Written by on November 1, 2018

Learning History Through First Hand Accounts

Hi! My name is Robert, I’m a 4th year history major and I have been working as a student assistant in the Robert E. Kennedy Library Special Collections and Archives since January 2018. In my months as a student assistant, one of the largest projects that I worked on was processing the University Archives Audio-Visual collection. This means that I spent 10-20 hours a week for several weeks taking inventory of well over a thousand different tapes, cassettes, and CD’s. Then I spent hours listening to, recording, and uploading a variety of those items to make them accessible for students or anyone doing online research.

During the hours and hours that I have spent sifting through tape after tape, I have come across everything from speeches by former Cal Poly Presidents and lectures from faculty, to concert performances and more. My direct exposure to so many of these materials, or “primary sources” as sometimes called by historians, from the past decades of Cal Poly led to gaining a great familiarity with the era.

In processing these items in our collection, as well as many others, I began to understand that any historical event is simply a connection of a number of personal experiences and what made these specific events stand out to me was their remarkable similarity to my own as a student. Even as a History major, I think that looking at history through plain textbooks can have the detrimental effect of focusing on and studying what was different in the past. It is this flaw that causes most people to regard history as boring and uninteresting because it is not relatable. However, I believe looking at history through these primary sources can negate this effect as we can easily get into the mind of those before us in order to understand their experiences.

An excellent example came in an interview series held during the Mustang football game half-time breaks in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The interviewer, Don McCaleb, discussed campus and local events with students, faculty members, and members of the community. In one particular interview, a Week of Welcome (WOW) organizer detailed his plan to take incoming freshman around campus and downtown. He embellished on the excitement of exploring San Luis Obispo for the very first time. Listening to this interview revived fond memories of myself as an excited, overwhelmed, and naïve WOWIE getting to participate in and experience the long standing WOW tradition during my first week as a Cal Poly student. That shared experience assists me in understanding what student life was like at Cal Poly, even 50 years ago.

Don McCaleb interviews student WOW Leader, Alex McLaughlin. The interview was broadcast during half time of a Mustangs football game. McCaleb, Don, 1972. 0107_ua_000013, University Archives Audio-Visual Collection (UA0107), Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly.

Another example, in 1971 there was a campus controversy in which students questioned whether the University Administration had purposefully not rehired 2 instructors because of political bias. I processed a couple of audio tapes related to these events, including a student rally held in the University Plaza in which students questioned President Kennedy in order to clarify the situation. This controversy was reported in the Mustang Daily and sparked conversations about censorship, the methods of evaluating instructors at Cal Poly, and the balance of political ideas on campus. In the days I worked with these objects I became so engrossed in the controversy that I forgot this controversy was almost 50 years old! However, anyone who attends Cal Poly now can see that debate on these issues continues into our current times and remains extremely relevant today, and can thus easily empathize with these student concerns.

Recorded audio of the rally for students to ask questions about why certain professors were not rehired at Cal Poly, 1971. 0107_ua_000045, University Archives Audio-Visual Collection (UA0107), Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly.

Controversy between professors and President Kennedy makes the front page of the Mustang Daily, 1971. ua-nws_00001587, Cal Poly Student Newspapers and Periodicals (UA0003), Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly.

Part 2 of the audio of the student rally, 1971. 0107_ua_000046, University Archives Audio-Visual Collection (UA0107), Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly.













I believe that understanding the experiences of others is the key component to history. It helps to realize the feelings, ideas, and concerns of people which guides their actions, and thus history.  These elements are what put the ‘human’ in humanities and allow us to connect and bond with one another.  When that is recognized, I believe the subject becomes much more captivating than simply “things that happened in the past” as it becomes personal and relatable. This is the difference of knowing what has happened in the past, and truly understanding why things happened.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.