The Ryan Collection Brings History to Life on BBC4

Ryan hard at work.

On June 10, 2012, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke about his experience with WWII on the radio news network, BBC4. Considering Eisenhower died in 1961, this was an incredible feat, yet it was possible thanks to the Ryan Collection housed in Ohio University Libraries’ Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections. 

The late Cornelius Ryan was an Irish journalist who served as a WWII correspondent. Ryan is the author responsible for the famous books: The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 D-Day (1959), The Last Battle (1966), and A Bridge Too Far (1974).

Ryan, meticulous in his research, was one of the first authors to attempt to cover a story from all angles. The Ryan Collection, which primarily consists of material relating to World War II, contains personnel files for 3,072 individuals, both military and civilian participants of the battles, covering all nationalities. Among the files are questionnaires, interviews, letters, diaries, accounts and personal observations. 

Within the 166 files of audio that Ryan recorded while conducting interviews, Ryan captured the voices of “Average Joe” soldiers as well as famous war personalities including Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands, President Eisenhower, and General Simpson.

Archivist Doug McCabe was interviewed for the program, which highlights the collection and the need for its preservation.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have their speaking voice and how they said things,” said McCabe during his interview with John Connelly. “What was new here with Ryan was to go right to the source, to the people…putting a human face on those experiences of war.”

This Dictaphone recoding device was used to capture the voices of those who participated in WWII from foot soldiers to President Eisenhower.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. These priceless recordings are over 45 years old and crumbling. These reel to reel, metal back tapes, old cassette tapes and Dictaphone belts are deteriorating, and as Connelly says, “it’s a battle against time to save the archives.” 

“When it comes to those reel to reel tapes, when you run that through a machine, parts of the tape, therefor parts of the recording, wear off,” says McCabe.

In order to preserve the recordings they must be reformatted. BBC host Connelly understands the uniqueness and importance of the Ryan collection stating that Ryan “shaped our memory of the second world war.”

The original idea for the BBC program was to focus on Cornelius Ryan himself and his influence with such authors as Barbara Taylor Bradford. The BBC contacted Ohio University to find out what audio of Ryan’s voice was available, and suddenly the broadcast had a new angle. “It evolved into the preservation angle when I told him about how old and fragile the tapes [that] we have are…” explained McCabe.

“We all know that it’s one thing to read a transcript and it’s another thing entirely to hear inflections … that can really change how something’s said,” stated McCabe in the interview. 

Connelly finished the show by pointing out how precious these sounds are, “And if you save the archive, then the voices of history will still be speaking to us directly.”