielded a positive image onto the camera original, eliminating the laborious task of creating a negative and having to print a positive from it, adding its convenience of use.

In 1932, the 16mm film was challenged by the introduction of the 8mm film and the subsequently smaller and simpler cameras that supported the new film size. However, 16mm film cameras and projectors were used in in homes in classrooms for decades to come.


Pickford, Mary. “The Early History of Motion Pictures.” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pickford-early-history-motion-pictures/

Rogge, Michael. “More than 100 Years of Film Sizes.” https://wichm.home.xs4all.nl/filmsize.html#STANDARD

Wallace, Dillon. “History of 16mm Film.” https://kodakdigitizing.com/blogs/news/history-of-16mm-film

Welcoming a new cast of characters to the archival world: Audiovisual and born-digital materials


Compact disc (CD) of Plays Standards by Kieran Daly (Madacy Jazz, 2019)

Every new archival collection poses a set of challenges for the archivist. Some of these challenges are familiar and within reach. Others are foreign, whether it’s due to the subject matter or the type of material. For instance, if a manuscript document is found within a collection, you, the archivist, have to use your experience to figure out what kind of document you’re holding: a letter between colleagues, a family recipe, a love poem. If an audiocassette shows up in the collection, you can’t immediately determine what the information is without the use of a cassette player. Sure, there may be a label that clarifies what the content is–that it is a recording of a lecture on poison dart frogs, or a performance of the Brandenburg Concertos–but the sound of the audiocassette remains hidden behind a barrier.


Hard drive (Iomega) and flash drive (SanDisk)

And such is the case for all other audiovisual and born-digital materials that the archivist unearths. The media objects themselves–CDs, VHS tapes, computer hard drives, and floppy discs, to name a few–while interesting artifacts in their own right, contain archival information, and the information, as well as the artifact, need to be preserved.

The goal of the archivist is to provide the researcher with the information contained within a collection and to make it easy to find in the first place. In order to do this with audiovisual and born-digital materials, the media objects and the archival information stored on those objects need to go through a rigorous process of identification, description, rehousing, storing, and migration in order to provide long-term preservation and access.

While much research and many standards, manuals, and guides exist to prepare the archivist for an encounter with audiovisual and born-digital objects, the process of handling these materials is in its infancy. Institutions across the world are in different stages of implementing their own strategies for addressing the challenges posed by these media, which are coming through the doors at an increasing rate.


Video Home System (VHS) tape

Over the last several years, we at the SCPC and throughout the University of Pennsylvania have been forming methods to provide long-term preservation and access to our cherished collections that contain audiovisual and born-digital media. While we continue to work on addressing these challenges, we will introduce you to the cast of characters, from wax cylinders to computer hard drives, wire recordings to VHS tapes, and more!