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Greenville & Hockessin Life

A history of innovation

Jun 18, 2018 09:40AM ● By J. Chambless

The RCA Television Magnetic Tape Recorder heralded by Gen. David Sarnoff as opening a new era of electronic photography. Here he shows a section of the tape upon which television pictures in both color and black-and-white can be impressed. (Courtesy Hagley Museum & Library)

By Kevin Barrett

David Sarnoff's name is not widely known, but he was a pioneer in radio and television broadcasting. Hagley Museum and Library now hosts the David Sarnoff Library Collection, which is open to the public.

The collection includes 700 digital images, available through the Hagley Digital Archives. The collection also includes documents, reports, films, photographs and publications. They go into detail regarding the history of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), as well as Sarnoff, who led it for about 40 years.

RCA was founded in 1919, and Sarnoff became the company’s president in 1930. During his time as president, technologies such as color television and FM radio were introduced.

The collection, which was once in Princeton, N.J., is at Hagley thanks to a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. Sarnoff opened the library in the 1960s in order to house his private papers, and detail the ways he contributed to the electronics and communications industries.

Sarnoff died in December of 1971 at the age of 80.

The Sarnoff Corporation had to close the library in 2009 during the national economic downturn. The collection was acquired by Hagley shortly thereafter. It took several years of work on Hagley’s part to get the collection ready to be seen and utilized by the public and scholars. Archivists Daniel Michelson and Kenneth Cleary, as well as graduate students and interns from the University of Delaware, worked on the project. It was finally completed in May of 2017. The collections are open to the public from Monday to Friday, as well as on the second Saturday of every month.

Kevin Martin, the Mellon Curator of Audiovisual and Digital Collections for Hagley, said that Hagley was lucky to be chosen when the Sarnoff Library closed. There was a desire for the collection to stay in New Jersey, he said, but Hagley’s specialty is the history of business and technology. Researchers come from around the world to study and utilize the Sarnoff collection.

“As far as an accessible RCA research collection, Hagley is essentially the headquarters right now in many ways,” Martin said. “Hagley has the largest collection of publically accessible RCA historical materials. It has been used a great deal since it has come here.”

Thousands of boxes of material were processed by Hagley, which is why it took a significant amount of time for the collection to be made public. There is a lot of material online, Martin said, and there are thousands of online users every month; however, the library’s materials are not on public display as they would be in a museum.

“We get requests from the press and requests from documentary filmmakers to use photographs and film clips,” Martin said. “The use really varies. The widest use, for the most part, is from the academic community, publishing books and articles. They are the bulk of our users in person.”

Martin said the reason Sarnoff is not better known these days is that he was not an inventor. He was more of a business person.

“It is hard to know who is going to be remembered, and how people will be remembered,” Martin said. “Someone in the 1950s would have said that Sarnoff would always be remembered.”

From Hagley’s perspective, just seeing the collection used and the books published as a result of the collection makes the effort worthwhile. “We have made it more accessible”, Martin said. “We hope increased accessibility will mean more people will use it for primary research.”

In addition, there is the hope that the Sarnoff Library being available and publicized will lead to a more comprehensive collection.

“There are still RCA records out there in people’s basements and their attics – hopefully other materials will follow,” Martin said. “Having the Sarnoff Library here could lead to other material that we can bring to Hagley and eventually make available for research.”

Martin said that most people in the area know Hagley as a museum, especially those who grew up in the state. A lot of children visit Hagley on school trips. The library, he said, is not quite as well known. It is very different from the sort of library a person might have in one’s town.

“Our job here is to collect unique source material,” he said. “If it is not one of a kind, it is one of two or three. The library is well-known in academic circles, especially among historians of technology and business, but it is not well known to the public.

“When we started putting more of our collections online, we started to get more of the general public using our collections, which is great,” Martin added. “We get a lot of people who just browse through and look at photographs that are of interest to them. People are researching family history. A lot of Delawareans, for example, have relatives who worked at DuPont.”

The library’s staff, however, definitely wants the public to better understand what it does.

Dr. Benjamin Gross, who lives in Kansas City, is the Vice President for Research and Scholarship at the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology. He used the Sarnoff collection to write his book The TVs of Tomorrow: How RCA’s Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs, which was published in March this year.

Gross became interested in the Sarnoff collection while in graduate school. He was a second-year graduate student in Princeton and was looking for a topic for a research paper. As a history graduate student, he was expected to do original archival research.

At the time, the Sarnoff collection was located in Princeton at the former site of RCA’s research library. He went to the library and asked if there were materials that would be the basis of a good research paper. The director at the time pointed him towards a collection of lab notebooks and technical reports related to the development of the first liquid crystal displays.

“Obviously, I was familiar with liquid crystal displays,” Gross said. “I had no idea they were invented in New Jersey, just down the road from where I was going to school.”

He started looking at the materials, and grew more interested in the topic. He ultimately decided he would use the materials as the basis for his dissertation.

In 2009, he learned that the Sarnoff library at the old labs was shutting down because it was too much of an expense to maintain the collection. Gross said that a lot of different organizations expressed interest in the collection, including the Smithsonian and the Henry Ford Museum.

“The documents ended up, really, in the best place I could think of,” Gross said. “It was the best decision to send them to the Hagley Library in Wilmington. Hagley is the leading business archive in the United States.”

The amount of material that had to be processed was enormous. There were thousands of notebooks, photographs, and internal memos. “If you want to trace the history of American electronic innovation in the 20th century, it is one of the best resources available,” Gross said.

Gross relied heavily on Hagley’s staff when transforming his dissertation into a book.

“Without the documents preserved at the Hagley Library, I could not have written my book on the development of the first liquid crystal displays,” Gross said. “The Hagley’s archivists and support staff deserve a great deal of credit for making the Sarnoff Library collection available to visiting scholars and the general public.”

For more information about Hagley Library, visit

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