With every good wish, cordially.
November 9, 2013 2:23 PM   Subscribe

In 1993 I bought a box of unlabeled Sony dictation machine tapes from a Volunteers of America thrift store in Binghamton, NY. They contain what is surely Carl Sagan's voice dictating his personal notes, correspondence and business instructions, from around 1984. They are pretty compelling. What should I do with them?

I like the idea of donating them to Cornell but I feel like I would be foolish not to try for some personal gain.

I could put them on YouTube or Archive.org but they are, after all, his personal letters. I've never bumped into anything even remotely scandalous in there, but I have not listened to anything like all of them. Plus, even if there is nothing prurient, it still seems rude. I don't know.

eBay feels rude for the same reason, and just for the general capitalism of it, but they really are neat. He speaks extemporaneously about aliens, time travel, nuclear winter, the Cold War, etc etc etc. It is the words and his actual voice, unedited and undistilled, of one of the patron saints of the internet, and one of the brightest lights in popular intelligence, at the peak of his powers. I can see them being pretty valuable. Wouldn't I be dumb to not just sell them?

Evidence and provenance (such as it is):

Here's a picture of all of them.
Here's a picture of one tape, unlike the others, that says something about Carl. It sounds different too. It's a tape recorder hooked up to a phone.
Nearly every dictated letter ends with the words "with every good wish cordially". Here is a picture I found on the internet of a letter from Carl Sagan that closes that way. There are many others out there.

One of the tapes that I listened to years ago says something in a letter about how he doesn't know the people that he (the corespondent) mentions, but that Sagan is such an uncommon name he is certain they are related. I don't know which tape that is.

Binghamton is an hour from Ithaca, I can imagine any number of plausible scenarios where those tapes ended up in the VoA. I bought one to play on my college radio show (WHRW, maaaaan), without any idea what it was, listened to it on the way home in the car, heard how NUTS it all was (time travel, space, nuclear winter, et al) and turned around and bought the whole box. I didn't decide it was Sagan until later.

But I am sure. It is Carl Sagan. Feel free to bunk and debunk, but there's no doubt in my mind. Here is one brief sample. It's his voice, it's his subject, it's his sign-off.
posted by dirtdirt to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Ok, my wife just told me it is Carl Sagan's birthday, and now I'm a little overwhelmed with coincidence.
posted by dirtdirt at 2:24 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think I might contact Cornell about having them authenticated as a first step.

Also: Wow!!
posted by michellenoel at 2:27 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

First off, if this actually is Sagan, I think you have a duty to make sure these are preserved. If this were a person who lived a looooong time ago-- like, say, you found a wax cylinder of Edison or something crazy-- I would by all means say sell it.

But Carl Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan, and children are still very much alive and well, and I hope that you feel the pressure of treating this stuff, which was almost certainly (from your description) never meant for public consumption, in ways that are respectful to the family.

So yeah, start with Cornell to get them authenticated first off. If for some reason that's a dead-end, you might also consider attempting to get in touch with with Druyan herself. She appears to have a blog. Then let the family decide.
posted by WidgetAlley at 2:31 PM on November 9, 2013 [22 favorites]

I feel like I would be foolish not to try for some personal gain.

Assuming they are indeed Sagan: wouldn't the knowledge that you'd saved these extraordinary artifacts from possible destruction and returned them to his family or to Cornell be personal gain enough?
posted by scody at 2:42 PM on November 9, 2013 [40 favorites]

scody's eloquent advice speaks volumes. It's a cliche that people would give anything to hear the voice of their loved one just one more time -- but this is the gift which is within your power to give.

Take the advice above: Contact the Sagan family and Cornell, and let them decide the fate of these tapes.

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it here, dirtdirt.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:14 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As above posters have suggested, you should contact the institution that holds Carl Sagan's personal papers as a first step. The institution in question turns out to be the Library of Congress, not Cornell. The LoC purchased Sagan's papers from Ann Druyan last year using funds donated by Seth McFarlane.
posted by killdevil at 3:24 PM on November 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

Wow, what a find!

Like the other posters, I really encourage you not to focus on "personal gain," but in ensuring that these get either to his family, or to an institution that will care about them and make sure they are properly preserved, so that others might be able to enjoy them. This is especially important because audiocassette tapes are a terrible long term format. Even if well taken care of, 30 years is often the upper limit of their useable lifespan.

It looks like the Library of Congress holds Sagan's papers, so it's possible they would be interested in acquiring these. The LoC won't, however, verify and appraise these tapes so that you can turn around and sell them elsewhere.

It's also worth noting that even though you are the owner of the physical object, you don't own the copyright to what's on the tapes. So even if you wanted to put them on YouTube or Archive.org, it'd be a copyright violation.
posted by radiomayonnaise at 3:25 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I feel like Carl Sagan would not approve of you using these for "personal gain", unless by that you mean, like, you write a story about them and it gets published.

I agree with folks who've suggested donating them to whoever holds Sagan's papers, which per radiomayonnaise seems to be the Library Of Congress. This is a doubly great idea because things held by the LOC tend to proceed into the public domain in a nice seamless sort of way. So not only are you doing Carl Sagan scholars a solid, you're also ensuring that this resource is available to the public for free whenever such a thing would naturally become public domain.

Approaching his family first would also be a great idea.
posted by Sara C. at 3:43 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

You have had these tapes for 20 years and have done nothing with them, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a regrettable failure of stewardship. Please donate them to the Library of Congress so that they can reside with the rest of the Sagan collection and be transcribed, digitised and preserved.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:44 PM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Get an appraisal, then donate them. The tax deduction will be worth more than what you might get for them at auction.
posted by beagle at 3:50 PM on November 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

Hey - let's not beat up OP for his stewardship. You've done a great thing by recognizing their potential importance and protecting them for the last twenty years.

I think the first step would be reaching out to the LoC to authenticate and gauge interest in them. Decide based on that if you'd like to donate them to the LoC. If they're not interested, I would feel comfortable selling them on eBay. You might dub a copy of them and mail them to the family too, if they're interested.
posted by arnicae at 4:39 PM on November 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

That's one hell of a find. I think your first step should actually be to get in touch with Ann Druyan. She'll either ask you to send her the tapes, send them on to the Sagan collection at the Library of Congress, or do what you like with them. (At which point you might send it on to the LoC anyway, but that's your decision.) Whatever her request, though, knowing her wishes will give you a clearer idea of how to proceed.
posted by greenland at 6:17 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Forgot to say... if you decide to get in touch with Druyan feel free to memail me in regards to helping with that.
posted by greenland at 6:20 PM on November 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

The fact that you bought the physical tapes does not necessarily mean you own the words on them. IANAL, but my understanding of copyright is that if the words were created by Carl Sagan they are owned by his estate. That would be another reason why the right thing would be to contribute them to his archives.
posted by alms at 8:58 PM on November 9, 2013

Yeah, before you could personally gain from them, you might wish to familiarize yourself with the difficulties biographers and academics have had with the unpublished letters and other works by -- in particularly vexing example -- J.D. Salinger. Salinger v. Random House is one case a long time ago, but even recently the issue continues to fester. Copyright, under the Berne Convention, resides with the author (or heirs or assigns, some legal languge like that) until 70 years after death, meaning 2066.

If you have a radio background it shouldn't be hard, though, to conceive of a project in which you re-use these tapes, with proper permissions, in an audio program that gives them context and makes them accessible to the public. The folks at 371 Productions in Milwaukee might be a good first step to consider how to approach this. Get your funding, get paid for your time, own the rights of the finished production, spread the ideas of Dr. Sagan, maybe everybody wins? With a new version of Cosmos coming out it could even be considered timely.
posted by dhartung at 12:02 AM on November 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, your personal gain could be everyone's personal gain. This isn't like a rare coke bottle or a stamp.
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 12:10 AM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sounds like a story for This American Life. They'll be as interested as anyone in your experience of finding them.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:15 AM on November 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

Also, not sure if these are automatically covered by copyright.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:16 AM on November 10, 2013

As someone who works in the world of audio archiving, I can pretty much promise you there is not much "personal gain" potential in old dictaphone recordings of a scientist, even one who was once a popular author and celebrity. You might, however, stand to receive a serious tax deduction for donating them to a non-profit, which should obviously be Cornell or whomever the family recommends. There's your personal gain right there.
posted by spitbull at 7:47 AM on November 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

You may own those physical copies of the materials, but his heirs own the copyright, so whatever you might do for personal gain or otherwise, you don't have the right to make any copies of them, such as putting them up on archive.org or youtube or soundcloud or whatever.
posted by benbenson at 10:20 AM on November 10, 2013

The email list of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections is an excellent resource for figuring out what to do with audio discoveries like this one. There are folks from the Library of Congress and many other potentially interested archives on there (as well as many knowledgeable private individuals).
posted by bubukaba at 6:43 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

dirtdirt, please post an update when you take the next step, whatever it may be.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:58 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, please, an update would be great. This is one of my favorite Asks, and I'm dying to know the outcome!
posted by heyho at 11:24 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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